01/21/2014 01:06 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2014

The Bible Lesson You Might Have Missed

"[The high priest] can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness..." --Hebrews 5:2

"Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night..." --John 3:1 -2

I read these verses the other day and wondered again whether, for many years, I'd missed something key to the Bible.

The genius of the Church's lectionary -- its fixed daily cycle of Bible readings -- is that it puts together unrelated passages and lets them talk to one another. In the process, interesting insights pop up, even in passages you've read 100 times.

It happened again earlier this week, when the two verses at the beginning of this article got thrown together. I've always thought of high priests as imposing figures, grandly offering a goat or bull on the high altar of ancient Judaism's most holy place. Jesus, for me, is less imposing but still sensational and very public, healing the sick, raising the dead, drawing crowds of thousands, clashing with the powers that be.

These scriptures reveal something entirely different. They are almost tender. In the passage from Hebrews, I can imagine an "ignorant and wayward" soul confessing his struggles and the high priest saying, "Oh, I hate it when that happens." Empathy.

Nicodemus's night visit to Jesus is not exactly empathic, but there is an intimacy to the setting. It is a tête-à-tête: Not a Sermon on the Mount, not a raising of Lazarus, but a private conversation between people who have studied God.

Most of all, these two passages feel like something any of us might do. Empathize with someone's vulnerability. Meet a friend in a safe place. Exchange ideas. Even argue a little. We recognize them as human.

And this, I think, may be what I've missed, one of the Bible's greatest contributions: it teaches us what we are -- and what we can be -- as human beings.

The Bible teems with colorful interactions. We encounter stories of lifelong friendships and family bonds, treachery and murder, lonely prophets calling nations to be their best selves, genocidal peoples at their worst. We see reflections of ourselves as the baffling jumble we are: Noah as savior of all life and naked drunk; David as mighty warrior, passionate lover of God, ambivalent father, and conspirator to murder.

In short, it is a grand story of how people lived out their humanity through the ages -- sometimes to good effect, more often not.

Why does this matter?

For one thing, I wonder whether it makes the Bible more accessible to those outside the faith traditions it encompasses. It is not difficult, for those not "in the know" of Christian language, to be put off by the atonement theology in the Letter to the Hebrews or the cryptic sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Anyone, however, can read the stories of the Bible and draw wisdom about becoming more human.

But why bother? We are human, so by definition we know how to be human.

Or do we?

Many aspects of Western culture suggest we have forgotten. In our splashy fixation on the mechanics of sex, we have underplayed its breathtaking spiritual beauty. In our preoccupation with electronics, we often forget to connect deeply with other humans. In our drive toward personal wealth, we have neglected to care for those who are poor and oppressed and alone. In our obsession to "stay young," we miss the treasures to be found in aging.

Connecting deeply with others, caring for those less blessed than we are, accepting life and aging as they come to us: sages of many traditions have put their imprimatur on these as essential to being human. By forgetting or neglecting such things, we miss out on our own humanity -- and what our humanity might contribute to healing the world.

So we do need guides for being human. And surely, many sources from human history can guide the way, from the words of Buddha to the poetry of Mary Oliver. In the stories of the Bible, we find a treasure trove of wisdom on the question of being human -- which gives its pages relevance far beyond what we Christians may imagine.