Rev. Mike Graves, Scholar in Residence and Minister of Spiritual Formation
When I was in seminary, there were days I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that what was being presented was a piece of trivia that would never come in handy, not in my daily life as a follower of Christ and not even in a Bible study. The one example that stands out is that during the time of the Judges in the Old Testament, the tribes of Israel were organized in a pattern some scholars refer to as an “amphictyony,” that is to say, a league of nations. Please try to curb your enthusiasm. It’s useless information, right? Well, unless you’re ever on the TV game show Jeopardy, and even then, I doubt it.
Over the years of my teaching at the seminary, I heard something similar from incoming students in particular. “Why do we need to learn these trivial things when people are starving?” “What difference will this make in the life of a couple in a messy divorce?” “Why do we need to learn Greek when nuclear warheads could destroy the planet this afternoon?” You get the idea. Fred Craddock used to say that preachers should imagine two little words stamped on the foreheads of every worshiper on a Sunday morning, “So what?” His point was that preachers should have a point, and that churchgoers should expect to learn something of relevance for their daily lives.
But this is where it gets complicated, as most things do. How does one decide what is trivial versus vital? What’s the difference between being a scholar and a know-it-all nerd? How, in other words, does one determine what is relevant? I think about this a lot, every time I preach and every time I teach. There is always material that ends up on the editing floor, so to speak. Preachers and teachers dare not throw everything in that they know. Please, no.
Recently in the Connections small group, we’ve been looking at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). As I write, this coming Sunday we are looking at what Jesus said about the Old Testament Law, that he didn’t come to abolish it, as many Christians think, but to fulfill it. Someone might ask, “So what if people continue to misunderstand Judaism and Jews? Does it make a difference in anyone’s life?” Turns out, yes, in the life of Jews today. One only has to recall the images out of Pittsburgh and The Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. I could imagine someone responding, “No one in our church would shoot up a synagogue for interpreting the Bible wrongly.” And that’s true. But a bad teaching in the hands of unstable persons could result in violence.
The biblical scholar James Sanders once wrote that he was grateful for the people in his life that taught him the Easter tomb was empty, but also for those who taught him that his head need not be. Amen and amen.