Jan. 30, 2014
Like many people, I was appalled the first time I heard the story of how Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation’s founding fathers, personally edited the Bible. He took a pair of scissors and cut up his copy of Scripture, removing the parts that he believed did not pass the Enlightenment test of reason.
But I wonder. What about us? Without ever touching a pair of scissors, have we “cut out” important scriptural themes simply by ignoring them? Many of us were raised in a very individualistic, revivalist Baptist tradition. The emphasis was on a personal (make that “very private”) relationship with Jesus Christ, with the focus on getting to heaven when we die. And along the way, we were to witness to others and be good so that our light would shine. But note — our witness and good works were primarily to get other people to heaven. Not much was mentioned about this world. Issues such as injustice, discrimination, poverty, violence or global hunger were largely ignored.
Imagine my amazement when I discovered that Jesus’ good news is for the whole person and the whole community — that Jesus cares about what happens to people here and now, not just then and there in eternity. Many of us would call Jefferson “liberal” for picking and choosing parts of the Bible that fit his preferences, prejudices and worldview. But what do we call ourselves when we do the same thing?
Example 1: I grew up hearing some rip-roaring tithing sermons from Malachi 3:8-10 (Don’t rob God! Instead, bring all the tithes and offerings into the storehouse). But I don’t recall ever hearing a sermon from the preceding verses in the same chapter. Malachi 3:5 declares, “I will bear witness…against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien (read, “immigrant”)…”
Example 2: I can’t tell you how many revival sermons I have heard (and preached!) from Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” A great text of amazing grace! But imagine my surprise when I read in the preceding verse that the “dirtiness” that needs cleansing is due to the people’s failure to “…seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (v. 17). And verse 23 follows up with a condemnation of political leaders who take bribes and sell their influence for gifts, all at the expense of the aforementioned orphans and widows.
Example 3: Have you ever heard a person in your Sunday School class quote Psalm 12:6? "The promises of the LORD are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace…purified seven times." But the preceding verse clearly shows that this promise is not necessarily an assurance of our own personal comfort and provision. The pledge is that God will vindicate the poor and needy who are mistreated and neglected.
Most people who know me are aware that the martyred German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer has influenced my life greatly. As his birthday draws near (Feb. 4), I am reflecting on his writings and life. He preached that the incarnation of Christ is central to all other Christian teachings. God-come-in-the-flesh means that this earth and this life are not throw-away containers. This world matters; human suffering matters; here and now are just as important to God as then and there!
Within our own Baptist tradition, voices like Walter Rauschenbusch and Martin Luther King Jr. have reminded us that it is not a question of either converting individuals or converting social structures; ours is a calling to convert both. Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.
Dear Lord, help us love this world the way you do. Help us see the corporate as well as the individual dimensions of our faith. And Lord, most of all, help us put away our scissors and start reading the entire Bible! Amen.
Doyle Sager is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo.