How to Read the Bible

Matthew 22:34-46

By Christopher Yoder

Today’s Gospel lesson is a master class on how to read the Bible. In it, Jesus the Master schools us. 

The Pharisees have come to question Jesus. They want to interrogate him, to test him, to show him up. One of them, an expert in Torah, the Law of Moses, asks him a question, “tempting him,” the text says: “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” It was a common question, a standard topic in rabbinic disputations, a common way for would-be experts in the Law to demonstrate their mastery of the biblical text.

And Jesus, the Master, answers the question deftly. He gives what we call the Summary of the Law. You know it well. We quote it every time we celebrate the Eucharist: “Here what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Jesus’ answer leaves the Pharisees speechless. His response leaves no doubt about his mastery of the Scriptures. Indeed, some of the rabbis would answer the same question in an exactly similar way. So, the Pharisees have no response. And while they are still pondering their next move, Jesus goes on the offensive, by questioning them. He asks them about the Messiah, the Christ, wondering how the Messiah could be “the son of David” if David, in one of the psalms, called him “Lord.” “And,” the text says, “no man was able to answer him a word.” Jesus has beaten the Pharisees at their own game.

You see, the Pharisees treat the Scriptures as something to be mastered. But Jesus the Master shows how the Scriptures resist our mastery, tending, rather, to master us. Jesus demonstrates that the proper posture to take vis-à-vis the Bible is a whole-hearted, loving, and wondering response to the God whose Word it is, to the LORD who speaks through it.

That is the burden of this sermon. And I want to expound it by way of two principles and two practices.

Principle Number One: The Bible discloses a world, which you are invited to enter. You must enter that world if you are to receive what the Bible has to offer. You will not plumb the depths of the Bible’s meaning if you keep it at arm’s length.

Karl Barth once said that what is in the Bible is not so much history, or morality, or even religion, but what he called “the strange new world of God.”

“We live in a sick old world,” Barth writes, “which cries from its soul, out of deepest need: Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed! In all men, whoever and wherever and whatever and however they may be, there is a longing for exactly this which is here within the Bible,” namely, “the glorious beginning of a new world,” in which “all that is dead is brought to life,” and God is all in all. You must allow yourself to be led into the gates of this new world, he says. Otherwise, you will not discover what the Bible has to offer. 

Elsewhere, Barth says, to truly understand the Bible, you must approach it “like an astonished child in a wonderful garden, not like an advocate of God who has seen his files.” 

And writing more than a millennium before Barth, Gregory the Great said that the Bible is like a river, “broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.” You might say that Scripture beckons you, whoever you are, to be all in.

Principle Number Two is closely related to the first: To read the Bible is to encounter the living God. We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God. That is to say, the Bible is God-breathed; God speaks through the words of the Bible. God reveals himself in the events of the Bible, and most completely in the Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is, as Sally-Lloyd Jones says, “everything God wanted to say to the world—in a Person.”

The Church teaches that to read the Bible is to encounter Jesus, who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” As one monastic writer puts it, “He is the truth, and every text of Scripture speaks of him.” The Lord God Almighty addresses us his creatures through these Writings. And it is for this reason that the psalmist says of them: “More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (Ps. 19:10).

So there you have our two principles: 

1.     To read the Bible is to encounter the living God.

2.     The Bible discloses a world, which you are invited to enter. 

Now, let’s turn to two practices or disciplines that might help you approach the Bible in a whole-hearted, loving, and wondering response to the Lord.

The first practice to commend to you is praying the Daily Office, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Daily, prayerful reading of Holy Scripture in the context of Morning and Evening Prayer is the very heart of Anglican spirituality. As Fr. Victor Lee Austin puts it: “Anglicans trust that the daily hearing of the Bible will be formative for a Christian people.” An old children’s song says much the same thing: “Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow.” 

Pray Morning and Evening Prayer regularly, and you will read through the entire Psalter every month, and a large portion of both the Old Testament and the New Testament each year. It is through such daily exposure that we learn the story of Scripture, and learn to inhabit that story, to make it our own, to find that the story of Scripture makes sense of our stories, and frees us from false stories. “If you abide in my word,” Jesus says, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31, 32).

“Jesus,” Rich Mullins sang, “write me into Your story / whisper it to me / and let me know I’m Yours.” That is what the Daily Office is all about.

The second practice I want to commend to you is memorizing Scripture. As it turns out, this practice connects with our Lord’s summary of the law. This is the passage Jesus quotes to demonstrate that the love of God is the greatest commandment:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deut. 6:4-8)

“These words,” God says, “shall be on your heart.” Memorizing Scripture is about inscribing the Word of God in your heart. It’s about letting “the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16), as St. Paul puts it. The point is not to accumulate more information, more “head knowledge,” but to incorporate Scripture into your “heart knowledge,” to etch it into your “autobiographical memory,” so that the Word of God shapes who you are, what you desire, and what you love. 

K.J. Ramsey is a writer from Colorado who has written about the difference memorizing Scripture has made in her life. When she was in her 20s, she was suddenly afflicted with severe joint pain and inflammation. She could no longer walk. “My body became a place of pain rather than possibility,” she writes. “I was desperate for encouragement but couldn’t even open my Bible.” But then, unbidden, the words of a psalm she had memorized as a child came to mind: “For you created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:13-14). As K.J. puts it: 

Unbidden, my soul remembered its truest story, the story that my present suffering was threatening to smash and scatter into the wind. … In that suffering, the Word hidden in my heart started countering my fear. I was confused and craving comfort, but God’s story was alive inside of me, welcoming me into the wonder that I am loved at my weakest.

My brothers and sisters, that is what I want for myself, and what I want for you. May our souls learn their truest story in the story of Scripture. May God’s Word be written in our hearts. May we daily hear and receive God’s holy Word. May we enter the new world of God given to us in the Bible, “that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith — that we, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that we may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17-19).

The Rev. Christopher Yoder is rector of All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City.


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