Sunday, 24 July 2011

Michal's Moral Dilemma - a strategy for reading the Bible

Between preparing these notes and preaching the sermon, the awful attrocities in Norway hit the news. In our services today we have been sharing in prayer for all those so tragically bereaved and injured. Our thoughts and prayer were with them.

News that the perpetrator of these authorities had spoken of political leanings and of a Christian faith, I found myself beginning my sermon by reflecting on the dangers there are in reading the Bible.

Some have read the BIble and based a life-time of commitment to the good. Others have read the BIble and it has inspired hatred and all manner of evil.

Everyone approaches the Bible with a strategy for reading the Bible. But that strategy is not always thought through.

I believe it is absolutely necessary for us as Christians to have a strategy for reading the BIble that we have worked out and worked through. In this series of sermons on the Old Testament I am drawing such a strategy from Jesus and the Gospels.

This evening I want to draw on Luke 10:25-37 and the conversation between the expert in the Law and Jesus that leads up the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and 1 Samuel 19:10c - 18a, a passage that tells of Michal's moral dilemma.

From those two passages, I believe, we can glean the makings of an approach to reading the BIble that values its authority, its inspiration and draws on the inspiration of Jesus, and yet at the same time faces its difficulties.

In it all I want to explore how we arrive at a decision about what is right and wrong.

How do we decide what is right and what is wrong?

One way, and it has a certain attractiveness to it, is to suggest that there must be a set of principles that are timeless, unbreakable, that in all circumstances must be adhered to.

There is something attractive to such a proposition.

It simplifies matters. It sees things in black and white. And it is no bad thing in the face of corruption, wrong on a large scale, to see things clearly.

A lot of people are attracted to such an approach and find those clear principles in a religion that sees things in black and white and sticks to the letter of the law, the word of the Bible.

So, take a command, take any command. It is written in the Bible. That’s what the Bible says. It must be adhered to. End of story.

I think it is telling that Jesus handles the Bible differently. Indeed, in handling the Bible differently he reads his Bible in a thoroughly Jewish kind of way.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan goes to the heart of the Christian way of life taught by Jesus, the conversation leading up to it goes to the heart of Jesus’ way of reading the Bible.

The expert in the law asks the big question

What must I do to inherit eternal life? What must I do to receive my inheritance from all those who have gone before me of life lived to the full here and now, life that is not bounded by death?

Notice the two questions.

What is written in the law? What doe you read there?

Those are two of the most significant questions to ask in reading the Bible.

What is written there. What is in the text. What do the words say.

But then, What do you read there? What does it boil down to? What is the nub of the matter.

The expert in the law is quite used to that approach.

He is clear … it boils down to two things

You shall love the Lrod your God with all your heart, and with all your sould, and with all your strength, and with all you mind; and yourneigbour as yourself.”

Other experts in the law might have reduced the law to another principle – racial purity, true sacrifices … but Jesus stands four square with this expert in the law – that’s what Jesus reads there too.

You have given the right answer.

Now then … do this.

This is what must be done to fulfil the whole of the Law.

The expert in the law then poses the key question. Who is my neighbour.

Then what Jesus does is significant.

He tells a story.

In Judaism it would be known as a ‘midrash’ on the text. It is a story that throws light on the principle that h as just been enunciated.

The reality is that there are different conflicting alleigiances. The priest and the levite face a moral dilemma. They answer the question about what you read in the law differently. For them it has to do with purity, the right sacrificial system. And so they pass on by on the other side.

Interestingly the Samaritans hold the law in common with the Jews – the Torah, albeit in a slightly different version. But it is as long. It is as complex.

It is the Samaritan who goes to the nub of the matter.

He recognises what is at the heart of the law and he acts accordingly.

The key thing is that we need to enter into the story. It is very easy for us to do that in a dismissive way. IN reality the Priest and the Levite were faced with major decisions to make – and to do as the Samaritan did would turn upside down the world they knew so well – a world shaped by the words and the letter of the Law.

This century has seen a massive rise in fundamentalism in many religions, not least in Christianity.

I believe the Bible is fundamental to our Christian faith.

But what I learn from this passage is that we must ask two questions of the Bible … not only must we ask, what is written there? But we must also ask, what do you read there?

What we read in the Bible will depend on how we read the Bible.

I also see that for Jesus the commandments are not enough. You have to think through how those commandments play out in peole’s lives and the best way to do that is to tell a story.

How do you decide what is right and what is wrong?

One way is to look in the BIlbe for the law codes, the rules and the regulations. The Bible says this. Therefore you must do this.

The law is simple, black and white. Honour your father and mother. Do not kill. Do not lie.

But sometimes we can find ourselves in situations where there is a conflict. It is not black and white. There are areas of grey. We need to put alongside the law’s demands, a story, a narrative, and see how sometimes there can be a very real dilemma.

One such story is the story of Michal’s Moral Dilemma – the story that is at the heart of Jonathan Rowe’s recently published book, Michal's Moral Dilemma It is in 1 Samuel 19:10c – 18a

David fled and escaped that night.

11 Saul sent messengers to David’s house to keep watch over him, planning to kill him in the morning. David’s wife Michal told him, ‘If you do not save your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed.’ 12So Michal let David down through the window; he fled away and escaped. 13Michal took an idol* and laid it on the bed; she put a net* of goats’ hair on its head, and covered it with the clothes. 14When Saul sent messengers to take David, she said, ‘He is sick.’ 15Then Saul sent the messengers to see David for themselves. He said, ‘Bring him up to me in the bed, that I may kill him.’ 16When the messengers came in, the idol* was in the bed, with the covering* of goats’ hair on its head. 17Saul said to Michal, ‘Why have you deceived me like this, and let my enemy go, so that he has escaped?’ Michal answered Saul, ‘He said to me, “Let me go; why should I kill you?” ’

18 Now David fled and escaped;

Jonathan does a detailed textual study of this passage and observes the structure between the two 'bookends' describing how David fled and escaped. The passage starts and ends with a similar statement. The second and the penultimate line of the story are similar and so on - it is a carefully crafted structure.

He then goes on to look at the culture of Michal's society and other cultures today and reflects on anthropological insights into the way the story unfolds.

He then also touches on Ethics and the principles behind arriving at ethical decisions.

He identifies a real and painful dilemma that Michal has to struggle with and suggests we should not under-estimate the struggle she is faced with. Maybe we need to realise that actucally within the BIble itself is every indication that we have to struggle with many issues. And in that struggle we need to draw on the insights of Christ, but more on the presence of Christ with us and the promise that the Spirit who is the inspiration of the Scriptures is the Spirit who guides us today as well.

Michal is Saul’s daughter and David’s wife.

Saul has turned against David and is trying to kill him.

David flees to the safety of his house.

Saul’s men are in pursuit.

Michal warns him that he must flee if he wants to save his life.

She helps him escape.

She then places life-size idols in the bed adorned with a wig of goat’s hair and tells Saul’s men that David is sick in bed.

Saul insists they carry the bed out of the house with the sick David on it, at which point Michal’s ruse is discovered.

Saul asks her why she deceived him. She tells him that David forced her to.

David flees and escapes.

We can read that story and simply say that Michal put her husband over her father and had a simple decision to make.

Jonathan explores the biblical text, the way ethical decision making is done, and the way different cultures have different practices, and suggests that actually Michal has a much greater dilemma to struggle with than we might imagine.

The Ten Commandments state: Thou shalt not kill. Michal knows that if she doesn’t help David escape he will be killed. To us it is a no-brainer. But in Michal’s culture there is a real conflict here – for obedience to her father, obedience to the king can very much takes precedence.

The Ten Commandments state – Thou shalt honour thy father and thy mother. This places an obligation on her to obey her father. That commandment then is reinforced for Michal by her culture which places great store by absolute obedience of a daughter to her father. That is made even stronger, when the daughter’s father is also King. The law, the culture, demand obedience to Saul.

The Ten Commandments state: Thou shalt not bear false witness. This too is a very powerful tug on Michal. Can she lie? Or can she not? Many cultures, maybe Michal’s included, place great store by telling the truth. Michal’s culture gives even greater priority to telling the truth to your father, and even more so when your father is king. But to tell the truth will result in the death of her husband.

What Jonathan suggests is that Michal faces a massive moral dilemma in arriving at her decision to disobey her father, the king, lie to her father, and preserve David’s life. What she decides to do goes counter to all the expectations placed upon her by her culture.

But this suggests Jonathan, is part of the theme of 1 Samuel. Hannah’s song right at the outset of 1 Samuel in Jonathan’s words ‘attributes to the Lord the power to turn the world upside down, to reverse the status of the powerful but wicked, and the poor but faithful.”

The way Michal resolves her dilemma is within God’s way of turning the world upside down.

It is not enough simply to ask, what is written in the Bible and identify the commandments in order to help us make decisions on right and wrong.

We have to go on to as What do you read in the Bible?

And then you have to put the narratives alongside the commandments and see how people struggle with difficult decisions.

Jesus gives us a very real indication of what is at the heart of the Bible when he says to the expert in the law that he has given the right answer.

What do you read in the Bible – love God, love your neighbour.

That is the principle that Jesus offers us to help us through the moral dilemmas that we can face. How important it is that love should always be there.

But the reality this story tells us is that in some decision making on ethical issues there is going to be a massive struggle. We have to grapple with our faith, wrestle with our conscience at times … to arrive at God’s way for us.

The Bible is fundamental to that – but it needs us to reflect on the way we are going to read it, if we are to be true to Jesus and follow in his footsteps.

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