*This sermon was presented at Albany Mennonite Church on October 19, 2014 to numerous amens!
I was inspired to read the Bible for social transformation through the influence of, believe it or not, an atheist. It was the early 80s during the Reagan years when the US was involved in conflicts in Central America. These conflicts had already been going on for a long time with the US backing dictators and their oppressive regimes. To address this political and economic oppression, the Latin American Catholic church created a new form of theology known as liberation theology. This atheist friend, who worked with my wife Iris, was interested in what the church was doing in Central America to resist the injustices and liberate the people from political oppression. An atheist introduced me to liberation theology. I am forever thankful to God for placing an atheist in my path.
One of the first books I read in liberation theology had a title that grabbed hold of my imagination: Thy Will Be Done: Praying the Our Father as a Subversive Activity. I was inspired to read Gustavo Guttierrez’ classic A Theology of Liberation and many other books on liberation theology. My new awareness led me read the Bible with a new lens and to get involved locally in the resistance movement against the oppressive US policies toward Latin American during the Reagan years. For me, reading the Bible for social transformation or liberation is a critical practice of interpretation of the Bible for the times in which we live.
Did you know that Jesus interpreted the Bible for social transformation? Jesus inaugurated his ministry by going to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. Luke places this story at the outset of his ministry so that it defines the character of Jesus’ mission. Jesus was handed the scroll of Isaiah by a synagogue attendant. Of all the texts to read from the scroll, he chose to read from Isaiah 61. He read this: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to…(anointed=Christ, Messiah) and the reading goes on to define the center of Jesus’ ministry as bringing good news to the poor, liberation to the oppressed, freeing those in debtor’s prison, healing those physically and spiritually blind, and proclaiming the day of God’s favor. That sounds like a politically conservative’s nightmare! The social gospel is good news? Lord, help us! O, but Jesus is not through yet. It gets worse…or better, depending on your social and political viewpoint.
Jesus also does something interesting by what he chooses not to quote from Isaiah. He leaves out the text that immediately follows about the “vengeance of God.” Jesus doesn’t view the day he inaugurates as a day of vengeance, but of God’s favor. I believe his omission was intentional. Jesus was creatively re-interpreting scripture through a non-violent lens.
So, Jesus read scripture with a mission and mindset for peace and social justice, the agenda of a prophet, things that are not on the top of our government’s agenda, and not on the agenda of most Christians for that matter. But, peace and social justice are at the heart of Jesus’ mission!
Then, Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. That was the position for interpreting the scripture. Every eye was glued on him, waiting for his interpretation of the text. Jesus looked around at his people and said: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. That’s his interpretation. Short and sweet. The prophet is speaking about me! Hold on Jesus! This sounds like the age of the messiah has come. Your fellow Jews are not going to like that. Following his interpretation there’s a rather surprising response….All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. What?! Did anyone hear what Jesus just said? Maybe they were just adjusting their hearing aids or just being nice, like when you shake the preacher’s hand after a fiery, prophetic sermon and say, “Nice, uh, sermon, pastor (gulp).”
But, the tone of their conversation soon began to change. Maybe what he said began to sink in. Isn’t this ol’ Joe’s boy. No big whoop. Jesus read their minds and said: Well, I’ll bet you want to quote that old saying “Doctor, cure your own family?” Do right here what you did in Capernaum. You can tell Jesus is about to get worked up into a fiery, prophetic sermon. But, instead he simply hands them some exploding stories from their own scriptures.
If you don’t like the words of a prophet, then you won’t like my words either. No prophet is accepted in his hometown. And here are a couple of stories of prophets to chew on for a while. There were many hungry widows in Israel in the prophet Elijah’s day, but God sent Elijah only to a widow at Zarephath, a foreigner. And there were a slew of lepers in Israel in the days of the prophet Elisha, but none were cleansed but Naaman, the Syrian, another foreigner. So, what makes you think you’re so special? Well, uh, American exceptionalism, of course?
This story of Jesus is a microcosm of the story of Luke-Acts with the gospel starting in the synagogue and moving to the nations. Nevertheless, Jesus’ own people had become blinded by their xenophobia, the fear of the stranger and foreigner. They were supposed to be exclusively chosen of God. So then, the smiles and back pats turned into angry scowls and clenched fists. They decided to take this radical Bible reader on a long walk off a short cliff!
Oddly enough, those in the synagogue didn’t appear to be bothered by Jesus’ biblical interpretation in which he seemed to apply messianic ideas to himself. Today this scripture has been fulfilled. Maybe he wasn’t being clear enough. But, what he said afterwards was as clear as a bell! Talk about God healing and caring for foreigners and outsiders over us? That’s blasphemy! (Even though it was there in black and white in their own scriptures).
Buddy, that kind of dangerous talk can get you killed. Saying “God loves strangers and foreigners” right in the middle of a we’re-proud-to-be-an-American house of worship can get you strung up! That’s as dangerous as shouting “I have ebola” on a crowded airplane. It’s like saying “God blesses Buddhists” in a conservative church service. Or saying “God embraces gays” at a Mennonite convention. It’s as dangerous as saying out loud at a fourth of July rally, “God loves Muslims!” Hey, Mr. Bible interpreter, let me show you the view from this nice cliff nearby.
Through his interpretation of scripture Jesus informed his people, right from the get go, that his mission was going to be about peace, healing, reconciliation, economic and social justice, inclusion of the stranger, foreigner, and outsider. He broke down ethnic, social, and cultural walls with God’s inclusive love. Jesus interpreted the Bible for social transformation. Are you still with me?
Jesus also read his Bible with an eye toward nonviolent peacemaking. What may seem implicit about peace by leaving out a part of his quotation from Isaiah, Jesus makes explicit in his so-called “sermon” on the mount. Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses, who proclaims a new law on the mountain. Jesus creatively re-interprets the scripture of his people for peace and social transformation. Again, he uses scripture to address a social issue.
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We’ve heard it and we love it. We love this law more than we love Chuck Norris! We love it so much, we use it in our justice system. Tit for tat justice. It is the law of lex talionis or law of retaliation, by which justice is meted out as the same degree of punishment as the offense. Except, if you’re a black man in the US, then it’s 10-20 years in the slammer for smoking a joint.
Believe it or not, this Mosaic law of an eye for an eye was a step forward from the cultural practice of unlimited retribution, which goes; Yous knock my tooth out and I’ll make you toothless! Kapeesh! Or you kill someone you get the chair, but no more. This Mosaic law put a limit on retaliation. Unlimited vengeance was the practice before the law. It is expressed by Lamech in Genesis. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times! Sound familiar? “How many times should we forgive, seven times?” asks Peter? Jesus said, “Seventy-seven times.” In other words, until it becomes a fixed habit! Jesus transforms unlimited retaliation into unlimited forgiveness. There you go again, Jesus, taking our violent social practices and turning them on their heads.
In this case, Jesus goes further than the tit-for-tat law, extending the trajectory of its movement, creatively re-interpreting scripture for the sake of nonviolence and social transformation. But, at the same time, Jesus is taking some liberties with sacred scripture in his interpretation. He is definitely not a literalist when it comes to his approach to interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus’ repeated formula, “The Bible says that…but I say this,” should cause any biblical literalist to pull out their hair!
In essence Jesus is saying, Remember Moses’ law about an eye for an eye? Well, I’ve got a better law. What? A better law than Moses, who spoke face-to-face with God? Jesus, do you think you’re better than Moses? I say to you don’t fight fire with fire, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, tit for tat. Instead, if someone gives you backhanded slap on the left cheek to try to put you in a class beneath them, stand up tall and offer them your other cheek as an equal. If your creditor takes the coat you have given as security for your loan, give him your clothes down to your skivvies to expose his injustice. If a Roman soldier forces you to carry his load for the required mile limit, carry it two miles and make him a little nervous about his oppressive practices. This doesn’t sound like being a passive dormat, but more like active nonviolent resistance!
Jesus goes on: The Bible says love you neighbor…and…uh…well we have interpreted the Bible to say….hate your enemy. But I say unto you, “Love the Muslims and pray for ISIS”…What? I mean, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. And if that wasn’t hard enough to swallow, Jesus turns God into some kind of bleeding-heart liberal who sends the many blessings of his creation upon both good and bad, grateful and ungrateful, black, brown, yellow, red, and white people alike. Do you mean God offers unconditional universal welfare? And if that still wasn’t enough, Jesus says that to be like God we need to love those who don’t love us as a sure test of real love. Why, anyone can love a red-blooded, white American Christian with proper documents.
Jesus Christ, what happened to an eye for an eye? Jesus Christ….that’s what happened. Jesus got hold of the scripture and read it in such a way that if it were truly practiced the way he read it, it would dramatically transform the social, religious, and political landscape of this here so-called “Christian nation” of ours and the world. Are you still with me? Jesus interpreted scripture with a lens of nonviolent peacemaking.
Today, as followers of Jesus we can interpret the Bible with a lens for social transformation. Yeah, but what about those texts we read from Ephesians about slaves and women being submissive to their masters? Those texts don’t sound very transformative. They sound socially backward.
I can almost hear some white person saying: Well, we ended slavery a long time ago. Today we’ve got a black president and Oprah Winfrey. The command for slaves to obey their masters with fear and trembling no longer applies to us. We live in a post-racial society. Besides, slavery in the Bible was different from US slavery. And slaves in the South didn’t have it so bad. They were treated well and were happy. Anyway, those texts are from a culture when slavery was considered okay. We no longer think like that. We can’t take what the Bible says here literally.
Well, folks, we once did! We once did! These slavery texts were literally used by Christians to justify enslaving black Africans not that long ago in US history. These texts were interpreted literally as God’s Word and used to keep slaves docile, submissive, and obedient to their masters, even the harsh ones! We ended up fighting a bloody civil war over our differing views on slavery! Thank God, the anti-slavery position won out and our society was transformed….to a small degree.
History and society may have changed, but did what the Bible say change? No. Those slavery texts are still in there. What changed was how the Bible was interpreted. Many black slaves, who had become Christians through their masters, along with white abolitionists, simply ignored these slavery texts or they interpreted them as cultural artifacts or they focused on other texts like God freeing Israel from slavery in Egypt (Go down Moses!). Or they turned to the Golden rule or texts about how God loves the whole world and is no respecter of persons. They re-interpreted the Bible for social transformation!
Most Christians today have taken hold of what were once subversive biblical interpretations by those who believed in and worked for the end of slavery. Today we nonchalantly say, “How could Christians back then have ever used the Bible to justify slavery? Unthinkable.” But, we must remember that these differing interpretations were once hotly debated. There was no one universal interpretation of those slavery texts that everyone agreed upon. The church was split over slavery, kind of like the church is currently split over how to treat LGBT people, as brothers and sisters or “foreigners”? And yet, today there are hardly any Christians that would claim that these biblical texts justify slavery, or even racial discrimination, outside of a few racist bigots. A social transformation took place that allowed the majority of Christians to re-read these texts in a new light, like Jesus and early church re-read the OT law. But, at the time of slavery, to ignore or re-interpret these slave texts was a subversive act.
Then, we come to the text in Ephesians about wives submitting to their husbands. I can almost hear the voice of a young woman saying, “My husband is not my master!” And another older woman thinking to herself, “I just skip over those texts in the Bible.” Another woman murmurs under her breath, “I never did like Paul.” And probably some man is thinking, “Well, the text actually says, right there, Husbands, love your wives like Christ loved the church. Where does it say anything about submission? Tell me that. Edith, get over here right now and show me where it says that!” These texts don’t appear to be very liberating for women.
Remember context from last week? These household codes in Ephesians are set within a larger context of ancient Mediterranean cultures, when women were not only to be submissive to husbands, but were considered men’s property. Ever been to a wedding where the father “gave away” the bride? This is a symbolic vestige of that old patriarchal idea. The father owned the daughter and transferred that property over to the husband in marriage. Otherwise, why would one of the Ten Commandments forbid coveting of your neighbor’s property; house, ox, donkey, and….you got it….wife! Ephesians may be a step forward by telling husbands to love their wives, but the husband is still the head of the wife like Christ is head over the church. You can’t get around that it still says: Wives are to be subject to their husbands in everything. My wife would disown me if I quoted this verse to her!
Well, along comes another historical moment of social transformation. The women’s suffrage movement in the 1800s, when women fought….I’ll say it again….fought long and hard simply for their right to vote. Blacks were free by then, but black men and women didn’t have the right to vote until very recently. At that time Elizabeth Cady Stanton and 26 other women re-interpreted the Bible with women in mind by writing The Women’s Bible, which was discouraged by Susan B. Anthony and denounced by other women suffragists. Still, it became a popular book. Then, a new wave of women’s liberation burst forth in society in the 1960’s. Women called for full equal rights. Christian women began re-interpreting the Bible with a women’s liberation lens, that is re-interpreting the Bible for social transformation, which continues to this day. And I suspect that most people in this congregation have been shaped to some degree by these movements and the Christian women who re-interpreted those biblical texts about women not teaching men and women keeping silent in the church. How do I know this happened? You see, I just happen to know the gender of your pastor.
So, whether some of us acknowledge it or not, like Jesus, we have practiced or accepted re-interpreting the Bible in such a way that it supports social transformation. While at the same time there are those who will continue to interpret scripture so that it becomes bad news for the poor, imprisons the captives, blinds the sighted, supports the oppressor, and proclaims the time of God’s vengeance. I say, let us not wait until society is transformed around us and then begin to read the Bible through a liberating lens. I say, let us follow in the way of Jesus and be proactive and intentional in our interpretation of the Bible and read it for liberation, deliverance, hope, justice, inclusion, peace and social justice, and to break down the walls of discrimination, inequity, and oppression in our world. Are you still with me? Let us do this until that moment when we can say with Jesus, today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing!
The Spirit of Christ is upon us
because Christ has anointed us
to proclaim good news to the poor
release to the captives
sight to the blind
liberation to the oppressed
and to proclaim the time of God’s favor! Amen and Amen!
There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s holy Word.