Periodically I am in a conversation about a contemporary neuralgic issue of one type or another, and someone suggests returning to the Gospel for direction. Obviously that is an important point and compelling as well, but not quite as simple as it may initially sound.
The Gospel is framed as reflection of and witness to the basic human (and therefore religious) questions of the ancient world. Those issues may be fundamental and perennial, but the ancient world is not always like our own, and the questions of our age may not find ready answers in the sacred writings of the first century. For example, the individualism of our age simply does not fit well into a world which presumed the greater importance of the community and the common good. As Americans we certainly need that social corrective, but the questions of our age do not find ready solutions without some mental adjustment.
Moreover, each affirmation from the Scriptures seems almost invariably to require some other biblical statement to provide necessary nuance and balance. The full truth of the matter cannot be captured in any single text. In fact, I have often insisted that a workable definition of heresy would be any spirituality or theology built entirely on a single verse. The very fact that many “mini-books” in the Bible are bound together into a single inspired volume forces them to speak to each other as well as to the modern reader.
In the Sermon of the Mount, for example, we are instructed to “offer no resistance to anyone who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Matt 5:39). Nonviolence and prayer for one’s persecutors is a Gospel value, but never at the expense of one’s life or health! Those held hostage by domestic abuse should seek freedom! God does not want children, spouses or elders to be subjected to harm.
Again in another section, we are told to “stop judging that you may not be judged” (Matt 7:1). The human mind however is designed by God to seek resolution to problems and conclusions. Elsewhere we read that Jesus scolded his listeners for making judgments about the next day’s weather, stormy or hot as the case may be, but being incapable of making a judgment about the right time (kairoV) for action (Luke 12:54). Tentative judgments about things or even actions are part of being a person with intellect and will … but definitive judgments regarding the motivations of others are dangerous and should be left to God.
We are taught to be “merciful” and compassionate like our heavenly Father (Luke 6:36), but God’s mercy is always tempered by truth and justice. One verse cannot cover all of life; love can at times demand tough love … strong enough to tell the truth which helps even if it hurts.
One verse is never a catch-all remedy or a complete response to more complex modern questions. Almost everything requires a nuance or two. The search for Gospel values needs an entire church with multiple gifts and experiences for solid guidance in a new world.