Weightier Matters of the Law: Biblical Authority for Progressives

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Progressive Christian community here.

As someone who was long self-exiled from religion and the Bible, it took me quite some time—many years, actually—to become comfortably reacquainted with the scriptures. Biblicism—the worship of the book rather than worship of God—forms such a huge part of bad religion that my vehement youthful reaction to toxic Christianity included within it a particular aversion to the pious practice of assuming that all biblical texts have something useful to teach us. Even as a newly-fledged minister, I would often barely reference the "Ancient Testimony" (what, at New York's Judson Church, we called the biblical text) and base my preaching more on the New Testimony: often a poem or a snippet of an essay or article. Friends correctly observed that I preached like an amputee; I had forgotten Barth's advice to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. All I was working with was the newspaper!

What my overly-fastidious effort to distance myself from brainless biblicism failed to see for far too long is the Bible's own internal critique of bad religion. I completely missed how Jesus and the Hebrew prophets are perpetually at odds with conventional piety and conventional ritual observance, warning repeatedly that God doesn't give a fig for the outward forms when the basic alignment is missing. By alignment I mean an ethical alignment with God's expectation that we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. Now, much later in life, it is as plain to me as the nose on my face that the clearest and strongest denunciations of everything I loathed—and still loathe—about smug, self-satisfied rule-bound Christianity can be found within the very book that conservative Christians revere to the point of idolatry.

In the Hebrew Bible, the prophets are all at pains to say that honoring the covenant means treating the poor and vulnerable with special respect and care rather than afflicting the already-afflicted. It means remembering that the gift of freedom requires attending to the freedom and dignity of others. It means remembering that deliverance from Pharaoh's oppression demands that we also avoid the ways of oppression. Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah especially have savage things to say about people who imagine they can to draw near to God through ritual observance while every single day they are practicing violence and greed. Probably the best known of these oracles is found in Isaiah 58, where we read God's declaration that the only worship that matters is active compassion and active resistance to oppressive systems.

In the New Testament there is no doubt that Jesus is placing himself within this same prophetic tradition, even (according to Luke) opening his public ministry in his home synagogue with a rousing proclamation of jubilee, using Isaiah 61 as his text. But the case of Jesus is clouded for us by the fact that the editors of these texts, writing long after the death of Jesus and reflecting their own contemporary quarrels with Jewish communities, over-emphasize and overdramatize Jesus' opposition to the "scribes and Pharisees." That Jesus of Nazareth sparred with the religious authorities of his day is not disputable. Whether the texts we have constitute reliable accounts of this sparring is another matter.

I encountered this problem afresh when I checked the context of the phrase that I had in mind for the title of this article—"weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." The context is Matthew 23, a chapter consisting entirely of animadversions against the scribes and Pharisees (v. 33: "You snakes, you brood of vipers!").

My way of working with texts like these so as not to lose sight of the prophetic Jesus is to make it clear at the outset that the overlay of anti-Judaism is a real problem, that these texts are, in their own way, also "texts of terror." But I don't just leave it there. I extract the underlying principle about Jesus challenging all rule-bound outward religious observance. I tell Christian audiences to try to imagine Jesus excoriating moralistic Christians when he uses terms like "blind guides" and "whited sepulchers."

Having to extract the core meaning while rejecting unhelpful accretions returns us to the main dilemma facing progressives. Sooner or later we will make our own decisions about which parts of the biblical testimony hold ultimate authority for us. But this is never a solo decision; it is one made within a company of believers engaged with each other, with the texts, and with the Spirit. When traditional readings of a given text are rejected, it will never be a matter of believing whatever we want but it will be a respectful and reasoned rejection whereby the authority of a given text is judged by the example and teaching of Jesus and not the other way around.