By Pastor Nathan Clements American Lutheran Church, La Porte City
[Jesus] answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” ~ Matthew 4:4 (NRSV)
I have a bone to pick with Thomas Jefferson. When we meet in the great cloud of witnesses someday I’d like to sit down and have a good conversation with him. I’ll tell you why in just a moment.
As Christians I think it’s safe to say we each have an overview of the life and ministry of Jesus that comes to mind when we are asked the question, “Who was Jesus and what did he do?” Think about that for just a moment. “Who was Jesus and what did he do?” I would imagine that the story of his birth might come to mind. Born of a virgin, announced by angels to the shepherds of the fields, the visit of the Wise Men heralding him as a child king. The Easter story probably comes to mind as well. Welcomed into Jerusalem by crowds waving palm branches, celebrating the Passover with his disciples, betrayed by a friend who was secretly stealing from the common purse, put to trial based on charges that couldn’t be proven, demanded by the people to be put to death, and conquering death on the third day to defeat death and forgive sin once and for all. Maybe parables come to mind. The parable of the Prodigal Son; perhaps the parable of the Good Samaritan. Or, the story of the woman at the well. Or, the miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana. “Who was Jesus and what did he do?” Your answer to this question speaks volumes about your faith – your understanding of God’s work in your life and in the world. And, our answers will be at least slightly different from person to person.
There are strong, bonding commonalities in our shared understanding of faith, but ultimately, your faith is a very personal thing. It is a gift from God for you to understand, to live, and to share in constant conversation with God Himself. Your faith may not be easy, and honestly, it’s not meant to be easy. It’s meant to continually challenge you to live according to Christ’s ministry and mission, which very often stands in contrast to human desires and wishes. One of our greatest sins is our ability, our willingness even, to hear Christ’s teaching, but to not listen to it. This is where Thomas Jefferson comes in.
I mean no disrespect to our nation’s third President, but I do question his use of Scripture. Using a razor and a pot of glue, he literally cut out his favorite verses from the New Testament and pasted them together to create what he titled, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, later known as the “Jefferson Bible.” This collection of verses and themes represented, to Jefferson, his preferred understanding of Jesus and his ministry. It’s not necessarily that he was wrong. It’s not necessarily that he did something bad by compiling his favorite verses. Don’t we all do that in our own lives of faith? Instead, it’s that he didn’t have the whole picture. He didn’t tell the whole story. And when we are challenged by what Jesus says to us through his Word today, and we choose to hear, but not listen to him, aren’t we doing the same? I think this is pretty common among Christians today.
As Jesus said in the verse above, let us strive to live “by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” When we are challenged by Jesus’ words in Scripture, let that be an invitation to study, learn, and discuss our faith with one another. Yes, your faith is a very personal thing, a gift from God to you. But, as Christians together we must remember the whole picture, and embrace the complexities of God’s Word. We would be doing ourselves and God a disservice if we based our faith solely on our favorite verses or our preferred understanding of God’s work in our lives and our world. God’s love and work in our world always has been, and always will be, far greater than our limited human understanding.