Monday, June 06, 2011

Monday in Week 7 of Easter, Year 1

Luke 9:51-62

Today's Gospel passage contains a fascinating episode highlighting the importance of understanding what you're reading by knowing something about historical and cultural contexts and the history of biblical texts themselves.

The lesson opens with the beautiful phrase, "When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem," a unique Semitic idiom expressing resolve. Jesus spent the majority of his ministry in rural areas around the Sea of Galilee, and so from this point the story proceeds both geographically and spiritually toward his destiny in Jerusalem, marking a significant shift in the narrative.

In order to reach Jerusalem from Galilee one had to pass through Samaria; Samaritans revered a version of the Torah and considered themselves the true descendants of the ancient Israelites, objecting to the temple worship in Jerusalem as a fabrication invented after the Babylonian exile. Naturally, tremendous tension existed between Jews and Samaritans (a recurring theme in the gospels), and the Samaritans were not inclined to be hospitable to Jews traveling to Jerusalem.

That, then, is the important background for understanding why Jesus was not "received" by the Samaritans. The brothers James and John - the Gospel of Mark tells us Jesus referred to them as boanerges, or "sons of thunder" in Aramaic - react to this affront by asking if they should "command fire to come down from heaven and consume them," referencing one of the tales of Elijah told in 2 Kings. In the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the preferred text of the Episcopal Church, Jesus "turned and rebuked them."

However, for this lectionary cycle I am reading from the Authorized, or "King James" version (KJV), in honor of the 400th anniversary of its publication. Whatever its scholarly or linguistic shortcomings compared to modern translations, it remains one of the greatest achievements in the English language and, for better or worse, is the source of the Biblical texts that most people recognize or can quote.

This is one of those occasions for which it is instructive to read multiple translations. Whereas Jesus "rebuked them," full stop, in the NRSV, the KJV says Jesus "turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them." (The NRSV puts this language in a footnote, "Other ancient authorities read...".) I would be interested to know why the editors feel the shorter text is the more authentic; presumably it has to do with the preponderance of manuscripts deemed more reliable.

We could wade deep into the weeds beating our heads against the proverbial wall at the idiotic intransigence of the folk who insist the Bible is the inerrant "Word of God," period, when the simple truth is that we have none of the original texts and the surviving manuscripts - case in point - do not always agree. Alas, it's a tired and unoriginal complaint, and one not remotely compelling or successful with the "inerrant" crowd. Criticizing fundamentalists for their lack of academic rigor is truly shooting fish in a barrel. Hooray for us contemplative eggheads who are interested in these sorts of complexities.

What caught my attention here is that the KJV is oft betimes the preferred translation of the fundamentalists, kind of in the same way that for centuries the Vulgate was the only permissible version of the Bible, even though not a single word of the original texts was in Latin. The NRSV indicates that Jesus rejected James and John's suggestion, but does not provide any further explanation. The KJV, on the other hand, has Jesus dismissing the invocation of divine violence against sinners and saying, "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of," implying that what James and John think is righteous is actually demonic. This is, sadly, one of the things that is least understood about the Devil; we are not enticed to do "evil" things, we just become confused. Little wonder that the serpent tempted us with the fruit of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that we might become like God. One of the Enemy's most successful strategies - sadly illustrated by centuries of church history - is suggesting to us and thereby convincing us that acts of dire evil are actually God's will. And this power of darkness is not merely aimed at those who are weak in faith or poor in theology; this is James and John, for goodness' sake. That should be a warning to us all.

What makes the story even more interesting is that this is not some random idea the brothers came up with; they are inspired by the story of Elijah, who in fact did successfully call down fire from heaven against a hostile army. There is, so to speak, biblical precedent for their suggestion.

Jesus then goes on to say that he did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them.

Do you ever get the feeling that folks like Pat Robertson would just love to call down divine fire on people who believe different things than he does? Bible, Bible, Bible...that's all a lot of these "Christian" extremists can talk about, and yet their referencing of it is so selective as to be comical, if it weren't so painfully serious. You can, like James and John, find plenty of Biblical support for praying for violence against sinners or enemies; the psalms are full of imprecations. But here's Jesus saying bluntly, "That's not what I'm about." And still we get "Christians" referencing Psalm 109 - "Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow" - on anti-Obama t-shirts and bumper stickers. In fact, much of the Evangelical culture is built around this heretical and unbiblical notion that Jesus is coming back precisely in order to rain fire down upon the unorthodox and the unbelievers.

The only way to arrive at such a sick notion is to rip various verses from the Bible free of their important contexts, and string them together in a way in which they were not intended to be associated, and you have to completely ignore or deny a bunch of other passages.

As the saying goes, you can take the Bible literally, or you can take it seriously. You can't do both.

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