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Monday, March 14, 2016

How to read the Bible: The Prodigal Son, filters and identification

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 15:11-32.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Do you read a novel in the same way you read a recipe book?  A book of poetry the same way you read the assembly instructions for a bookshelf?  A Shakespearean play in the same way you read an instruction manual for your car?

Of course you don't.  Each of these books serves a different purpose and is written in a different way to achieve its goal.

One of the things that makes the Bible so difficult to read is that it is not, in fact, a book.  It is rather a collection of books that were written at different times in different styles by different people, for different crowds experiencing different things, and each book was meant to accomplish something different.

So for example, you have the Psalms which were originally songs set to music, purportedly all written by or for King David.  You have the Song of Solomon, a book of erotic poetry (I'm serious, go read it, it's pretty spicy) that does not even once mention the word God.  You have the Gospels, which were purportedly renditions by later authors of eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus.  You have the Epistles which were letters written to encourage or correct certain behaviours in nascent Christian communities.

It is a pretty obvious point that therefore each book of the Bible must be read through its own historical and social filter.

What further complicates matters is that all throughout, the Bible is a peculiar mix of myth, legend, historicity, hyperbole, metaphor and literalism that was written on the other side of the world over the course of several thousand years, and sometimes an individual book is actually a combination of all these different literary elements.  The Bible must be read with a very discerning set of filters indeed if we want to take advantage of the spiritual wisdom that is contained therein.

The problem is that it would take a wall full of degrees in several ancient languages, literature, world history and politics, not to mention religious studies, theology and psychology to even begin to speak knowledgeably about which filters should be employed for which books of the Bible.

I don't have many of those things, so I will share with you a method for reading the Bible that is comparatively simple and reasonably foolproof.  This method was shared with my by one of my seminary professors:

Read the Bible as though it was a story about you.

The example he gave was the Gospel passage for today, the story of the Prodigal Son.  This is one of the best-known stories in all of Christendom.  It centers around three main characters: the Prodigal Son himself, the forgiving father and a jerk of a brother, and my professors' point was that we should try to figure out when we read the story which character we are.  We should ask ourselves who we most identify with.

The story is pretty familiar: a young and impulsive young man demands his inheritance while his father is still alive so that he may go out and live high on the proverbial hog.  This happens to him literally as he blows through his money in pretty short order and is forced to feed pigs on a farm (bear in mind how Judaism feels about pigs...this means he was really in the gutter).

He realizes the error of his ways and decides to go home and beg his father to take him on as a servant.  As he is coming up the road, his father sees him and runs to meet him and welcomes him home with open arms.  Rather than treat him as a servant, he puts a robe on his shoulders, places a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, treating him instead as an honoured guest.

His brother is not impressed, however.  He is angry because all along he has done what was expected of him and been the good son, but his father has never celebrated him.

So who would you be in this story?  I have to admit, and various times in my life I have been all three.  I have been callow and greedy, I have been forgiving and compassionate, I have been bitter and resentful.  Sometimes I have been all three characters in the same day.

However we see the Bible, whether we think it is the inerrant word of God or not, these books were written with the intention of imparting wisdom on the reader, to help us reflect on our human nature and the nature of God, and to help steer us toward a life of spiritual enlightenment and righteousness.  It was written with the intention that we would see ourselves in the characters and reflect on our own thoughts and behaviours.

We do this pretty naturally in just about every book we read and every movie we watch.  I can almost guarantee you that you love your favourite books and movies because you identify with one of the main characters.  He or she reminds you of who you are or who you would like to be.  I personally love Indiana Jones because in my heart, that is who I want to be.  I love Frodo because I can relate to being the little guy going up against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Next time you pick up your Bible, ask yourself who you are in a particular story.  Then ask yourself if that is the person you want to be.

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