On Sunday night we ventured back into the Old Testament, our last exploration there for a little while. Way back in September we tackled some of the violent passages, then two weeks ago Simon helped us recognise that there is really a mix of different voices, and on Sunday we focused in on some of the more positive messages. Essentially, we were searching after the good news of the Old Testament.
One place we could have started was with a motif that runs throughout the Old Testament, the declaration that the Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. We in fact started from a couple of slightly more obscure entry points, but in many ways those words are the gospel before the gospel, and so I simply offer them to you to meditate on.
I trailed the idea of the good news of the Old Testament in September by reading a passage from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book Not in God’s Name, and so that is where we picked up from. Sacks argues that Abrahamic monotheism emerged as a sustained protest against the oppressive and hierarchical societies of the Ancient Near East, that its declarations that all are created in the image of God and a society is judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable were bold and radical, that this truth was lost in years of war and conquest but was rediscovered by the prophets in their words of justice and mercy, and that to commit violence in the name of the God who told Abraham that all peoples would be blessed through him is to commit blasphemy.
What Sacks alerts us to is the fact that we are called to continue that tradition of sustained protest, to challenge injustice and inequality, to be a prophetic voice in the world. As we said on Sunday, this does not mean that we should resist for the sake of resisting, and we must be open to learning from the world and challenging the church as well as the other way round, but it does mean we must be willing to be countercultural.
It was great to be able to identity so many examples of that on Sunday. Men and women who were inspired by their faith to challenge slavery, to improve workers’ rights, to fight for religious tolerance, against all the odds and in the face of much opposition.
Of course we have to acknowledge the mistakes that have been made too, the times that scripture has been read in a way that has led to hate and not to love, but Sacks is confident that “we may and must reinterpret them”. It sounds like a stunning proposition, but it is what Jewish scholars have been doing for centuries. It’s what Jesus did when he left “the day of vengeance out of Isaiah 61. And it’s what we’ve been doing over these past few months, challenging the narratives that trouble us and the way they have been used to trouble others.
The work of Jewish mysticism called the Zohar says that “those who love the divine word penetrate beneath its outer garments to its soul”. We need to get to the soul of scripture and let it transform us and teach us, show us the word of God not just the words on the page.
This brings us back to the idea of good news. I think the fact that we find this tradition of resistance in the Old Testament, particularly in the concern for the vulnerable in the laws and the prophets, is extraordinarily good news because it tells us that God’s heart has always been for love and peace and mercy and compassion. It tells us the outer garments may be torn and tarnished in places, but the soul of scripture is beautiful.
So that was the first part of the evening. We then turned to explore another book I have read recently, The Year of Living Biblically, in which the author A.J. Jacobs attempts to follow as many biblical laws as possible.
After the violence, the law is probably the second most troubling thing in the Old Testament. It doesn’t help that Jesus’ position on it was about as clear as mud. He said he had not come to destroy it and yet he frequently broke it, so we can’t just junk it but we don’t need to follow all of it either.
One way of understanding Jesus’ claim that he came to fulfil the law is to say that he came to reveal its purpose, and so we might talk about following the spirit rather than the letter of the law, but that doesn’t necessarily help very much because it’s not always clear what the spirit behind the letter is, or how close to the letter you must stay in order to keep the spirit.
A practical education seems a really good idea, and so we took advantage of Jacobs’ experience by discussing some passages from the book in groups. We touched on the freedom that comes from acknowledging a God who is bigger than us, the humbling effect of prayer, the blessing of Sabbath rest, and the greater connectedness with one another and the earth that comes when we practice thankfulness, amongst many other things.
When speaking about Sabbath, I shared that I live in hope that I will find the sweet spot where I have a strong enough rhythm to keep me in good practices, but I don’t weigh myself down with so much ritual that it becomes another task. I could say the same about prayer and reading scripture and diet and exercise and…the list goes on.
I think it’s that sweet spot Jesus was calling us to when he said “my burden is easy and my yoke is light”. A yoke was a way of talking about the particular way in which a rabbi interpeted the law, and it seems important that Jesus did not say that he would remove that yoke althogether, but rather that it would not weigh us down. He does not want to scrub out the law completely and leave us without any kind of pattern or purpose, but instead invites us to take hold of the things that root us and nuture us and give us meaning.
The things we identified as being good and beautiful about Jacobs’ experience were less to do with specific practices and more to do with the ideas behind them, and so we find ourselves once again with the soul of scripture. The good news this time around is that the Old Testament is full of practices and so it is full of ideas, and perhaps if we can tease the two apart we will find words to live by.