The Lenses We Use

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Nick Cage is a National Treasure

I’ve read the lessons for Sunday three times this morning.  I tell you this not so you’ll think I’m Super-Bible-Man, but as a confession that I can’t, for the life of me, find something to write about today.  My sermon came crashing in on me yesterday morning in the last minute frenzy of getting kids off to school.  I came to the office, I wrote it and the blog post that flowed out of it, and now today, I’m left wondering, what else is there to say?

As I  considered what it meant that my well had run dry, I remembered the now eleven years of blogging that I’ve done.  That’s almost four full Lectionary cycles of blog posts on lessons that I read again and again and again.  Sometimes, the thoughts come easily.  Other times, I have to work at it.  There are even a few times when I work at it and the resulting post is nothing but a rambling mess (see also, Tuesday’s post).  What gives me the chance to write on these lessons again and again is that I always manage to see them with a different set of lenses.  Each time I approach the scriptures, I do so as a different person.  Something has changed in my life, even if it is only the date on the calendar, and a story that I’ve read a hundred times is brand new again.  The Bible is, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says, “living and active” in that way.

I realized this morning that my lens hasn’t changed much this week.  Sometimes, weeks are like that, I suppose.  Sometimes, we need to spend some extra time thinking on things we haven’t considered deeply before.  I’ve been privileged not to have to think much about racism and white-supremacy before, but this week, it is where the Spirit has called me to focus.

The lens will change in time.  It always does.  God does not allow us to stay in one place very long, but instead invites us to open the scriptures in a new and exciting way.  So, like Nick Cage in National Treasure, today I’m using this set of lenses to see what I need to see, and maybe tomorrow, I’ll flip down another.

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When the version makes a difference

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Aside from those who worship in King James only churches, the vast majority of Christians choose their Bibles based on no real preference other than maybe taste, ease of reading, and price point.  I have, from time to time, had parishioners who wished to buy a Bible as a gift ask me for my suggestions, and my choices are based on similar criteria, with the addition that I will always choose a translation over a paraphrase, ex. the Contemporary English Version is far superior for Biblical study to the Message.  The reality is that it doesn’t much matter which Bible you choose to read, so long as you are actually reading your Bible.

Note that I said “it doesn’t much matter.”  This morning, I found a case in which it might matter as our congregations listen to and we preach from Luke 13:31-35.  Towards the end of Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem, he speaks these words, which I found intriguing, “See, your house is left to you.”  I went in search on commentary on that text, assuming that Jesus was borrowing from an Old Testament source or maybe Luke had inserted a common Greek saying, but it seems nobody cares much about that phrase, except that somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, a word was removed from it.  The Revised Standard Version, predecessor to the NRSV which is common in Episcopal congregations, reads “Behold, your house is forsaken.”

There seems to be a considerable difference between “Your house is left to you” and “Your house is forsaken” or as other translations like the King James Version read, “Your house is left desolate.”  Digging into the Greek, the 1968 Interlinear of the RSV does not include eremos, the Greek word for “desolation,” and yet the English translation does.  In Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed., he notes that “The Committee judged that the presence of eremos in [several Greek manuscripts] is the result of assimilation to the text of Jeremiah* 22.5 or to the prevailing text of Matthew 23.28; its absence is strongly supported by [several other Greek manuscripts].” (pg 138).

This probably isn’t something the preacher would want to dive into from the pulpit, yet I find it an interesting example of those rare moments when the version we read really does make a difference.  In the NRSV, strongly supported by the Greek sources available from the second half of the 20th century, we find Jesus suggesting, in a very pre-destruction-of-the-temple-in-AD70 way, that God has left Jerusalem to its own devices; that if they want to find their way to the Kingdom, having rejected his long-standing invitation, they will have to do so on their own.  In most other texts authorized under Canon II.2, we find Jesus suggesting, in a very post-destruction-of-the-temple-in-AD70 way that because of their infidelity, Jerusalem has once again been laid waste.  Their desolation is the result of their rejection of Jesus and they are in many ways standing in exile yet again.

What version you read this Sunday might make a difference in your preaching, dear reader.  I hope you’ll do your homework, consider your sources, and proclaim the Good News of God’s love not matter which translation you choose.


 

*Thank you to  the Rev. Robert Black for helping me navigate the intricacies of the abbreviation system in the UBS Greek New Testament

 

What the Parable of the Sower Might Be About

It has been said that as soon as one thinks they’ve grasped the meaning of a parable, they’ve lost it.  This might be hyperbole, but I’m apt to think it probably isn’t too fair from the truth.  The gift of a parable, as I said on Monday, is that it is complex, nuanced, multifaceted.  I may find one particular meaning in the Parable of the Sower while you may find another.  Even naming it “the Parable of the Sower” betrays that my understanding of the story comes from a particular angle.  You may choose to call it “the Parable of the Soil,” but as I said yesterday, I’d think you were wrong. 😉

Many preachers find their understanding of this parable in the explanation given in verses 18-23.  This is well and good, but it leads us to talk about two dirty secrets of exegesis: things I swore I wouldn’t talk about once I left seminary.  The first is the Historical Critical method of Biblical interpretation.  Historical Criticism seeks to find the origins of the text in order to find the kernal of truth hidden inside.  In order to do quality Biblical exegesis, one must understand Historical Criticism in order to ignore it in the pulpit.  So, for example, most scholars argue that the interpretation given for the Parable of the Sower is not original to Jesus, but rather it was added by Matthew, building off of an addition my Mark, as a pastoral response to his original church context.  It can be considered sacrilegious and heterodox to suggest that the Bible says something that might not actually be true, so many modern preachers, knowing this information, skirt around it by being bold enough to suggest a different interpretation, thereby asserting that maybe the one attributed to Jesus isn’t the only way.  This leads us to the second secret of exegesis, we all interpret scripture differently because scripture is not univocal.  Again, in our interpretation from verses 18-23, we see that it begins with “Jesus” telling “the disciples” to “hear again the parable of the sower,” but yet once the interpretation begins, it is all about the soil.  So which is it really about?  Good preachers will explore both avenues before settling on their own interpretive angle.  Some will argue that we should be good soil.  Others will say that we should spread the seed of the Gospel.  Me, well you already know mine.

I think the Parable of the Sower is about the prodigality of God.  Whether the sower is God the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit changes over time, but the truth about God remains the same, God spreads his love with reckless abandon in hearts that are at once all four different types of soil.  No where is this more evident than in the lives of the disciples, who, as Elisabeth Johnson points out, Jesus invests in over and over and over again despite their hard hearts, stiff necks, and dim minds.  He continues to work at them, helping them to understand just what God is up to.  He scatters the seed of the Gospel with reckless abandon, and even when it is clear that they just don’t get it, when they turn him over to the authorities, abandon him in his hour of need, and deny even knowing him; he continues to pour out his love on them, inviting them to back into the fold after his resurrection.

God is downright foolish with his love for us, scattering seed indiscriminately and tending to soil that should have been abandoned long ago.  That is, I think, what this parable is all about.