January 21, 2001 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

Reading and Rewriting

Calum I. MacLeod
Interim Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10
Luke 4:14–21

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:21 (NRSV)

One of the giants of twentieth-century literature, the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, gives us, in one of his collections of fiction, a story about a book. A miraculous, fabulous, magical book. It is called the Book of Sand. The narrator in the story says this:

It was a clothbound octavo volume that had clearly passed through many hands. I examined it; the unusual heft of it surprised me. On the spine was printed Holy Writ, and then Bombay.

“Nineteenth century, I’d say,” I observed.

“I don’t know,” was the reply. “Never did know.”

I opened it at random. The characters were unfamiliar to me. The pages, which seemed worn and badly set, were printed in double columns, like a Bible. The text was cramped, and composed into versicles. At the upper corner of each page were Arabic numerals. I was struck by an odd fact: the even-numbered page would carry the number 40,514, let us say, while the odd-numbered page that followed it would be 999. I turned the page; the next page bore an eight-digit number. It also bore a small illustration, like those one sees in dictionaries: an anchor drawn in pen and ink, as though by the unskilled hand of a child.

It was at that point that the stranger spoke again.

“Look at it well. You will never see it again.”

There was a threat in the words, but not in the voice.

I took note of the page, and then closed the book. Immediately I opened it again. In vain I searched for the figure of the anchor, page after page . . .

He suggested I try to find the first page.

I took the cover in my left hand and opened the book, my thumb and forefinger almost touching. It was impossible: several pages always lay between the cover and my hand. It was as though they grew from the very book.

“Now try to find the end.”

I failed there as well.

“This can’t be,” I stammered, my voice hardly recognizable as my own.

“It can’t be, yet it is,” [he] said.
(“The Book of Sand” in Collected Fictions, Penguin 1998)

What are we to make of such a story, gathered here in church Sunday morning? A modern fairy tale? An impossibility? Borges writes in the tradition of the school of “magic realism,” where authors use the fabulous and the magical to say something about our culture, about the human condition. And Borges here is saying something about our relationship to books, to literature, to text. It’s a story about interpretation, about endless, infinite possibilities of interpretation.

Now this may seem abstruse or abstract to you this morning. Let me share a story, an example, something that happened just recently. I was meeting with a couple who will be married here at Fourth soon. We were talking about the readings for the wedding, and the groom-to-be particularly wanted a reading from C. S. Lewis. When I asked why, he said, “My favorite collection of books are the Narnia Chronicles.” Some of you may know The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the remainder of the series. He said, “I read them when I was a child and I enjoyed them just as a story. But now as I’ve been reading them as an adult, I’ve come to find and to understand the religious, the Christian, meaning which is underpinning Lewis’ novels of Narnia.”

So here is someone who has gone to a book that he had read before and found in it something completely different from what was there first. In Borges’ story, the stranger who eventually sells the Book of Sand to the narrator is himself a seller of Bibles. I contend that Borges is hinting to us, is offering us a suggestion, that this story of endless possibilities of interpretation is particularly relevant when we are reading the Bible.

The two stories from scripture today are both about reading and interpreting scripture. First we have from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah a kind of a model or paradigm for reading scripture in a community, as we do Sunday by Sunday here at Fourth. There is a movement in this story. First, the impetus to hear the law read, the scriptures read, comes from the people, it comes from the community, not the religious leaders or the priests or the scribes. The law belongs to the people. Just as Sunday by Sunday here at Fourth, we have the Bible carried in at the beginning of the service by one of our members who acts as beadle. The movement of the Bible from the back, through the congregation, symbolizes that scripture belongs to the people. It’s brought from the people and through the people and then placed, on the lectern, in the sight of the people, and from there it is read and heard by the community as they gather.

Nehemiah offers us an image of an inclusive community listening to scripture, for we are told that men and women and those who are able to understand gathered to hear the scriptures read. And the demeanor for listening, for hearing scripture? The people were attentive and worshipful. Attentive, suggesting to us that it’s important that we do close hearing or close reading of scripture when it is read for us in community. That we pay attention. And worship, because the way that we read scripture is to read not only for our own edification but to the glory of God. And then Nehemiah offers us this in verse 8: the Torah, the law of Moses, was “read with interpretation.” Read with interpretation. Interpretation helps the people to understand the scriptures, to engage with the scriptures, to encounter God’s law.

And the two results of this story? The first is weeping. The weeping of a community touched by God’s word in their lives. And following that, festivities. Eating, drinking, sharing the bounty of the community within the community. What Nehemiah is pointing us toward in this story is an acknowledgment of the importance and effectiveness of interpretation in the encounter with Holy scripture.

There are some in the wider church today, particularly those coming from a more fundamentalist background, who would argue that there is no need for interpretation, that scripture has a plain sense, as if anything that God is involved in would be plain. They argue that scripture has some objective meaning that is literal and just needs to be lifted from the page.

To go down this road is to find yourself in conflict with scripture itself, because throughout scripture we find stories and acts of interpretation: Daniel interpreting dreams; Amos interpreting visions; Jeremiah interpreting God’s word to him that he is to prophesy; Philip in Acts interpreting the scriptures for the Ethiopian; and Jesus interpreting scripture on a number of occasions, as on the road to Emmaus and here in our Gospel story this morning.

In a recent article, Walter Brueggemann wrote this about interpretation: “Interpretation is not the reiteration of the text; it is rather the movement of the text beyond itself in fresh, often formerly unuttered ways” (Christian Century, January 3-10, 2001, p. 16).

The act of interpretation of scripture, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is an act that takes us into risky territory. It places us where sometimes we don’t want to be. In many Protestant congregations and traditions, there is a tendency to teach scripture, to treat scripture superstitiously, as if it were some kind of talisman, something you don’t want to mess about with too much, just in case, like some character in an Indiana Jones movie, a curse is put upon you.

A parable for you:

In a desert country, trees were scarce and fruit was hard to come by. It was said that God wanted to make sure there was enough for everyone, so he appeared to a prophet and said, “This is my commandment to the whole people for now and for future generations: no one shall eat more than one fruit a day. Record this in the Holy Book.”

. . . The law was faithfully observed for centuries until scientists discovered a means for turning the desert into green land. The country became rich in grain and livestock. And the trees bent down with the weight of unplucked fruit. But the fruit law continued to be enforced by the civil and religious authorities of the land.

. . . Anyone who pointed to the sin against humanity in allowing fruit to rot on the ground was dubbed a blasphemer and an enemy of morality.

. . . In the churches sermons were frequently delivered in which those who broke the law were shown to have come to a bad end.

. . . Nothing could be done to change the law because the prophet who had claimed to have received it from God was long since dead. He might have had the courage and the sense to change the law as circumstances changed, for he had taken God’s word not as something to be revered, but as something to be used for the welfare of the people.

Ralph Klein, professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, writes that “the truth for one generation is only partly the truth for the next.” When we come here on Sunday mornings it is good for us to remember that. Yes, we encounter the Word of God when we read the Bible: the Word of God, not the words of God. Because the Word of God is first, is foremost, not a book or a text or an epistle or a poem, but a person. The Word of God is Jesus Christ. We find that truth powerfully portrayed in our Gospel today when Jesus interprets scripture in precisely the way that Walter Brueggemann suggests. Jesus takes the scroll with the old Isaiah text and moves it beyond itself in a fresh, formerly unuttered way, unuttered because no one before Jesus did, or indeed could, say “today this scripture has been fulfilled.”

“The reinterpreted text,” says Robert Carroll, late of Glasgow University, “is a rewritten text” (The Bible as a Problematic for Christianity). So we might say that in some sense Jesus is reading and then rewriting the prophetic text. This event announces who Jesus is, Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, anointed to speak out, to proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives, to proclaim sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed.

The time of God is today, says Fred Craddock in his commentary on this story in Luke. The time of God is today, and so we are called to be people of today and to encounter and interpret scripture in that context. Jesus Christ, says scripture, is the same today, yesterday and forever, and indeed so, but we are not. We are people who change our relationships, who change culturally and technologically and politically, and so we are like the man reading the Book of Sand. Each time we open it, we find something different. And this is a time in the life of our church for honesty about this, for intellectual honesty and integrity and faith, for it is a time when the interpretation of scripture is so often a stumbling block to the unity between and within churches. It is time for us to reclaim the today of the good news. Time to follow Bonhoeffer and say the question that we are facing is who is Jesus Christ for us today and to recognize that the fulfillment of scripture is not scripture, it’s not the Bible, the fulfillment of scripture is Jesus Christ himself . . .

. . . and to his name be all glory, honor, and majesty, world without end. Amen.

Sermon © Fourth Presbyterian Church


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