Last evening, I sat in my La-Z-Boy and read the entire gospel of Matthew in one sitting.
It was quite the experience, really. I first turned on the TV (for which I have no antennae, nor cable), and vaguely through the fuzz noted what looked like might be The Ten Commandments playing on ABC. Two teams I didn’t know (or care much about) were playing hoops on CBS. And the only other channel I almost get is what I affectionately call “The Big Hair Network.” I really wasn’t in the mood to hear some shinola-coiffed fundamentalist preach about how Jesus would heal me if I only sent in for his latest book (only $29.95! Call the number at the bottom of your screen!). So I turned the TV off and opened my Bible to Matthew.
I was originally planning on just reading the Passion, but for some reason began in 1:1, and just kept on reading until the end.
I’ve read the Bible so many times—I can’t even say how many times I’ve read it, actually. Even Habakkuk. Even Jude. My old leather-bound NIV is tattered and marked up over mark ups. Long ago I met Edith Shaeffer at L’Abri, who told me about her habit of putting dates next to verses in her Bible to make of it a sort of spiritual journal. I took on that habit, and have kept it ever since. One day, I’ll be reading some Epistle or some Psalm, and there in the margin will be the date long ago and a couple words of prayer. It’ll remind me of where I was, and how God answered that prayer—whether it be to change me, to change the world around me, or (usually) both. Sometimes I will stop and meditate a bit over how far God has brought me over the decades. In 1987, I prayed for that? Wow, I hardly even remember that being such a problem! I remember how God got me out of that one—thank you, Abba, for that answer, which I maybe never thanked you for before. And I’ll probably write a new date in the margin, with some thanksgiving note.
But about the time I left Spokane for doctoral work here in Indiana, I had gotten out of the daily devotional habit. I think it came along with being slowly shuffled to one side at my church. And then, whenever I tried to reinvigorate, to revive my morning routine (still not revived, but at least in traction) of being with God via Scripture, I would find a mixed bag in my Bible. I would see a lot more sadness in the margins than joy. And the verses, so familiar from constant meditation, seemed more hollow than ever they had been for me. I bought a new Bible, with no marginalia, in a translation I didn’t know so well. And into my NKJV I dove.
I hated the stiltedness. Familiar verses seemed distant. And I didn’t feel that “welcome to the story” embrace I’d always felt before. The devotional fell away again.
About the time I came out, though, I realized I had to find a translation unaffiliated with the premillennial dispensationalism in which my Bible upbringing was steeped. I needed a Bible without the cross-listing, without the dispensationalist study notes. I needed to read the Bible anew.
So I bought the Inclusive Bible. And I started haltingly towards my routine: reading every 30th Psalm (according to the date) and the Proverb chapter of the date, then moving into an Epistle. What a new experience! I left my pencil behind. I decided just to absorb for now—no dialogue, not yet. Just let God speak for now. Wait. Listen.
The first difference for little Protestant me is that this Bible is ordered differently. It’s a Catholic Bible, so my familiar knowledge of the books of the “Old Testament” is useless. I like this. No handicaps. I would have to hunt for familiar verses, should I wish to find them. But I won’t. I’m just reading, right now, just listening to the whole. And I’m reading deutero-scriptures, too—I’ve never read Tobit or any of the Maccabbees (nor am I sure I even spelled that right!).
It is time for me to simply sit, like Mary, at the feet of the Teacher.
So last night, I read Matthew. The translation is so different from what I know that every bit I read is fresh. I know the stories, but the telling is alive, personal, intimate. And funny sometimes. I had no idea how many times Matthew has Jesus saying “truly I say unto you”. In this translation, that is rendered “truth is,” and it comes across, after a couple hours of reading, like Jesus is just like one of us, with an expression he says way, way too often. “Truth is, Peter, you’re going to betray me.” “Truth is, unless you become as a child…” “Truth is, it will be better for Tyre and Sidon…” “Truth is….” “Truth is…”
I’m sure there’s a profundity to find there in Jesus constantly iterating he’s speaking truth. But I like the down-to-earth repetition, like I find in me and most of my colleagues. We all say some little thing way too often when we’re teaching. I have one colleague who says “right?” after practically every sentence—sometimes every phrase—he utters in a lecture. Another says “and this is key”, and I tend to repeat “does that make sense?” so often that I even irritate myself. And think about how many times anyone during the Clinton or Bush Jr. administrations has said “let me be clear” in a speech!
I don’t know whether Jesus actually said something like “truth is” all the time. But I like that Matthew has it that even God’s Own, the messiah, has a linguistic mannerism that turns up incessantly when he’s teaching. I can see the disciples, who’ve listened to his teaching for months, years, giving him a hard time, like I give Pat for saying “right?” all the time. I can see them rolling their eyes every time he says “truth is…”, even though they know he’s going to say something amazing or inscrutable in a moment. And I like that.
The Hollywood image of Jesus we’ve all seemed to absorb has him so ethereal and unapproachable. Truth is, he was fully human. And had the same mannerisms all of us teachers have. No wonder people flocked to him. No wonder I can read this translation of Matthew at one sitting. They’ve returned Jesus to the human realm, where we can see who he is, down to his idiosyncrasies.
Truth is, I got more out of just letting the Gospel wash over me than reading and meditating, than writing prayers and marginalia, than studying. There was Jesus, doing the craziest things, saying the craziest things. There he was again, feeding 4000 families what seems like just a couple days (it was just two pages later, after all) after feeding the 5000 families. And there are the disciples wondering about how to get bread when—only a couple paragraphs earlier—Jesus had supplied sufficient food for everyone and their dog. And there was Jesus saying the same things over and over to the temple leaders. He said that to the people on the Sermon on the Mount! And look here—in the synagogue in Jerusalem, right after the triumphal entry, he’s saying the exact same thing again—almost verbatim—to the faces of his enemies. Wow, he repeats his stories just as often as I do.
I was entranced. Entranced like I’d not been while reading my Bible for some years. In fact, probably entranced like I’d not been since I was about 19. Here is the teacher, in all his humanness, in all his enigmatic self. What to make of somebody who says these crazy things? Who seems almost embarrassed to have his steps dogged by a Canaanite woman, who outright says he speaks in parables because he doesn’t want some people to understand him? There is nothing to make of him: all there is for me is to get to know him again. So I’m reading Mark tonight.
Truth is, I can hardly wait.