“You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD. Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, lest the land fall into prostitution and the land become full of depravity. You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD. Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God. You shall stand up before the grey head and honour the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them: I am the LORD.” Leviticus 19. 26-37.
Yes, I know … what a long and strange reading for a morning meditation! And I must confess I very nearly abandoned it and tried for another “random” reading. But then I began to have thoughts about it that are perhaps worth recording.
I began to think of how selective I am in my use of Scripture. If, for instance, I want to encourage people to be welcoming to asylum seekers and refugees, I will happily quote the bit above that says we must love the strangers in our midst and treat them as belonging to us, yet I do not dream of telling my male friends that we should all have long, untrimmed beards and side-ringlets … though that injunction is found in the same passage of Scripture as the injunction about the treatment of strangers. Likewise I will be quick to warn anyone who is thinking of going to a spiritualist that God forbids the use of mediums while not even thinking of telling the young people I know that God forbids them to have tattoos.
The fact is, of course, that all these laws and injunctions are part of the Mosaic covenant. They are the small print of the contract between God and the Israelites that was entered into at Mount Sinai in approximately 1300 BC and, unless I am party to that contract, they are not binding on me at all … and the same goes for anyone to whom I quote these scriptures. The most I ought to say to someone who, for instance, is thinking of going to see a spiritualist is, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. God specifically commanded the Jews not to consult mediums and I’m pretty sure that if you were to ask him he’d tell you to leave them well alone too.”
The trouble is that because Paul tells Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3.16), I can imagine he has given me the right to use anything I can find in Scripture to bolster up my arguments or press home my points, irrespective of the context of the text I’m quoting. Well, he hasn’t, and I do God no service by treating Scripture in that way.
And now I find I have come under some conviction, for as I write this I see that, if it is wrong to take Scriptural “commands” out of context, it must be just as wrong to take Scriptural “blessings” out of context and apply them to myself or others … and that is something I have often been inclined to do. Instead of telling someone in distress: “God says, ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope,'” I need to tell them, “When God’s people were going into exile, he told them not to despair. He said, ‘For I know the plans I have for you … plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope,’ and I believe he has a plan for your life too and will give you a future and a hope if you turn to him.”
God is a god of truth and integrity and honesty, and it has become apparent to me this morning that my use of Scripture has sometimes been less than honest and not always of God. And all this points to one of the dangers of simply learning by heart a set of “proof” texts that can be fired like bullets whenever occasion demands. To be honest to a text and to use it with integrity I need to know its context also and the limitations of its scope; and that was surely what Paul meant when he talked to Timothy about “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2.15).