Lessons in Missing the Point
If you will indulge me, an old preacher’s joke: What’s the difference between a Presbyterian and a Baptist? The Presbyterian will say hello to you at the liquor store. I grew up in a region famed for its wineries and breweries: the art of alcohol-making was a big deal in my hometown, doubly so for me since my father’s job often involved wineries. So for most of my life, I took Proverbs 31 as an endorsement or at least allowance of the culture I grew up in. I delighted showing these verses to my Baptist friends, teasing them that, since I am not a king and since there are times I am indeed in bitter distress, it looks like a trip to the pub with friends is A-Okay as long as we’re all of age and drinking responsibly. For most of my life, that’s all this proverb was: a throwaway line about how drinking is not great for rulers but allowed for commoners like me. It was more a punchline than anything else.
About a year ago, however, on a whim I chose to study this scripture a little closer. And a few minutes’ reflection on the matter had me realizing I had misunderstood and misused this scripture all my life. Like we learned last week, Bible proverbs have layers. And this is less a proverb about how I personally use alcohol—though it is that to a degree—and more a proverb about how I use my power. Today’s scripture is advice given to kings, specifically. Kings—the proverb is really saying—do not waste your wealth, royal attention, and power on building a harem of concubines… or on getting yourself drunk every night. Instead, Proverbs 31 tells kings to spend their riches on the poorest in the land: “Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more. Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
All my life until a year ago, in my rush to tease my Baptist colleagues… I always stopped reading this scripture right at the alcohol part, never read beyond it, never realized the truth. Proverbs 31 uses the smaller discussion of alcohol… to open up a larger discussion on how to use power and wealth in general. Drinking to excess is not for you, wealthy king. Give your fancy wines to the suffering. Harems of concubines to play away your days are not for you, wealthy king. Spend your time instead speaking out for the poor, the silenced, the needy. Sure, drinking gets mentioned in this proverb. But that’s not it’s main point: there are other proverbs about that instead. Rather, today’s scripture’s main point is that in all things—whether drinking, time, money, or anything—do not be consumed by greed or excess… but rather always remember and care for the less fortunate. What I once saw as only permission to drink and tease teetotalers, now is a beautiful reminder to be compassionate and generous with your power. And that… is a far more powerful and important thing for all of us to hear. Though I will also add that this Wednesday, September 9, is International Buy Your Priest a Beer Day. And I wouldn’t necessarily object to a free pint or two.
But more to the point, I bring up this realization of mine today—less to talk about this particular scripture—and more to talk about how to avoid the trap that I fell into for so long. After all, misunderstanding God or the Bible is pretty common. In the gospels, all the disciples keep misunderstanding Jesus’ message, keep getting themselves confused pretty much right up ‘til Easter. Outside the gospels, the rest of the New Testament is basically saying, “Do not read the Old Testament that way but rather this way: here’s how to understand the Bible correctly.” And even in the Old Testament, Sarah and Abraham laugh when God promises them a child, considering it a divine joke instead of prophecy. And one of the greatest Old Testament kings—Josiah—became so after finding a lost book of scripture—likely Deuteronomy—realizing his kingdom had misunderstood God’s word this whole time, and launching a massive campaign to revitalize the faith. So many characters in the Bible misunderstand either God or scripture… that I’m not embarrassed to admit when I myself get it wrong too. Perhaps my favorite story of someone misreading something, however, is the one about two priests who died and waited in line before St. Peter at the pearly gates. The two priests congratulate each other on staying celibate and chaste all their lives, never giving into lust despite the temptations. The first one goes up to St. Peter. The second priest watches from a distance as his friend grows pale in horror talking to Peter. Finally, the first priest yells back, “It was a typo! The book said ‘celebrate’!”
So misunderstanding scripture is common. But how do we avoid misreading the Bible? What are the pitfalls and traps that can lead us astray? Perhaps the most common—even for experienced Christians—is coming to scripture with an agenda. I misread Proverbs 31 because all I wanted was a scripture—any scripture—to justify my teasing teetotalers. But it’s far graver when Christians dive into the Bible looking for verses to justify specific, already-held political stances… or to gain ammo for family bickering… or to let themselves off the hook for what they know is wrong but want to do anyways. You can justify pretty much anything if you cherry pick the Bible. And historically, from slave owners to abusive parents to WWII Germany, Christians have often done exactly that. The Bible is meant to make us more Christlike, but cherry-picking verses to suit our whims instead deforms Christ to look more like us. Ever wonder why I like to preach through one book of the Bible at a time? It’s to focus myself less on my own preaching agenda and more on what the Bible puts before me, even if it’s hard or uncomfortable. While it’s impossible to 100% set aside your own prejudices, if you want to get the most out of the Bible, you have to be willing for it to prove you wrong, willing to let the Bible change you… in terms of piety, politics, morality, whatever. If the Bible never changes the way you live, is it because you’ve always been in line with it… or because your own agendas never allowed it to?
The other big pitfall I see Christians run into when reading scripture is letting the unusual distract from the important. For instance, 2 Kings has a story where the prophet Elisha summons she-bears to maul folks who mocked him for being bald. Hilarious. But the she-bears aren’t the main point: Elisha’s newfound prophetic power is. Mark’s gospel, in one of its disputed endings, talks about snake handling. But snake handling isn’t the point of that story: Christ’s resurrection is. Jesus feeds 5,000 people in the desert, but Christ himself says the point isn’t the food but the gospel message. The Bible is filled with stunning moments: just two weeks ago I even picked a scripture because I was unsettled by its incestuous story. But the spectacle is rarely the point: it does you no good to read a Bible story, go ‘Huh. Weird,’ and then move on with your life. The Bible is spectacular, but the spectacle isn’t the point. As Christ himself says, the miracles and spectacle are meant to lead us to God: the Bible’s purpose isn’t to amaze us but rather to help us know the Lord. Don’t rubber neck the Bible like a driver staring at a highway crash as he zips past the scene: investigate it like a detective trying to unpack the mysteries of who this Jesus fellow is and what that means for your life. To use myself as a bad example again, all my life I was distracted by the unusual part of Proverbs 31, “How funny! It’s telling me I should drink!” And that distraction made me overlook the message Proverbs 31 taught about justice, charity, and power. You can enjoy the unusual and interesting bits in the Bible, sure. But treat them as beacons highlighting something even more important, not as important things themselves.
There are obviously far more pitfalls to reading scripture beyond agenda-bias or getting distracted by the unusual. We could be here all day. But as far as solutions go, overall I think slowing down does wonders. Do not move past a chapter until you feel like it’s shown you something that changes how you see God, yourself, or the world. Or slow down by using a study Bible that gives little notes explaining history or translation quirks to explain ancient things that don’t make sense to modern believers. These days, even Wikipedia is a fairly good starting reference for Bible study. Or slow down by reflecting on your own agenda when reading scripture, to making sure you aren’t twisting the Bible to suit your own angle. We are dealing with a collection of writings stretching back 5000 years that have seen billions of sermons on them: there is always something new for us to learn, even from the most familiar of stories. But my hope is that each of us finds something new in scripture, something startling, something that inspires us to change how we live… just as Proverbs 31 surprised me this past year. Amen.