Sometimes I’ve heard advice from well-meaning Christians that the best thing a person with doubt or unbelief can do is open up the Bible and start reading. And while I would never discourage anyone from reading the Bible, it’s passages like today’s Gospel and 1 Corinthians readings that would make me pause before giving that unqualified advice. Imagine never having opened the Bible, and as a modern, secular, critical-thinking person, the first two stories you encounter are a complicated recommendation about not eating meat, and a story about a demon. You’re bound to have some questions at that point, right?
Questions like, “What’s Paul’s deal with eating meat?” “What is a demon anyway?” or “How does any of this have to do with me, today?”
The answers would be, “it’s a long story,” “it’s complicated,” and “this might take a minute.”
See, so much of the Bible has been presented as these inspiring quotes taken entirely out of context as a way of helping to guide our lives in the direction of Christ, but when the Bible gets turned into a hatchet job of inspiring quotes, it becomes that much harder to understand when we actually go to the source. When the quotes stand on their own without any indication of where they came from, what the story around them is, who wrote them, why they were written down, and how they fit into the grand arching narrative of scripture, they can come to mean anything.
Take the 1 Corinthians reading. Paul was specifically addressing the older Christians in the Corinthian church. The meat they were eating was, like all meat to be found in the ancient world, from animals that had been sacrificed to the gods. The classical mindset was that if you ate that meat, you were participating in worshipping that god. But Paul praised the older Corinthian Christians because they knew these idols didn’t really exist, so eating meat sacrificed to them didn’t really involve worshipping them. But, Paul pointed out, newer Christians, who had lived their whole lives with that idea in mind, didn’t realize the two could be separated yet.
The problem comes in that these newer Christians figured if the older Christians can follow Christ and worship the old pagan gods—which was what eating sacrificed meat was as far as they knew—then they could blend their old pagan beliefs with their new Christian ones too. But Paul recognized the danger of that, and that if these newer Christians fell into that kind of thinking, they might abandon Christ altogether. If eating meat caused these newer Christians to ultimately abandon Jesus, then Paul declared he would never eat meat again.
So when Paul implored these older Christians to not eat meat, he wasn’t saying Christians everywhere for all time should go vegetarian. He was emphasizing that if something you are doing causes your fellow Christian to turn away from Christ—whether that’s eating meat, or getting drunk, or trolling people on the internet—even though it’s got nothing to do with your own salvation and even though you are free to do it, don’t do it if it’s going to cause your fellow Christian to stumble! Your freedom should never be an excuse to ignore your responsibility toward others.
Or what about this story from our gospel, when Jesus kicked off his ministry by preaching with authority and casting out an unclean spirit—a demon—from a man at the synagogue? Modern, critical thinkers have had a really hard time trying to talk about demons and demon possession in the gospels, and if this is the first story you’ve ever read about Jesus, that might be at the front of your mind too. How do we fit this story about demons into a world where, as far as we can tell, demons aren’t real?
More than anything, demons in the ancient world were used to describe bad things beyond our control or comprehension. Diseases like epilepsy or palsy that didn’t seem to have any outward cause were attributed to demon possession. Mental illnesses, happening in the mind, couldn’t be controlled or understood, so classical minds put it on demons as the cause. Miscarriage, blindness, even allergic reactions could be blamed on demons. But the unifying force behind naming all these things as demon-caused was that they were things beyond people’s control. They were too big to handle.
So when Mark told a story of the time Jesus started his ministry by kicking a demon’s butt in the synagogue, his listeners wouldn’t wonder what he meant by a “demon.” Instead, they would recognize that Jesus was uniquely able to take on those forces that were utterly beyond their control. Jesus could cast out demons—overcoming impossible foes—with a word. If Jesus had that kind of control, then Jesus was the kind of Savior who could be trusted with their lives. Whether you believe in literal or figurative demons doesn’t change that essential lesson.
When we open up the scriptures, it’s always important to pay attention to the context—what’s going on in the story around it, what’s the historical background, what’s the reason for this story being told. The Spirit has managed to put some amazingly diverse books in this holy book we read, literature as diverse as the poetry of the Psalms; didactic letters from Paul, Peter, and James; legal codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; even the kingdom’s propaganda in Samuel and Kings. A lot of these stories are confusing, especially so on their own, but that’s the beauty of scripture. God took these crazy stories, threw them all together, and calls on us to read them, talk to each other, study them and their backgrounds, and learn more about who God is and what God is doing for us through them.
Rachel Held Evans wrote beautifully of her own experience of how the Bible, despite all of its crazy stories, unbelievable miracles, and confusing lessons, poems, and anecdotes, still managed to capture her imagination throughout the ups and downs of her faith in her book Inspired. She called it a magic book that, even when her faith was cold as ice, still kept a vice grip on her soul and kept calling for her to dive deeper. When we get presented with scripture like this morning, I want us to remember that it’s okay if the stories are confusing. It’s okay if you open your Bible and just don’t get what it’s talking about. Because God hasn’t called us to read it alone.
Find the context. Find out about what’s surrounding the story you’ve read. Learn about the history of the symbols in the text, what it meant to the first people who heard it, and how it can be heard anew today. Talk with your fellow Christians about what they’ve read in it, how they understand it, what insights they can give.
Because eating meat might not make your fellow Christian stumble anymore, but something else might. And you might not believe in demons, but there are still forces in the world too big for us to handle. These stories may be confusing, and they may be hard to relate to, but I promise they are never irrelevant. So ask questions. Wonder what the stories mean. Ask God for help, and listen to your neighbors for the answers. Open up your Bible and start reading, and don’t stop when it gets confusing. God still has something to say.
Thanks be to God. Amen.