“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." --Jesus
There is a popular refrain among some Christians: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” No doubt the fatigue of believing that uncertainty is opposed to maturing in the spiritual life can lead one to wish such simple slogans are true. Biblical fundamentalism, though, is borne from a lack of trust—the antithesis of life in the Spirit. Our relationship with God is primarily one of prayer and communal discernment, not textual fidelity; such errors are not unique to Christianity. The Jewish people of Jesus’ time also struggled to live a righteous life through God’s revelation in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). Genesis is the story of origins. Most important, though, isn’t the scientific details of origin, but of the origin of our relationship with God and one another, and the origin of our breaking communion with our Creator. It is also a story of the origin of our reunion with God through the faithfulness of Abraham, in whom God counted faith as righteousness. Exodus outlines the struggle of God’s people in exile and the fight to regain Abraham’s promise and again respond to a promise. A text didn’t lead the Jews into the Promised Land, the presence of God did. Then God organizes them and gives Moses the Law to order the people’s worship and life. Leviticus reveals the detail of God’s Law, and tellingly, the book that follows, Numbers, is about God punishing the people’s failure to keep the Law; so begins the wandering. Deuteronomy is the all about reaching the Promised Land and learning to obey God. This begins the messiness of relationship with The Divine---exile, and return; promises made, broken and reworked again and again by a God hopelessly in love with humanity. The struggle of God’s people is mirrored by our struggle to be faithful to a Word, a living Word, not a text; but there is a catch.
To say we live by faithfulness to a relationship with God, not with a text can also lead to a complete disdain for the Bible. What is needed is a greater understanding of the role of the Bible in our lives as Christians. We need to avoid the trap of textual fundamentalism and the other extreme of living disconnected from tradition and the wisdom of those who came before us. The Bible, when used wisely and within a broader community of interpretation, helps us to discern our life in Christ from a life moving away from Christ. The Bible isn’t a book of answers as much as it is a book of questions, questions of how to live the radical demands of Christ’s gospel. John Parsons, a great missionary, famously wrote that “In the end, it's not an act of interpretation that is called for but a life of commitment to the truth. Interpretation must reach an endpoint, a decision. We cannot indefinitely suspend our judgment without risking self-deception and the loss of the message of love...”
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus confronts the stark reality that the Law, as text, isn’t enough to fulfill the Law; a change of heart is needed. It is not enough to simply refrain from murder; one must treat anger with equal disdain. It is not enough to refrain from adultery, but cultivating lust by treating one as an object of desire should likewise be avoided. Making elaborate promises that lead to intrigue and misunderstandings is the error, but so is dithering to make commitments and honest communication. When Jesus declared that “ I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [the Law] he indicated that fulfillment was only possible in a relationship of faith through him, not textual scholarship. Scholarship only helps us understand the text; Christ penetrates the text to the heart of God. We live in and through Christ, not in and through the Bible.
What sustained the early Christians, who had no common scripture for three hundred years after Jesus, sustains us today—The Holy Spirit. Living God’s word, in a sense, allowing each of our lives to write a gospel message to the world, is the natural extension of both an educated reading of Holy Scripture and the give and take of our life in the Spirit.