This is my 100th Bible blog, so a brief reflection on it is excusable. It is, firstly, a spiritual discipline which gives me pleasure. Secondly, it is a daily process of discovery shared with my readers. I am delighted that there are readers and would be pleased to have more comments from them. Thirdly, it is the study of a distinctively Catholic creation, the daily readings for mass. This lectionary has been until now unfamiliar to me, and opens new territory for exploration.
I have been asked by one reader if I think the Bible is the Word of God. My answer is that I think it is, but only in a derived sense: I believe Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and that the Bible shares in that status only as a witness to him, and only in its entirety. Of course individual books and passages can be interpreted as authoritative, but all interpretation should be done in the light of the bible as a whole. Within the bible however, the New Testament is, for Christians, already an authoritative interpretation of the Old. That does not make the Old Testament irrelevant or unimportant: we cannot understand the New Testament unless we know what it is interpreting- we cannot, for example, understand Jesus as the fulfilment of prophecy unless we know the Hebrew prophets. I hope this does not seem insulting to any Jewish reader. I realise that there is a different and illuminating tradition of Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, which has a very different set of priorities. I respect them, but they are not mine.
Classic Christian theology worships Jesus as the Word made flesh. As a human person, he is also the son and revelation of God. In a similar way, the Bible is the Word of God in human words. Only when the human composition and editing of the words is thoroughly acknowledged, can they also be God’s Word. My own tradition would add that the faithful interpreter of the Bible must work within the partnership of the universal church and the Holy Spirit. I hope I do this.
Reading 1, Deuteronomy 4:1, 5-9
1 ‘And now, Israel, listen to the laws and customs which I am teaching you today, so that, by observing them, you may survive to enter and take possession of the country, which the Lord God of your ancestors, is giving you.
5 Look: as the Lord my God commanded me, I have taught you laws and customs, for you to observe in the country of which you are going to take possession.
6 Keep them, put them into practice, and other peoples will admire your wisdom and prudence. Once they know what all these laws are, they will exclaim, “No other people is as wise and prudent as this great nation!”
7 And indeed, what great nation has its gods as near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to him?
8 And what great nation has laws and customs as upright as the entirety of this Law which I am laying down for you today?
9 ‘But take care, as you value your lives! Do not forget the things which you yourselves have seen, or let them slip from your heart as long as you live; teach them, rather, to your children and to your children’s children.
Gospel, Matthew 5:17-19
17 ‘Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them.
18 In truth I tell you, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, is to disappear from the Law until all its purpose is achieved.
19 Therefore, anyone who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of Heaven; but the person who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of Heaven.
The book of Deuteronomy (literally, “second law”) is part of the huge task of re-making Israel’s religion for the community formed after the exile in Babylon. It is almost impossible to get an accurate history of this community, as its history has been written to express its convictions, but we can acknowledge it as the creator of the Judaism learned by Jesus. How can ancient religious traditions be made relevant to new times? How can the keeping of religious law preserve the passionate relationship to God from which it derives? How can the basic principles of a system of law, generate new laws? How can a powerfully communal religion remain open to those on the margins of the community-the widow, orphan and foreigner? These are just some of the questions faced and answered by the compilers of Deuteronomy. If we are lucky enough to possess such a store of wisdom, we should never forget its value or take it for granted, but rather make it the centre of our education of children and adults.
Our carelessness with the “Christian tradition” in which many of my own generation grew up, is stunning. Most Scottish children now grow up in complete ignorance of the life and teaching of Jesus and the worship of the One God. Nor has that tradition been replaced with anything comparable. Even from an atheist’s point of view, this is a moral and cultural disaster. We have allowed the view that religion is a private matter to undermine the basis of our social belonging; we have “forgotten those things we have seen and let them slip from our hearts.” I do not think this lament is simply the reluctance of age to acknowledge change. Maybe it’s time for another book of Deuteronomy.
Jesus’ “completion” of the Torah, the Jewish Law, was not uncontroversial: some of his contemporaries thought his radical re-interpretations were heretical. Modern Jewish scholarship however has shown us how Jewish Jesus was, and how his teaching results from profound insight into his own tradition. In particular, his own reverence for and use of commandments place him at the heart of Judaism, for which right action has always been as important as right belief. Because we are all children of a loving father, we are not asked for our opinions, but are told, “Do this!”