People will give you all kinds of reasons as to why they read their Bibles. This week I decided to ask that question on the internet—you ever do that? Kind of treat the internet like a magic eight ball? I googled, “Why do we read the Bible?” The first answer in a list of answers I got, was, “We should read and study the Bible because it is totally reliable and without error.” Oh really? I have read and studied my Bible enough to know that is not true. The Bible was written by humans and humans err. But that doesn’t tell you why we read our Bibles, anyway. So it is without error. So what? It could be someone’s laundry list. That might be without error, but I am not sure I’d be interested in reading it.
Another on-line answer to my question was this: We should read and study the Bible because it is God’s word to us.” Now that is more to our liking, right? While not every word is verbatim from God, taken as a whole, it does supply us with God’s holy intention for our lives, right?
But there are other reasons we read our Bibles. For comfort, for instance. That didn’t come up in my google search. But it’s true. Say you are in a state of anxiety, you turn to the Psalms, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, for you are with me.” Those lines have gotten a lot of people through hard times—an operation, a military engagement, losing a loved one.
A freshman high school student at one of my previous churches was having a rough time —feeling like the ugly duckling at school, and also at home—she was one of five children in her family—and the only girl—hard life, that. She wanted, she needed something to get her through her days. I gave her a copy of the 91st Psalm. She kept it in her backpack. Don’t know whether she read it or used it as a talisman. But it’s a good Psalm to read when you need assurance. “For God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge. God will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways…” That young woman is married now. Has two children. So maybe it helped?
People read their Bibles, too, when they feel that the world is out of joint, as Shakespeare says. When they feel completely powerless to make decisions, to have control over their lives. And that is what I want to spend time talking about today—how the Bible empowers the powerless.
You know the Magnificat, right? It’s the scripture passage that begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant….” Mary says these lines when she is pregnant with Jesus. She lets us know by way of these lines that she feels privileged, and humbled that God has chosen her, a politically and financially powerless peasant woman, to bear God’s son. Guatemalan and Argentinian government officials in the late 1900’s, so just a few decades ago, found that scripture to be dangerous enough that the Magnificat was actually banned from Christian worship services! They didn’t want the peasants thinking that God was on their side!
Do you know that today the Bible is completely banned from North Korea. If you are found owning one you can be imprisoned or even put to death! Other countries allow you to own a Bible but not sell or distribute them—among those countries are Algeria, Afghanistan, Arabia, China, Yemen, and several Stan countries, like Uzbekistan. “You can’t give powerless people the idea that they aren’t! Heaven forbid!” so the thinking goes. Only heaven doesn’t—forbid that is. Heaven permits. Heaven desires even, that we should be free to make our own decisions about our lives, and the lives of our loved ones—it’s all part of being human, right?
Think about the thrust of those Bible stories-- Moses leading a band of slaves, out of Egypt to the promised land—Joshua leading his small number of troops against the Canaanites and overtaking their city, Gideon’s piddling 300 troops against the strong and powerful Midianites, They are all a remake of one basic story—the underdog wins --David victorious over Goliath—which is itself a Bible story. All of these, stories, though, are about underdogs claiming or reclaiming power through violence.
But in the New Testament. Ah, there we have a difference. Jesus shuns violence—but still he is a master at empowering the weak, the poor, those with no political voice. Impossible right?
Just as one for instance and for instance you may not have heard of before, even though you are a dedicated, daily Bible reader. You know, he phrase, “turn the other cheek.” What Jesus says is “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” That has often been interpreted as, “give in to the other—don’t fight back. Be the doormat. Continue to be the underdog.” And in point of fact, that is what people in power would want powerless people to believe concerning this Biblical text and others like it.
A well-known theologian has exploded that understanding, though. He has really thought through the story logistically. So bear with me here, while I share his thinking with you. Imagine for a moment that you are living in Jesus’ day and you are a slave. Your master is angry with you. In that society, your left hand was considered unclean. It was not used even for striking another person. That and then, too, most people then as now were right handed.
So your angry master wants to strike you, but he’s going to use his right hand. Now if he is facing you, he would have to hit your left cheek right? NOT your right cheek. Why would Jesus, then specifically mention the right cheek? “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” The only way the master could strike your right cheek with his right hand is if he gave you a backhanded slap. In fact, that was the usual way of rebuking or reproaching, an inferior in Jesus’ day—masters their slaves, husbands their wives, parents their children, Romans, Jews, and so on. So, remember you are a slave. You take the backhanded blow to your right cheek, but then you follow Jesus’ instructions. You turn the other cheek. You are saying, in effect, “Try again, master. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me again. I am a human being just like you. You can strike me again, but only on my left cheek—only as your equal.” (from Engaging the Powers by Walter Wink, p. 175-176). Cool, huh?
That’s creative non-violence. Being confrontational, but non-violently. And that is what some people regard as one of or maybe even Jesus’ primary message to us. You are a beloved child of God. God is on your side. There is a power, a God given power that the would-be powerless can claim. You see why the Bible, and the New Testament particularly is so dangerous. Why it has been banned in some countries?
We are all aware of Martin Luther King’s embrace, and promotion of creative non-violent tactics. His march or really a series of three marches from Selma to Montgomery were exactly, that. He and his, didn’t have a parade permit. The mayor and others in Selma had to decide, “Should we violently oppose the march, which is technically illegal, but which could be a bad public relations move? Or do we look the other way and let Martin Luther and the other Blacks in town make their political statement? We know what happened, right?
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a religious man who knew his Bible. Whose to say Martin Luther King did not take his cue from Jesus and specifically Jesus’ Palm Sunday march on Jerusalem in planning his own Selma to Montgomery march? Because that Palm Sunday march was in fact, also(pause) a protest march.
Herod and Pontius Pilate both, had often ridden into and out of Jerusalem astride magnificent horses--their silver harnesses jangling and gleaming in the sun—Pilate’s and Herod’s foot soldiers marching along beside, shouldering their weapons –weapons meant to intimidate Jerusalem’s civilian population. So Jesus chooses to ride into Jerusalem astride a donkey, a pitiful, low slung, swaggering donkey. His followers—his foot soldiers so to speak, carrying tree branches. Hah! How ridiculous!
Jesus’ own march, then, was a mockery of Rome—Not only was he drawing a line in the sand; he was letting the people in Jerusalem know—“There is this and other non-violent measures you too can take in defiance of Rome—actions that will allow you to preserve and demonstrate your human dignity. Actions that will allow you to begin thinking about a better future—the kingdom of God. And know this, God is on your side.”
If we don’t “get” that message from the story, it is only because we have not thought THIS story through, logistically speaking. The donkey did not just appear, right? Those palm branches did not just fall off the trees. Someone had to find a donkey to borrow, someone had to climb those trees and cut down those branches. Someone had to do the orchestrating—and that someone was Jesus—who carried it all out with a little help from his disciples.
Friends—As Christians we are called still today to stand with the downtrodden, the poor, the outcast. We work at food banks, collect used clothes for the naked, provide shelter for the homeless, yes. But charity is easy. That is only half of what Christian responsibility entails. As Christians we are also called to involve ourselves in acts of justice---to work for changes to laws that too often favor the haves at the expense of the have nots—to stand with those who have been denied their human rights, here in this country and abroad. In other words, to empower the powerless. And that takes an intimate understanding of those Bible stories and that also takes a great deal of courage. Remember Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down, and Jesus gave up his life, horrifically, on a cross.
Something to think about as we move toward Good Friday.