The First Deacon

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Rembrandt’s sketch of Jesus and Simon Peter’s Mother-in-Law

As I read my go-to resources in sermon preparation this week, I’m noticing an undercurrent of discomfort with the story of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s Mother-in-Law.  It seems to stem from a common misreading of the text, which has led it to be a straw-man argument for those would say that the role of women in the church (and, by extension, in the world) is in the kitchen, preparing meals, organizing receptions, and holding teas.  I’m not suggesting that this reading of the text shouldn’t make us uncomfortable.  It most certainly should.  Rather, I’d like to suggest that we shouldn’t allow bad exegesis the power it holds over this text.  Instead of throwing this story away as an example of 1st century subjugation of women, perpetuated, and later enshrined in the Church, I want us to read this story with the wider Gospel narrative in mind.  I’d like us to dig beyond our discomfort with the modern English translations, and do the hard work of understanding what lies beneath.

Taken as a part of the larger story, the story of Peter’s mother-in-law being healed and then “serving” Jesus and his disciples is really a story about the impact that women had on the Jesus Movement from its very inception.  Throughout the Gospels and even into Acts, we are told of the role that women played in not just preparing meals and tending to the needs of Jesus and the disciples, but also how they gave of their sometimes significant financial resources to make sure the ministry tour could continue.  The Marys, Joanna, Susanna, Salome, Lydia, and the daughters of Deacon Philip all play integral roles in the spread of the Gospel during Jesus’ life and well into the first generation of the Church.

In Mark’s Gospel, this pattern begins with the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, and it begins in a very specific way.  While the NRSV translates what she did as “serving,” the Greek word diakonai is where we get Deacon.  It could be said that Peter’s mother-in-law was the first Deacon in the Christian Way.  Well before Philip, Stephen, and the rest, she was set apart in a ministry of table service and support.  Rather than a text that can be used to subjugate the call of women into ministry, this story actually seems to be an invitation to see women as fully part of the Gospel work.

It is, of course, only a beginning.  Much in the same way this text is used to keep women in the Church kitchen, it could also be used to keep them set apart only as Deaconesses.    This could be the great unintended consequence of my reading of this text.  In my own tradition, I can see how a text like this one continues to have a profound impact on how ordained women are called to leadership positions like Cardinal Rectors, Cathedral Deans, and the Episcopate.  Because of where this text falls in the Gospel narrative, and because, later, Mary Magdalene will be called to Apostleship by the Risen Christ, I see this text as a way to re-frame the conversation, to think in bigger ways about how God’s call is open to all people, and to name and repent of the ways in which the Church has used bad readings of texts like this one in abusive ways.  We can’t let our discomfort with a bad reading of this text keep us from living into how this text actually begins to show us the dream that God has for the Church.

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.

Life is more than we can handle

Allow me a moment of confession.  With all of yesterday’s busyness, I didn’t take the time to read all four lessons for Lent 3C.  I read the story from Exodus 3, wrote a blog post, and moved on to the next thing.  So it was, with great surprise, that I realized that the Lectionary pairs 1 Cor 10:1-13, “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” with Luke 13:1-9, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  It will take me at least 24 hours to process how I will handle the glaring inconsistencies between Paul’s word to the church in Corinth and Jesus’ word to the anxious crowd.  I mean, yikes! Instead, today I’ll deal with the greater offense of 1 Corinthians 10: the awful paraphrase of verse 13, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

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Let’s be real clear, most of the time life is more than we can handle.  What Paul is talking about in this oft-misquoted line isn’t the sufferings of this life, but the temptations away from God’s kingdom.  If we’re honest with ourselves, most of the time those temptations are too much to handle as well, which is why the second half of that verse is the most important part.

“… with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

When life and all of its temptations become more than we can handle, some call that Monday, God is there in the midst of it providing refuge from the storm.  “God won’t give you more than you can handle” sounds an awful lot like “suck it up buttercup.”  “God is here to help you withstand temptation and to offer grace if and when you fail” is much better news, if you ask me.  So stop with the nonsensical, guilt inducing, pseudo-supportive, Joel-Osteen-Bad-Exegesis-Self-Help-Mumbo-Jumbo, and instead share the Good news of God’s steadfast love that exists even when life is just too much to handle.

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.

The Problem with Biblical Literalism

Every three years, preachers get the chance to chuckle at poor Matthew’s interpretation of the prophet Zechariah.  We laugh because we’ve all been there before.  In attempting to interpret and understand texts written by people who lived long ago in vastly different cultures and contexts than our own, we are bound to make mistakes every once in a while.  Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday is our cautionary tale.

When Jesus and his disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me…’ This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.”

Tradition tells us that Matthew was a tax collector.  Hebrew by birth, his education and working environment were distinctly Roman and his preferred language was probably Greek.  Whether or not you actually believe that Matthew the Apostle was also Matthew the Evangelist, the attribution of Matthew to this Gospel tells us somethings about the community in which it was used.  It was most likely a Greek speaking, Gentile church.  Their understanding of the Hebrew scriptures would have been limited and certainly come from the Septuagint.  Like many Christians today, they would have had little ability to understand the nuances of Hebrew prophetic poetry.

So when “Matthew” took Mark’s version of Palm Sunday and tried to spell out for his community why these details were important, he misunderstood Zechariah’s parallelism and read the prophecy literally, which meant that in order to fulfill this prophecy, Jesus had to enter Jerusalem on a donkey and her foal.

A rare photograph, taken by Matthew, of Jesus’ triumphal entry

In order for an evangelist to make sense of the Biblical narrative for his/her hearer, it is imperative that (s)he work hard to understand the original context.  It opens the text and allows it to come alive for modern hearers.  By seeing how our particular context differs from that of the original biblical story, we can begin to see how these stories can continue to speak to our lives even thousands of years later.  Of course, it takes time and energy to do that research, and preachers tend to have very little of both by the time Lent 5 rolls around.  I’m praying for my preaching readers especially this week, that they might have the time to look deep into the text and make the story of Jesus alive for their congregations this week.

*This post isn’t possible without the work of Carl Gregg on Patheos.