Friday, November 21, 2008

An Inconvenient Hermenutic

Friday is my sermon writing day, and as usual I've been writing paragraphs, deleting them completely, rewriting them, deleting, (lather, rinse, repeat, if you will)...

This particular sermon should be a fairly easy one for me. This Sunday is Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday in the lectionary cycle, and the gospel passage for this week is Matthew 25:31-46, which is the very famous "Sheep and Goats" passage from Jesus' final discourse in Matthew's gospel.

This should be easy because this is one of my favorite passages and it allows me to go off on one of my favorite rants against holding up some kind of confessional act (the "sinner's prayer", etc.) as the measuring stick for salvation. This passage contains the only last judgment scene in the New Testament, and there isn't a hint of confessional orthodoxy in it. Instead, the chief difference between the sheep and the goats is how much they went out of their way to help those who are most vulnerable and have been left behind by the rest of society.

That should give me more than enough license to preach a sermon where I thumb my nose at my friends in the personal salvation camp and tell people to get off their butts and start serving the poor. And my sermon will no doubt contain some elements of that.

But I'm starting to wonder if I like this passage a little too much. I know, I know, it's not possible to like the Bible too much, blah blah blah. Hear me out.

I like this passage so much that I'm all too eager to shove it in the face of someone who has a different viewpoint than me. When I do that I'm guilty of the kind of thing that pisses me off when I see other people shoving Leviticus 18:22 in my face to "prove" that homosexuality is a sin or throwing John 14:6 in my face to "prove" that everyone who doesn't accept Christ goes to Hell when they die.

In other words, I'm all too happy to proof-text Matthew 25.

Proof-texting is always a bad idea because it shows that you're not critically engaging a text, and that you're cherry picking  your favorite verses to buttress your own previously held viewpoints. When you proof-text, the Bible becomes one more bloody glove in your evidence pile. It also suggests that you view the Bible as a list of commands handed down from God instead of the witness of people's experience of God in the language and symbols of their day.

So even though this particular passage communicates many of the things that I consider to be important in the Christian faith, I can't take the easy way out and use it as a proof-text. I have to interpret and preach it in light of the rest of the Bible, not just the stuff that I like. It's especially important that I be hermenutically consistent, even when it's not convenient. So I guess this sermon won't be as easy to write as I'd thought.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Matt - Since you are open to re-examining the text, here's a different perspective on the sheep and goats passage.