I occasionally hear from folks, both Christians and people who are not believers, that they don’t find the Bible very helpful. It doesn’t correspond, for example, with what we know about the Big Bang or evolution. It’s primitive and violent, it’s patriarchal and sexist. And people use it in ways that hurt and exclude others.
Often I have to admit some of those things are true: We should definitely not go looking for the grand unified theory of physics in the Book of Genesis, and I don’t think I want to rely on some of Paul’s writings for guidance on relationships between men and women.
On the other hand the Bible is full of such good, everyday advice. Take our reading from the letter of James, for example. I could see some of James as an advice column in the Tribune or online:
Dear James, I’m feeling cheerful. What should I do? A Happy Disciple
Dear Happy, If you are cheerful, sing songs of praise. XOXO, James
Dear James, I’m suffering. I guess Jesus was serious about that whole “taking up your cross” thing. What should I do? Stuck on Good Friday
Dear Stuck, If you are suffering, you should pray. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. XOXO, James
Dear James, I’m sick. What should I do? Nauseous in the Lord
Dear Nauseous, If you are sick, you should definitely call for the elders of the church and have them pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise you up. Hope you feel better. XOXO, James
In fact the whole letter of James is a gold mine of good, practical advice for Christians—just read it. I’m sure he would give Dear Abby a run for her money.
Then there is Jesus in today’s gospel. Now sometimes he can be helpful:
Dear Jesus, I saw someone else doing good works in your name, and she wasn’t an Episcopalian, and I doubt she’s even baptized.What should I do? Eminent Episco
Dear Eminent, Don’t be such a snob. How about minding your own business? You think I only work in the Episcopal Church? That would not be a good business plan. XOXO, Jesus
But then there’s the rest of today’s passage: Dear Jesus, I’ve noticed my left eye keeps wandering over to that really cute guy on the first row, who is not my boyfriend and is actually going out with someone else, but I think I’m going to go for it anyway. My right eye more or less behaves. What should I do? Hot and Bothered in History Class
Dear Hot, Gauge out your left eye and throw it away; better to have to wear an eye patch in heaven than to be hot, and I mean really hot, with both eyes. XOXO, Jesus
Dear Jesus, I convinced a straight-laced friend of mine to try pot to help him loosen up. He really liked it and now wants to get high every day. He’s neglecting his family and I think he might lose his job. What should I do? High on Christ
Dear High, You did what? Find a large stone, tie yourself to it, and jump off Navy Pier. I’ll see what I can do about the mess you made. XOXO, Jesus
Maybe we shouldn’t try to get Jesus his own advice column yet. These sayings of Jesus from the gospel are probably among those other passages people find unhelpful: Jesus may have been exaggerating, or even telling a joke, but to contemporary ears he seems weird, even violent, and his advice keeps ending with the threat of hell. Just the kind of thing that turns my friends away from the Bible.
So should we just write off these awkward, difficult passages? Or is there a way we might reach across this 2,000-year divide and discover something useful for us, a way to translate what sounds weird into words to live by? Take the order to cut off that offending body part, lest we end up in a living hell. I’ve been blessed to know many Christians who have shared their stories of addiction and deliverance, of the literal hell that drugs or alcohol made for them. Some have shared how they had to cut off from themselves that craving so that they could live again in freedom. Jesus’ advice doesn’t sound strange to them at all.
Or perhaps we’ve all had a relationship or two that had to be cut off: a friend or romantic partner, or even spouse or family member who was just a bad mix for us, or maybe they were cruel, and so we had to bring that relationship to an end. We literally had to cut ourselves off from that person.
Or take the millstone: I admit I’ve had some conversations about how unhelpful the Bible can be, but I’ve had a lot more about how unhelpful the example of this or that Christian has been. I think it’s fair to say the gospel has suffered more damage from those who claim to follow it than from anything that’s written there.
Pope Francis is a great counterexample here: He isn’t saying anything about immigration or the economy or the environment that popes haven’t been saying for more than 100 years: It’s his example, his style, and his tone, even where he lives, that’s what’s preaching the good news, and people are responding.
Which brings us back to our gospel passage: There is a question in there, the kind we might need advice about: What does it mean to live life in Christ? And there are some basic, useful answers in there: Don’t get so full of yourself that you can’t see God working outside your little group. Be a good example of the gospel, and don’t lead anyone else astray. Some things lead to death and some that lead to life; it’s important to know the difference and make good choices if you want to live that life that God calls you to.
But the details? No Dear Jesus for us. That we have to do for ourselves; but luckily we don’t have to do it by ourselves. That’s one of the reasons why we are all here working it out together: just like the church that James addressed, and the one Mark was writing to. And I feel pretty confident between the Bible and Jesus, and the examples of the people around us, we can put together some good advice and guidance about what it means to live as those “in Christ” in the here and now.