Mark 10: 46-52
Today is known as Bible Sunday - the day when we are encouraged to think about the importance of the Bible in our lives...and to support the work of agencies like the Bible Society who do so much to put Scripture into the hands of those who have not yet received it.
The Bible is strange publication. It is said to be the most popular book in the world. According to the book "The Top 10 of Everything" by Russell Ash, "No one really knows how many copies of the Bible have been printed, sold, or
distributed. The Bible Society's attempt to calculate the number printed
between 1816 and 1975 produced the figure of 2.4 billion. A more recent
survey, for the years up to 1992, put it closer to 6 billion in more than
2,000 languages and dialects. Whatever the precise figure, the Bible is by far
the bestselling book of all time." (See http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=14).
According to the TIMES newspaper in 1996:
"Forget modern British novelists and TV tie-ins, the Bible is the best-selling book every year. If sales of the Bible were included in best-seller lists, it would be a rare week when anything else would achieve a look in. It is wonderful, weird ... that in this godless age... this one book should go on selling, every month." (See http://www.soon.org.uk/page19.htm )
On the other hand, it is said, the Bible is also the least read book in the world! Its a strange fact - almost every house in the Christian-influenced world has at least one Bible. But very few people ever open it. Bibles are given as gifts to children. They are given when people are baptised or confirmed. Sometimes they are given as wedding gifts. But, unfortunately, for many people they often remain as pristine as they are on the day they are received.
Why is this? I'm sure it's for a number of reasons. Sometimes the translations of the Bible are in language that is just too difficult to understand. So people who don't read anything more than a newspaper or TV advert find it just too difficult to read...especially traditional versions like the 'King James'. Many people have told me that they do try to start reading the Bible, but as soon as they get past the initial stories of Genesis and the early parts of Exodus, they find the endless lists of numbers of people, and endless laws, just too hard going. Others, having skipped the laws, find themselves in the Psalms, or in the books of prophecy...and there they quickly find their attention wandering, because of the range of images and ideas - which come from a mind-set and culture that is very different from our own.
And so, frustrated (and perhaps feeling a little guilty) such people lay aside their Bible, and pick up a nice easy romance novel instead. Or a nice easy gossip magazine. And the result is that we have a whole generation of Christians, in churches all over the world, who have been told time and again to read their bibles...but who find that they just can't do it. Even if they do manage to slog their way through to the end - the sheer variety of ideas, the apparent contradictions, the complex imagery, the extremely complicated theological ideas; all conspire to make many people feel totally inadequate to the task. I know this is true. I know it because people tell me so. I know that many of you, if I asked you to be honest, would tell me that you haven't opened your own Bible for years. You will undoubtedly be a good Christian. You will be someone who tries to follow Jesus every day. You will be someone who worships your Creator, loves their neighbour, and who gives generously to the work of God. And yet, you will be carrying around this weight of guilt that you never actually open your Bible.
So, how am I to respond to this fact? How would you expect me to react? Perhaps I should pull myself up to my full height and shout 'Sinners!' at you from the pulpit. Hmm...I'm not sure that would help very much, would it?
Because, actually, if you are one of those who finds the Bible difficult to read...I agree with you. The Bible is not a novel. It's not a newspaper. Some people have described the Bible as 'the Maker's Instructions'. But for many, its the kind of instructions which come from Korea, translated by someone who learned their English in primary school...like this bit of helpful instruction from a computer hard-drive I recently purchased: "More simple under USB interface, it only can do until the 3rd step and deleted is present channel. Please plug the USB cable out after the
safe injection when delete the files in the computer."!!
But the Bible is not an instruction manual. Neither is it a well-planned novel from a single writer, who sets out to tell a story. Instead, it is a collection of 66 letters and books, assembled over a period of about 1,600 years. It contains legal codes, songs and poetry, prophecy, myths, stories and complex theology. Sometimes these different elements are separate. Sometimes they are woven into just one of the 66 books - such as the book of Revelation, which is just about the most complex of all the books.
So should we abandon all hope? Is the Bible just too much for us to handle? That was, in fact, the view of the Catholic Church for many centuries. It is still an attitude which prevails, to some extent, in the Orthodox Church - as I discovered last week in Romania. The Catholic Church believed that the layers of the Bible were too complex for the vast majority of simple folk to comprehend...and that it would be dangerous to release the Bible for general consumption. Bishops and Cardinals feared that people who had not been comprehensively educated in how to read the Bible would be in danger of picking up random phrases and ideas which seemed to support their own world view. And, when we look at the sheer number of different churches, each with their own slant on the Bible, we are forced to wonder whether they may have been right.
The Orthodox Church does not actively discourage its people from reading the Bible, but neither do they particularly encourage it. Instead, Orthodox services are deeply soaked in Scripture - using constant repetition. The Orthodox Church holds that if people regularly attend church, and listen to the Scriptures they encounter there, it will be enough. For Orthodoxy, and previously for Catholicism, the Bible has always been a book that is encountered by a community - rather than by individuals. It is read in community. It is understood in community. The community speaks and sings the words of Scripture together - and through doing so, find new layers of communal meaning.
And actually, that's pretty close to what we do here, isn't it? I was once supporting someone who had left a charismatic church and joined an Anglican one. After attending a few services, he said to me, "I never realised how much you Anglicans use the Bible". He pointed out that whilst in a typical charismatic service only one small portion of the Bible would be read and studied, practically the whole of the Anglican service was taken, piece by piece, from the pages of the Bible. He said to me, "your services are soaked in Scripture, aren't they?" he was right. Almost every major part of our service comes directly from the Bible. Everything from the words of confession to the Eucharistic prayer, to the Blessing at the end of the service - all of these are words that are drawn from Scripture - words that have been spoken by people of God for thousands of years. On top of that, we hear at least two portions of the Bible read, at least one of them is studied through the sermon, and other portions are sung through hymns and anthems. Yes, indeed, we are soaked in Scripture.
So does this mean that we don't need to bother with the hard work of reading the Bible on our own? No. It doesn't. One of the things that the Protestant Reformation gave us, and indeed gave our brothers and sisters in the Catholic church, was access to the precious pages of Scripture for ourselves. With that access comes the chance to grow daily in our understanding of God.
But, the Catholic Bishops of old were right about one thing. They were right that, unless properly understood, it would be easy for uneducated people to pick up the Bible, and then just quote one or two choice phrases which happen to suit their own idea of the world. That's why the quote "you shall not suffer a witch to live" was used so mercilessly throughout the Middle Ages. That's why the letter to Philemon was used for so long as a justification for slavery. And that's why even today, battle lines are being drawn over all sorts of issues, based on different interpretations of Scripture - everything from the question of ordaining gay bishops to the question of how God heals today, the place of the Holy Spirit in worship, and the vexed question of women priests.
The problem, I think, is this. Some people look to the Bible to justify their already fixed position or predjudice on one issue or another. When they do so, I think that they fundamentally mis-understand the story that runs through all the pages of the Bible. That is a story of a Journey. Taken as a whole, the Bible says very little about fixed positions, and, taken as a whole, it simply cannot be used to support any predjudice. Instead every story in the Bible, and even the story of how the Bible was put together, is a story about a journey.
There is the journey from darkness to light, at the very beginning of time. There is the story of the exit from Eden. There's the story of Noah, who journeys away from a world of wickedness to a new creation after the flood. There's the story of Abraham who leaves his father's home and flocks, to journey to a new land of promise. There's the story of Moses, who leads the people of Israel on a journey of discovery through the desert. There's the story of the nation of Israel, who journey through good times and bad, power and exile, towards the promise of a new Jerusalem. There's the story of Jesus who journeys from the centre of God to experience humanity and then to return to the right hand of God. There's the story of the early church, and the journeys they make to take God's good news out to the World. There's the final journey of humankind, mapped out in the visions of John in the book of Revelation - a glorious, mythological journey through times of evil and testing, to the promise of new creation and resurrection.
Do you know what the first followers of Jesus were called? Before anyone had coined the name 'Christians' - the followers of Jesus were called 'Followers of the Way'. (See Acts 22 and 24 for evidence). They understood that the message of the Bible was the story of a journey - a journey from darkness to light, a journey from sinfulness to healing, a journey from death to life, a journey from ignorance to enlightenment. Anyone who learns to see read the Bible as a pointer towards this journey has, I think, made a major step forward. Anyone who tries to interpret the Bible as a set of rules or principles which can be used to trump someone else's ideas, is on a hiding to nowhere. They will never be able to conclusively argue their point from Scripture - because Scripture simply does not speak that plainly, when taken as a whole.
Once we understand the Bible as a narrative of the journey - then we can truly begin to unlock its secrets. Once we've learned to read our own journeys in the stories that the Bible contains, we've made a major step on the road to wisdom. There is perhaps no better illustration of this point that the story of Blind Bartimeaus, from today's Gospel reading. It is a story that is rich with journey images...
The story starts in Jericho - the City, you will remember, that was once destroyed by Joshua after journeying for seven days round and round its walls. Joshua's persistence on his journey meant the destruction of the city which has been seen as evil. Now, Jesus is pictured leaving the famous City of Evil, taking many with him away from its famous walls. As he leaves it, he is shouted at by Bartimeaus. "Son of David", he calls. "Son of David, have pity on me". The very title given to Jesus by Bartimeaus is a signal of a journey - the genetic journey from David to Jesus.
The crowd tell Bartimeaus to be quiet. They don't want him on their journey. He is not like them. He's different. He's blind. He will be an pain to take on the journey. They will have to look after him, care for him, feed him. No, it's better if he keeps quiet.
But Jesus has other ideas. "Call him", he says. And the crowd, perhaps seeing that they were wrong not to want Bartimeaus on the journey, are moved. "Cheer up!", they say to the blind man. "On your feet". "Start out on the journey with us...Jesus has called you too".
What happens next? Jesus heals Bartimeaus. He takes him from blindness to sight. From darkness to light. And this little story ends with one final journey metaphor: "Immediately he received his sight, and followed Jesus along the road". (Mk 10.52)
Journey. Journey. Journey. Its all about the Journey.
So - let me try to summarise. The Bible is a difficult book for anyone. It's no surprise to me that it is the most published, but the least read, book in the world. It can indeed be complex and confusing - and there is no shame in admitting that we sometimes find it too difficult to manage.
But here, in church, Sunday by Sunday, we open and read the Bible together. Together, as the family of God, we grapple with its meanings, we wrestle with images and we are inspired by its examples and teaching. And, during our service, we also use the words that our ancestors gave us through the Bible to praise the same God that they praised.
And finally, I invite you to see the Bible in a new light - not as a rule book to be followed slavishly, and certainly not as a verbal weapon to beat other religions up with. Instead, I invite you to see it as a book which can shine light on our own journeys - our voyages of discovery about who we are, and who we can become in the light and life of God.
Perhaps, with that one over-riding, essential interpretive thought in our mind, each of us might be better equipped to open our own Bibles, and begin to get to the heart of its message.
This is very helpful.