“Higher Literalism”

 Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 Matthew 5:38-48

The title of this sermon is “Higher Literalism,” because while I’m not a biblical literalist, I am biblical. Preaching requires that I always speak carefully in response to the biblical text. I feel the steady pressure of the Church’s experience of the Bible in every sermon I prepare and deliver. Too much that passes for Christianity these days is like a Texas river, two miles wide and two inches deep. Shallow, superficial, silly, empty, hollow, a mere echo of the authentic truth of the gospel. And we hide this reality by making fun of intelligence and critical scholarship.

Low literalism is a way of reading the Bible “too narrowly.” It is an artificial ideology forcing biblical texts to mean what the literalists say they mean. The reader feels he is right in his dogma regardless of what the text is saying. Literalism, at a carnival, would be a contortionist, and the sure winner in the game of biblical Twist. Did you know that a crawfish gets where he’s going by crawling backward? Well, a literalist is the crawfish of the biblical interpretation world. He has his beliefs and then he looks for justification in the Bible. He goes to the Bible says, “That’s just what I thought.” I read the Bible and often I must say, “God be merciful unto me a sinner,” or “Oh my God!” or “Are you kidding me?” Or “Say it ain’t so Lord!” The Bible is meant to lead us to confession of our own sins rather than to condemn the alleged sins of others or validate our own suspicious interpretations. Literalism has caused a lot of pain and done a lot of damage to people over the generations since it raised its pointed head in our midst.

Our test case for how literal we should be is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, specifically the “You have heard it said . . . . But I say to you” sayings. Consider Jesus’ words on turning the other cheek and loving our enemies. As a boy, I was a member of the Royal Ambassadors of the Antioch Baptist Church. Our church was a breeding ground for biblical literalism. So here’s what our adult counselor told us in Royal Ambassador class on Wednesday nights: “Now boys, when Jesus says turn the other cheek, here’s what that means. When you are about to be in a fistfight, as you will be, always let the other boy hit you first. Then you get up and stomp him in the ground.” So I grew up with the vision of the Bible in my right hand and a good left jab waiting in the wings.

Isn’t it puzzling that biblical literalists and some liberals don’t want to take the Sermon on the Mount literally? They insist on Leviticus being literal, at least the part they think is about homosexuality but not the part that prohibits the eating of shrimp and pork chops. They insist on Genesis 1-3 being literal, but can instantly give you five reasons why Jesus didn’t literally mean for his followers to give away all their money and follow him. They insist that our planet is only 8,000 years old in complete disdain for the overwhelming scientific evidence that our universe is billions of years old. But literalists balk at the Sermon on the Mount, retreat in unison at turning the other cheek, and then hem and haw about what it could possibly mean to love enemies. It seems that literalism lacks the courage to take all of Scripture literally and in so doing fails to take the Bible seriously.

What does the world say? The world is that entity organized in opposition to Jesus: all the institutions, powers, nations, peoples, social media, entertainment that oppose God’s purposes of peace and praise. So this world of ours cries out: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Here’s a piece of irony: A lot of good Christians take that literally. I know Christians convinced this is a fair way to deal with people who hurt us. Buried in our human DNA there is a sense of the need for retaliation, even among the people of reconciliation. We are so fixated on revenge that the movie industry churns out revenge thrillers on a regular basis. There’s a list online of the 100 best revenge movies from Clint Eastwood snarling, “Make my day” to the Gladiator, Kill Bill, and John Wick. John Wick 2 has already grossed over $60 million. It’s hard to resist the desire for revenge, and since 911, for Americans, getting even is right up there with getting rich and getting laid as the trifecta of the “American dream.” The reason for our revenge is that the terrorists scared us and we don’t like being scared and someone had to pay for our fear. America thrives on revenge.

Revenge, it seems, is never off the menu in human relationships. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” “Revenge, the sweetest morsel to the mouth that ever was cooked in hell.” ― Walter Scott, The Heart of Mid-Lothian. “Revenge is sweet and not fattening.” ― Alfred Hitchcock. Muhammad Ali said, “I’m a fighter. I believe in the eye-for-an-eye business. I’m no cheek turner. I got no respect for a man who won’t hit back. You kill my dog, you better hide your cat.” Barbara Kingsolver says in Small Wonder, “The best kind of revenge is some kind of life beyond this, some kind of goodness. And I can lay no claim to goodness until I can prove that mean people have not made me mean.”

Then Jesus double downs on his teaching. Cultural wisdom insists “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Again we have the irony of good Christians taking this saying literally. It seems that literalists are more content taking the wisdom of this world literally, then the teachings of our Lord. So when Jesus says, “Love your enemy,” let’s not mince words: he means “love your enemy.” If literalists backtrack from this teaching, then literalism is a religious impostor. We don’t need more people insisting on revenge as our primary national foreign policy.

This neighbor business really matters to Jesus because he brings up the “neighbor” again in his story of the Good Samaritan: “Who is my neighbor?” Of all things, Jesus asks the question that now dominates the American conversation: “Who is the neighbor?” Here are the most important ethical questions in life: Who is my neighbor? Who is my enemy? How many of you are happy loving neighbors and hating enemies. There’s a lot of hatred in America this morning. Anti-Semitism is on the rise. Attacks on Muslims have increased dramatically. African American church burnings have made a comeback from the awful 1960’s. What is fueling all this hatred? Why are so many Christians so angry? At least part of the reason is the fog produced by the hot air of angry preachers over the past forty years, a wilderness if ever I saw one, has taught people to be afraid and now that fear has produced hatred, anger, and meanness.

The neighbor questions goes back to Leviticus 19 where we are told that the neighbor is a fellow Israelite – “your kin” and “your people.” Yet in that same chapter – chapter 19 – the later editor has inserted “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. 35You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity.”

Do you see that Jesus goes with verse 34?

Wednesday morning, on the flight from Atlanta to Peoria, I was reading a volume of William Coffin’s sermons, minding my own business. The young man seated next to me asked, “What denomination is that preacher?” I knew I was stuck but I answered and then the young man told me that he was a Christian and proceeded to march me through what I consider a literalist hell. He told me that Jesus was a lamb the first time but he was coming back as a warrior to destroy the second time. He told me that God killed people in the Bible as judgment. He danced from Genesis to Revelation and finally landed on his conviction that women should not be pastors. He insisted that St. Paul taught that women should be quiet in church. On a roll, he told me that wives should submit to their husbands. “How’s that working out for you,” I asked. He said he had been divorced 3 times. I thought that flight would never end. Just so you will not be nervous, I was kind to my fellow passenger. I did ask him what he thought about Mary Magdalene being the first witness to the resurrection and about Phoebe being a deacon in the church and Priscilla being a preacher/evangelist. And maybe I said something about Paul’s recommendation on the role of women was part and parcel of the pagan culture of the first century and that women in ministry in the first century NT church was in line with God’s will, but that by the second century the power-hungry men had seized the authority and for the next 19 centuries there were only men clergy. I might have mentioned that it seemed strange to me that God, always in the need of more workers in the field, would have limited the call to only one half of the population. But all in all, I treated him with respect, but I wanted to poke him in the eye.

Reading Scripture is not a mindless exercise in just taking the words on the text and squeezing them through the meat grinder of literalism. Reading Scripture is not intended to give us ammunition to condemn others with unsparing literalism; but intended to lead us to repentance. We can’t just read proof texts; we need the texts that make us squirm. We need to let the Bible read our lives and then we change accordingly. I call this kind of reading higher literalism.

I am pushing for a higher, holier, tougher literalism designed to lead us to repentance rather than ranting and raving about punishing and hurting others with our Bible verses. I think that literalism is tacky. The word means ugly, no style, no class. I think we have too much class, too much character, and too much style to go on sinking to the crude level of death practiced in biblical literalism – a metaphor used to force everyone to kowtow to certain readings of Scripture.

I would be remiss if I didn’t offer you a real life example of how the text can be read from a “higher literalism.” With a nod to Presidents’ Day, I can think of no higher and nobler example President Abraham Lincoln. After the Civil War, President Lincoln came out forcefully for amnesty. His compassion led him to the biblical insight that enough pain had already been endured on both sides. Therefore, not a single soldier or officer who wore the grey – not even Robert E. Lee – not a one was punished for breaking the law. With the Radical Republicans screaming for revenge and punishment, Lincoln said of the Southern states, “Finding themselves safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad.” “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”