Wednesday, 18 June 2008
More important than the question of how Meister Eckhart used the scriptures is the question of how Jesus used them. This morning my set readings led me to continue to plough through Leviticus, and I suddenly saw something which has been right there under my nose these past thirty years but unnoticed; overshadowed by my own preconceptions about the meaning of scripture. Leviticus was written in the exile by the priests, and has a great concern for regulating priestly behaviour and for making sure that the priests get well provided for by the sacrificial system: a concern, which, as a priest, I heartily approve of. There, in the middle of chapters devoted to making sure that the holy blokes are pure enough to offer the peoples' sacrifices are some regulations about touching dead bodies. Corpses are ritually impure, and the priests are told, unless it's your immediate family, don't. And in ambiguous cases: what part of DON'T do you not understand?
Scripture is just as unequivocal on this point as it is in the bits about gays.
Why had I not seen this before? It casts a whole new light on the parable of the Good Samaritan. When Jesus tells people that the way to justification is to love God and love your neighbour, a lawyer asks a fair enough lawyerly type question, "who is my neighbour?" Many bits of the law refer to neighbours, and it's easy to get tied up in knots playing one bit of the law off against another, until you don't know what to do. When trying to sort out duty to neighbour, you must first understand who exactly is my neighbour?
Jesus responds by asking "have you heard the one about the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan?" I have retold this story myself a thousand times and waxed artistically lyrical on the self righteous, lazy or frightened priest and Levite. How wrong I was. The priest and the Levite are merely obeying the plain word of scripture. Leviticus leaves no room for interpretation, no not even a little bit. Their duty to God and to their neighbour as laid down in scripture is to keep themselves ritually pure, at all costs. When they see the poor guy in the ditch, apparently very short of breath, and they think about lending a hand,they have one choice and one choice only: what part of DON'T do you not understand? (Lev. 21:1-4)
Think about it. A lawyer asks a question about the law. Jesus tells a story about two men who are faithfully obedient to the law and one, who because of his birth, is outside the law. He ends by telling us to emulate the latter. So what is Jesus modeling for us in his use of the Torah? His use of the Bible is consistent here with another record of his use of scripture, namely in the synagogue at Nazareth. There, when handed the scroll of the book of Isaiah he breaks tradition by taking the scroll in his own hands, turning to a passage other than the one opened for him, reading a section and leaving off the reading in the middle of a verse before pointedly closing the scroll and sitting down.
What, indeed, is he modeling in the way he treats the holy scripture? What is he telling us about the way we should live, and from whence we draw our authority?