Book, chapter, and verse was a phrase that I often heard our ministers and Bible class teachers say from the pulpit and in our Bible classes. We needed to have a verse for everything, because, we would often say if God commands it then that settles it. The men and women who helped form the foundation of my spiritual life spoke with assurance about the authority found in God’s words.
In 2004, I enrolled in a hermeneutics class taught by Henry Virkler, who just happened to write the text-book we were using in class. Dr. Virkler used a lot of the same words and seemed to have the same ideas about how to read and understand the Bible that my preachers and Bible School teachers presented when I was younger. He explained that hermeneutics is how we interpret the Bible and that we use different interpretations when we are looking at different literary forms. For instance, we don’t treat a parable in the same way that we treat an apocalyptic writing like we would find in the book of Daniel. Once again, I was struck by the logic and reasoning behind his words.
Even if you are not familiar with the process of hermeneutics, it is a process that you use every time you read the Bible. You use hermeneutical principals when you make decisions about how to apply what you have read. We know we are to read the Bible with an understanding of who wrote a specific scripture and to whom they were writing. We treat Jesus’ words in the gospels differently than we treat the book of Revelation or John’s praise for those who went out and did not accept gifts from the Gentiles in 3 John 7. While we try to be as honest as possible, one of our dirty little secrets is that we still pick and choose what scriptures are commandments and which ones we like to explain away.
Let me unwrap that a bit. In Matthew 11, John the Baptist is in prison and the text says that John sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask if Jesus really was the Messiah or if there was someone greater who would come later. While John was expecting Jesus to fulfill those passages from Isaiah 11 and 61 where the prophet declares that God would pour out His vengeance, Jesus pointed John back to Isaiah 35 where the prophet declared Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.
The next scene in chapter 11 we see Jesus talking to the crowd about John. He says the people were not happy with John who lived a life of self-denial and they were not happy with Jesus because He ate and drank. John the Baptist was not the only one to struggle with Jesus. Like John, the crowd anticipated a Messiah who would come on the scene and use His might to make the world right again. As the chapter closes, Jesus explains to the crowd that it is not just the mighty or the wise who are welcome in the Kingdom, rather the invitation is greater than that. Jesus says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” While we read this text and agree that Jesus is calling people who are tired and seeking rest, it is that little word “all” that gives us pause.
A few weeks ago I had the wonderful privilege of eating a meal with some friends. At that meal, we were joined by some friends of friends and that’s how I had the opportunity to meet Caleb Kaltenbach who wrote the book Messy Grace. Over lunch, he shared the story of how as a young boy he joined his mom and her partner at a gay pride rally. It was at that rally when he encountered a group of Christians who spit and threw urine on him. Apparently these christians didn’t think that homosexual couples were included in that little word “all”.
A few years ago, a friend of mine was attending a congregation where a man tried to place membership. The problem is that he was a convicted child molester who had spent time in prison. The church refused his membership because they did not believe that child molesters were included in that little word “all”.
We could tell story after story about people who were not comfortable around prostitutes, drug addicts, divorced couples, people of different races, women who aborted children, or whatever designation we want to use to limit that word all. These are the very same people who would tell you that every word in scripture holds the same weight, but their lives tell something very different.
I fully understand the need to be vigilant, I would never suggest a child molester be the deacon over the children’s program. I understand that there are people who sin differently than I do; they sin in a way that holds no attraction to me at all or makes my skin crawl. I understand we all have a desire to be with like minded people who share our racial, social, and economic situations. But more than anything else we are called to follow our Savior who came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). When Jesus called “all” that includes the ones who sin like you and the ones who sin differently than you do.
In Matthew 11, John wasn’t sure that God was going about being the Messiah in the right way. The crowd that gathered assumed that John wasn’t the right one to announce the Messiah and they assumed that this couldn’t really be the Christ. They had grown up with the Torah, they were sure of what the prophets had said, and Jesus didn’t look like what they expected. Almost 2,000 years later we still aren’t sure that God knows what He is doing. We read that Jesus said “all” are invited to come, but does all really mean all?
Not only are homosexuals, gender confused, those who aborted children, embezzlers, alcoholics, molesters, addicts, racists, gamblers, bigots, misogynist, atheists, rule keepers, and rule breakers loved deeply by their creator, they are included in the invitation open for all. This is not a new idea that Jesus mentions in Matthew 11; this seems to be God’s pattern even in the Old Testament. God has always welcomed people with a checkered past to find a place among His people and to eat from His table. The writers of Scripture included the stories of Rahab a lying harlot, Moses a man with an anger problem, Judah who got his daughter in law pregnant, Esther who spent one night of passion with King Xerxes, and a cold-blooded murderer named Saul were all people who many of us would have a difficult time including in that word all. But God not only welcomed them, He used them to bring about His will. That’s what God was doing in the Old Testament, that’s what He was doing in the New Testament, and that’s still why He calls “all” to come to Him today.
What we need to decide is are we willing to take God at His word? If we are willing to believe that God means what He says then we will welcome “all” into our lives, around our table, and into our community of believers?