A sermon by the Rev. Linda Harrison
Lent 1; March 10, 2019
Deuteronomy 26:1-11: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
“The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at heart. Oh, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” Merchant of Venice, Act 1 Scene 3, Antonio to Shylock.
“The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.”
If you are the Only Begotten of God … If you believe what you heard at your baptism, then show me, show yourself … Jesus, are you certain about who you are and Whose you are? … and by the way, if you are who you think you are, scripture even says nothing bad will happen to you if you jump, so go ahead, prove it to yourself, prove it to me … nay, prove it to the world!
And so, ha satan – the same figure we find in Job, the accuser, the adversary – goads Jesus with words of scripture.
“The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.”
As the adversary – a figure akin to a prosecuting attorney – the goal of ha satan is to trip Jesus up, to get Jesus to incriminate himself in some way. If the adversary can get Jesus to admit any doubt about who he is or what his mission and ministry are, then ha satan calls into question the very power and might of God. If Jesus vacillates, then the adversary has thwarted the will of God.
As a cunning entity, ha satan picks up on Jesus’ strategy of quoting scripture and tries to use it against Jesus, citing the psalm we read today.
And herein lies the difference. Jesus quotes scripture to remind himself of his relationship with the Divine, to remain rooted in his purpose and calling, to remain in relationship. The adversary quotes scripture in an attempt to tear down, to cast doubt, to divide and conquer.
Quoting scripture has been an age-old practice among people of faith. Biblical passages are spouted and quoted by well-meaning people of faith to support all sorts of social positions and policies. Not long ago in American history, scripture – especially passages from Ephesians and Philemon – were used to uphold slavery. Paul’s letters are still used to bar women from ordination and castigate divorced persons in some denominations.
I am reading Geraldine Brooks’ novel, People of the Book, and was reminded how scripture passages were abused to support the Inquisition – the arrest, torture, and even murder of people of the Jewish faith, from which the Nazi regime in 1930s Germany took a page.
Most recently, scripture has been used by faithful United Methodists to justify the exclusion of, and to strengthen punitive actions against, LGBTQ+ United Methodist laity, clergy, and their allies.
I began my discernment to ordination in the United Methodist Church. I went to a United Methodist seminary. I have many friends and colleagues in the UMC. My heart hurts with them and for them.
And it’s not only folks with whom we may disagree ideologically or politically. At a clergy gathering a couple of summers ago, a Member of Congress spoke to us. This is a member whom I respect and agree with most of the time. However, that day I was disappointed. Using the parable of the sheep and goats from Matthew’s gospel, the congressmember separated Congress and society into Us and Them … Us, the sheep, were on the correct side of the issues and the goats, Them, were all wrong and consigned to the outer darkness. I was further disappointed by colleagues who agreed, uncritically, with what the congressmember had said.
“The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.” There are devils – adversaries of God’s will – in every corner of society.
Among the lessons I learned at Wesley Theological Seminary, none was more grace-filled than hearing over and over again that scripture should never be weaponized. Scriptural authority does not reside in any one individual verse that is pulled out of context. The authority of scripture is only and always rooted in the entirety of the biblical witness. From Genesis right through to the end of Revelation, the biblical witness is God’s desire for the flourishing of all creation – reconciled, healed, joy-filled, and loved. As Christians, we read that witness through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If it isn’t good news for all, then it isn’t good news at all.
Calling your own colleagues on Capitol Hill goats is not Good News.
David Hayward, a former Presbyterian pastor in Canada, calls himself a graffiti artist on the wall of religion. His blog, the Naked Pastor, is filled with his church and faith-related cartoons. One that has been going around my clergy circles lately is of a group of people, each holding a Bible, with Jesus addressing them saying, “The difference between me and you is you use scripture to determine what love means and I use love to determine what scripture means.”
You use scripture to determine what love means. I use love to determine what scripture means.
We read all of scripture through the lens of our loving God in Christ. If the verses we read or hear sound less than loving, ask yourself: what is the context of this verse in the entirety of the book, what is the historical context, what is the cultural context?
Scripture should never be used as a bludgeon … should never be used to divide or to call into question anyone’s worth or sense of self. Scripture should never be used to exclude or cast doubt or undermine a person’s identity. When scripture is weaponized, it to thwarts the will of God.
Ha satan, determined to undermine God, weaponized the verse from the psalm …. A psalm meant to provide comfort and solace to a people in crisis. Ha satan turned that verse on its head and sought to plant a seed of doubt about the love and faithfulness of God.
Let us be mindful when we hear passages quoted. We need to ask ourselves, is this Good News for all people? Let us be the adversary for God’s will – adversaries for healing and mercy – by lovingly calling out folks who, in an attempt to justify their actions, actually divide or undermine with Bible quotes.
First and foremost, scripture is to be used to praise the One creates us and sustains us, to remind us who we are in Christ: forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and above all, beloved.
Blessed be God forever.