THIS Sunday can be kept either as the Last Sunday after Trinity, or as Bible Sunday. I am using the readings for the former to reflect on the latter. There is a serious point: any text of scripture for any date in the Church’s calendar can be an opportunity to reflect on how the Bible works in the life of Christians, and of the Church.
So, I ask, do the texts speak with one voice? Are they challenging one another? How can they help people to hear the voice of God?
Leviticus 19 repeats the phrase, “I am the Lord.” It looks merely formulaic. But it is more like the “only” that we oldsters used to write on cheques, to prevent changes or additions. “I am the Lord” is really a full stop, marking the close of each section of the Law. Punctuation and layout were not invented in Bible days; so words must do those jobs on their own.
When we read a Bible book, working out what connects with what, and which words, sentences, or stories belong together, is a reading skill as essential as learning the alphabet. We divvy up the Bible into sections (this can be called “chunking”), either within books, or across the whole Bible — and, therefore, across centuries, cultures, and languages. Then we can see Psalm 22.1 talking across a millennium, to Matthew 27.46; or Deuteronomy 6.4-5 speaking to Matthew 22.37; or 1 Kings 8.27-30 to Revelation 21.
All 66 (at least) books can speak to each other, within or between the Testaments. Lectionary compilers help us to see this. They highlight this constant dialogue by deciding what and where to chunk. They draw on the wisdom of Bible translators and exegetes, experts who pour a lifetime of scholarship into working out where sentences begin and end, whether words should be capitalised (e.g. does Matthew 22.43 mean “by the Spirit” or “in spirit”?), and how to arrange text on the page so as to help modern readers, and to express authors’ meanings.
None of the visual aids that we rely on, from upper and lower case, to ink colour/s, to chunking, to verse and chapter numbering, was commonly practised among the first copyists of our sacred writings. We do not know how blest we are to have our modern Bibles presented to us with such beautiful clarity, and with every assistance for wise reading.
Every form of technology which helps the Bible to be read has been lavished on us. Every “jot and tittle” (Matthew 5.18) matters, because the Word has to speak with equal clarity to the occasional visitor dropping in to church one Sunday; the hotel guest glancing randomly through the Good Book, because sleep comes slowly in a strange bed far from home; the habitual churchgoer; the devoted lifelong Christian; and the suspicious but attracted “outsider”.
In this case, the choice of Leviticus 19 to speak with Matthew 22.34-46 cannot have been especially difficult. But we will appreciate the message better if we hear the Old Testament reading in a larger chunk, as Jesus did. The words that he quotes in Matthew 22.39 are shorthand for that fuller expression in Leviticus 19.17-18.
The full-stop “I am the Lord” marks off the chunk of message. Jesus knew it as a unit. So should we. His summary is shorthand for the whole — do not hate, do not criticise, do not take vengeance or bear grudges: in a word, love. The teaching is clearly stated. Now, we look in the Gospel for what calls forth that teaching, and hear how to apply it.
Matthew agrees with Luke that the question asked by the Pharisee lawyer is to “test” him. That is not necessarily negative: Mark made it a response to recognising Jesus’s wisdom. In Luke (18.18), Jesus encouraged the questioner to attempt his own answer first, as good teachers often do. As we absorb these readings, another chunk of scripture, not part of this day’s portion, resounds in our minds as an exegesis of the Lord’s summary of the law: Luke 10.29-37.
A lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” After the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus’s lesson was posed as a question. Even if we read the words the way people had to read them in Jesus’s day, the message is clear: