The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are filled with difficult sayings and teachings.
In today's Gospel from St.John we hear...“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you...[and then some of the disciples say] This is a difficult teaching, who can accept it?”
In today's New Testament reading from the letter to the Ephesians we hear "wives, submit yourselves to your husbands."
How do we deal with difficult Scriptural teaching? Do we read the Bible literally? Or do we read it in its cultural and historical context?
I know my wife is certainly not going to submit to me! And that is because the Christian objective of freedom and equality for all has worked its way to fruition in our society over the centuries.
The cultural context for "wives, submit yourselves to your husbands" is from a time when women were understood to be property, given away and traded in marriage, and were indeed less important in society than men. Knowing that, what the writer to the Ephesians does is actually take a step forward for the dignity of women when he says "husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her."
The bigger issue is how do we interpret Scripture?
In the Anglican approach is: Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.
We read Scripture in the context of a living tradition that has formed the Bible as we now have it, the same living tradition that continues to handle and interpret the Scriptures in every generation. Our use of reason is a very important aspect of how we interpret Scripture - what we teach from Scripture has to be reasonable. And Experience is the final component that we apply in our approach to Scripture. How does our human experience inform our understanding of Sacred Scripture?
Even with this approach, we still have two options to choose from when it comes to difficult teaching – Scriptural teaching that we don’t understand or agree with.
The first choice is to dismiss it (like those in the Gospel today) and throw it out as meaningless or irrelevant. The other choice we have is to struggle with the teaching or issue. St.Augustine of Hippo, in his book “On Christian Doctrine,” encourages this struggle with difficult Biblical teaching.
“We need to come to terms with the truth that it is only in struggling with the Biblical issues, in the light of the teaching tradition of the Church, and coupled with reason and experience, that the Holy Spirit will lead us into the fullness of Christian Truth.”
The easy choice is to dismiss it, the mature and life-giving choice is to struggle with it.
For those of us who can struggle with and accept the words of Jesus, be gripped by His Love and can enter into relationship with Him, we can say with Peter
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”