Earlier this week, I was sitting at my kitchen table working on my computer, reading an article on gun safety and thinking - unrelatedly - about when our landlord was going to fix our fridge. And from behind me, my husband, who was washing up the dishes, said, “Is this dishwasher safe?” And I thought, “That’s weird - there’s nothing wrong with the dishwasher.” And just as I was turning to ask him why he thought the dishwasher was unsafe, I noticed that he was holding up a plastic container. And in a flash, it hit me that he wasn’t asking if the dishwasher was safe, he was asking, “Is *this* dishwasher-safe?” And of course I started laughing, because only I could make a mistake like that.
What came to mind at that moment, and what is extremely important for understanding our readings today, is the saying, “Context is everything.” Context really is everything. The circumstances surrounding the saying or the writing of particular words is what gives them meaning. And unless we know what those circumstances are - unless we know the context of the person saying or writing them - we can’t properly interpret them. When we see an adult who is horribly afraid of dogs, do we think they are overreacting when a large dog passes them on the street? Or, do we know their context - that they were severely bitten as a child and needed surgery and stitches? When we see a teenage girl panhandling on the street, do we think, “Kids these days! Why doesn’t she go home and get a job?” Or, do we know her context - that even the streets are better than being sexually abused night after night by her father and his friends? When I say, “I can’t stand my kids anymore!” do I mean that I want Child Protective Services to come and take them away forever, or do I mean they’re fighting over who dropped the glitter glue on the carpet and it’s only two more days until school starts and boy, I could sure use that break and I love them dearly? Context is everything. Is this dishwasher safe? Or is *this* dishwasher-safe?
In the church, we see the need to understand context particularly when it comes to trying to interpret God’s commands to us. Our reading from Deuteronomy tells us that God’s commands are not to be changed or added to or subtracted in any way, yet in the Gospel we seem to hear Jesus, an observant Jew, saying to put the Law aside. Our reading from James tells us that only those who *act* on their faith are true Christians while Luther’s interpretation of the letters of Paul tell us that we are to rely on *faith alone.* We can only hold these contradictions together if we know the context behind their writing, and each book in our Bible has different ones.
But, you might say, isn’t God the same from day to day, from beginning to end, from now until eternity? Doesn’t that mean that God’s Word is the same no matter what the context? Well, yes, God is the same, in that our God is the Creator, and sent the Redeemer, and comes to us in the Sanctifier. But, our God is also the living God who is in relationship with us. And, as we know from also being living beings who are in relationships, this means that God changes. Our relationships with people changes us. Have you ever had a relationship with someone that, over time, changed some deeply-held opinion you had on a particular issue, whether for good or for bad? We change because we are responsive to those around us, and they change because they are responsive to us. And it’s the same with the living God who is in relationship with us. We change because the Holy Spirit lives in us, and God, too, changes from being in relationship with us. If you believe that prayer has the power to change things, it’s because deep down you believe that God is responsive and God changes. God repented of making humans in Noah’s time, and then God repented of flooding the world. Jesus changed his mind about not sharing the Gospel with the Samaritan woman after she challenged him. There’s a long explanation for why Christians have come to believe that God doesn’t change, which I won’t get into now, but the Scriptures don’t reflect that belief. Scripture tells us that God is living, and shows us that God changes, and most importantly, emphasizes that God responds to our contexts.
Which is why God’s commands to us change. Jesus said it himself when asked about divorce. He said, “Moses gave you this command because of your hard hearts, but I tell you...” Jesus understood that God had given a law through Moses at one time, in one particular context, that God was changing through Jesus at another time, because of a different context. God is responsive to our context. God is responsive to God’s relationship with us.
Now, I wouldn’t blame you if you are starting to feel a bit unmoored and as if you are floating at sea without an anchor. How on earth are we supposed to understand what God wants for us if there is no standard, enduring truth to the text? Well, for one thing, I’m not saying that there is no truth. The enduring truth of our Scriptures is that, out of love, God created us, that Jesus Christ redeems us, and that the Holy Spirit sanctifies us. The truth is that, out of love, God comes to us in the water of baptism and claims us as God’s children, and God comes to us in the bread and wine of communion and strengthens us for our journey. It’s what we do after that that is up for interpretation. How we live our lives as Christians *after* that depends on our context.
And here’s the thing - each person’s context is different. Which means that the way each Christian lives out their life is different. God’s word to each Christian is different, and each Christian holds a different interpretation of what God’s commands are. They all fall within that truth I just mentioned, and that’s how we know if they’re God’s words or not, but apart from that, they’re all different. But one Christian’s interpretation of God’s commands is no less valid than another’s, because one Christian’s context, and their relationship with God, is no less valid than another’s. Are Catholics less valid Christians than we are because they don’t ordain women based on what they see in Scripture? Are we less valid Christians than they are because we do? Are Christians from the Reformed Church less Christian because they don’t allow infant baptism? Are Anglicans less Christian because they do? Pride Week is next week - am I less Christian because I’ve marched in the San Francisco Pride Parade as a clergy ally based on my interpretation of Scripture? Are my dear colleagues in Calgary less Christian because they won’t? We come to our understandings of how God commands us to live because of our contexts. A Catholic’s context is no less valid than a Lutheran’s is no less valid than a Reformed Church member’s is no less valid than an Anglican’s is no less valid than an LGBT ally is no less valid than someone who is not. How I interpret God’s word depends on my context - my past and present experiences - and so it will be different than yours. And your interpretation depends on your context - your past and present experiences - and therefore it will be different from the person sitting next to you, and from the person sitting in front of you, and the person sitting behind you.
Because God is in relationship with each of us. God is in relationship with you, and the person next to you, and in front and behind. More than that, God *loves* you, and the person next to you, and in front and behind. In love, God considers your context when God sends the Holy Spirit to you, and when God tells you to do or not do certain things. In love, God responds to your needs as you are in your particular situation, differently from how God responds to others, because our God is a living God who is in relationship with God’s creation. God is in relationship with the person afraid of dogs, and with the teenage girl on the street, and with my children, and with me. God is in relationship with Catholics and Lutherans and Anabaptists and Anglicans. God is in relationship with LGBT allies and with those who aren’t. God is in relationship with millions of people and is responsive to millions of contexts, which means that God has millions of words for each of these individuals. Which means that within God’s very large community, there are millions of interpretations of God’s word, and sometimes even contradictory ones, because people have very different, and sometimes even opposite contexts.
The Bible itself contains multiple interpretations of God’s word, which is why it is such a source of strength and insight to so many who don’t share the same experiences in life. The Bible says that God is a judge. It also says that God is merciful. The Bible says that God is a shepherd. It also says that God is a mother hen. The Bible mostly calls God “He,” but there are a few places here and there where God is called “She.” (Yeah.) The Bible says that the guilty will be condemned. The Bible says that the guilty will be forgiven. The Bible says that Christians should follow Jewish law. The Bible says that Christians should not. Context is everything. The Bible says that Christians should follow Jewish Law because that portion was written at a time when Christians were trying to remain in fellowship with the Jewish community. The Bible says that Christians should not because that portion was written at a time when Christians were trying to differentiate themselves from the Jewish community. The Bible says that Christians shouldn’t eat meat from idol worship. The Bible says that it doesn’t matter, go ahead if you want to. And that’s in the same passage! Context is everything.
Now I understand if you might be feeling that this is a bit too much ambiguity. Am I talking about a safe dishwasher, or am I talking about whether something is safe for the dishwasher? It’s okay, though, to be unsure. Our God is big enough and deep enough and strong enough and loving enough to hold all of those millions of interpretations at the same time, because God loves each of us at the same time. God’s word to each one of you is different, but God holds the community together in love, and God’s love is, above all, what we cling to. The love shown to us in Christ Jesus, a love that goes deeper than interpretation and deeper than context, a love that created us, redeems us, and sanctifies us. Context *is* everything, and our God is even more than that. Thanks be to God. Amen.