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March 2017

Literally or seriously

I arrived in the US the day after President Trump’s inauguration. I was at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for two weeks for the next part of the Doctor of Ministry programme that I’m enrolled in. I was keen to discover what people there made of their new President. I think it’s fair to say that many of them are as baffled and apprehensive as we are.

One night at dinner one of my American friends made a comment that struck me as being particularly perceptive. He said the reason Trump was elected, when all the polls pointed to a Clinton victory, was that ‘the media took him literally but not seriously, while the people took him seriously but not literally.’

I’m not going to say anything more about President Trump for the simple reason that unless I tweet this article, it will certainly be out of date. The only thing I can be sure of is that many incidents and controversies will occur between me writing and you reading.

What I want to do, though, is to muse on the phrases, ‘literally but not seriously’ and ‘seriously but not literally.’ It seems to me that this is a good way of describing the different attitude that Jesus and the Pharisees had towards the Bible.

The Pharisees criticised Jesus because he seemed unconcerned with their rules. For example they asked Jesus, ‘Why are your disciples doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’ (Mark 2:24 ). In their attempt to take God’s word literally the Pharisees had created a whole list of rules and regulations that described in great detail what was permitted and prohibited. Jesus showed little interest in that.

Jesus response to their criticism was ‘The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.’ (Mark 2:27 ) He explained that a concern for human well being lay at the heart of God’s command that the seventh day should be for worship and rest. In their preoccupation with details they had lost sight of God’s intention.

The Pharisees complained that Jesus didn’t take God’s word literally - he was unconcerned with the details. Jesus response was that they didn’t take God’s word seriously – in their obsession with the tiny details they missed out on what it was really about.

I think we find this same pattern in many places in the gospels. The Pharisees take the Bible literally but not seriously. Jesus takes that same Bible seriously but not literally.

Sadly the pattern of taking the Bible literally but not seriously isn’t only found among the Pharisees. We can, and do, fall into the same trap. We become so obsessed with some detail or other in the Bible that we miss out on what it is really saying. We worry or argue about some minor point and overlook the requirement it places on us to love God and love our neighbour.

God give us the wisdom to take his word seriously that we may find in it the life he holds out to us and the direction that it offers us.


To see other messages from Neil, click on the appropriate month in the table below.

June 2016 July 2016 August 2016 September 2016 October 2016 November 2016 December 2016 February 2017 March 2017 April 2017 May 2017
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