Thursday, May 11, 2017

Interpreting (Unequal) Scripture: Listening for the Shepherd's Voice

What are the scriptures for?  How do we relate to these texts in such a way so to receive the abundant life that Jesus offers us?   That is why Jesus came isn’t it?  “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[1] 

Sometimes, reading the scriptures, it is easy to forget this.  Today’s lesson from I Peter is a good example.  It gets a bit right and a whole lot wrong.  It provides a meditation on the imitation of Christ’s suffering.  Just as Jesus suffered and died unjustly, without engaging in retaliatory violence, so too should we be willing to suffer, entrusting ourselves to God’s judgment.  However, the audience addressed by the text is not, in fact, “we” but rather slaves.  “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.”[2]  The lectionary reading conveniently leaves out this verse, which immediately precedes the passage we heard.

The text goes on in a similar vein to encourage married women to similar feats of patient suffering.  “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives conduct.”[3]  Not only should wives submit to spouse abuse, but they should feel responsible for their husband’s behavior in the process.  “He’d change if only you were good enough.”  What a load of crap. 

In fairness, the letter goes on to address a larger “we”: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”[4]  Hard to argue with that, except it seems a bit too little, and much too late.  I Peter draws on the image of the suffering servant in Isaiah and the example of Christ’s Passion to reify being a victim – “better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.”[5]  Hmmmn.  Maybe.  This seems to miss the whole point of Jesus’ passion and resurrection, which was not an exercise in celebrating victimization, but in revealing the mendacity and godlessness of the ways in which we make victims of one another quiet contrary to God’s will, so that we can instead enjoy abundant life together. 

Now, I don’t wish to scapegoat the author of I Peter.  He struggles with the question of Christians suffering persecution in a violent culture, trying to make meaning out of a difficult situation; situations where we often feel powerless and wonder if God is punishing us.  No, he assures us, sometimes good people suffer unjustly, just like Jesus did.  It isn’t your fault.  Just as God raised up Jesus, our suffering will become a means of righteousness in ways we can’t yet see.  The writer promises that “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.  To God be the power forever and ever.”[6]

Even so, I Peter falls short in its understanding of Jesus’ suffering and our own.  Reading it encourages us to explore afresh Jesus’ example and the suffering servant poems in Isaiah.  Is that what they really meant?  Not all scripture is equal, and scripture can only be interpreted in conversation with other scripture and in relationship to the community of interpreters.   We misunderstand scripture if we read it as a unitary text or even as a text that was meant primarily to be read.  As James Alison reminds us,

They have always been a series of texts which rub against each other in a constant process of mutual elucidation.  Thus was it before the time of Jesus, at the time of Jesus, and so it is now. Furthermore, the Scriptures were never designed to be a Final Version for a reading public. They were designed as a base text for public proclamation and commentary. That is: from the beginning, the liturgical function of explaining and narrating the “wherefore” of things, of events, of stories and of festivals preceded the production of texts. The texts are, as it were, manuals for preaching or exposition, helped along by their divergences, their internal references, their allusions, repetitions and contradictions. These allow the person doing the teaching to take advantage of the hooks, the hints and the bifurcations so as to get more juice from their possibilities, from the various “How would it be if...?” and so on. Which is to say that it is the performance which is important, because it is the performance which makes the story come alive and allows it to be applied to the “today” which is always the moment of challenge in any good Liturgy . . .[7]

The performance being spoken of here is not simply that of the preacher or teacher, but the performance of those of us who find ourselves on the inside of the story of God-with-us, our willingness to make that story our story and bring it to life. 

It is not so much what the text says that is important, but rather the interpretative lens of the people bringing the text to life, bringing it into conversation with the larger biblical, Christian, and human witness.   For example, reading this passage from I Peter in relationship to today’s Gospel reading, when I’m told to obey the voice of my master or my husband who is abusing me, I have to say that I Peter sounds a lot like the voice of the thief in Jesus’ parable, who comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy.  It doesn’t sound like the voice of the Shepherd, who comes to bring abundant life.  I don’t recognize this voice.  I’m not going to follow it.[8]

Notice, too, that the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep undergoes suffering voluntarily, as an act of freedom, in solidarity with those who suffer so that they will not have to suffer anymore!   He opens the gate so that the sheep have freedom to come in and out, to find good pasture, to be nourished and to enjoy life.  He releases the sheep so that they will no longer be sacrificial victims.  In John chapter 10, Jesus is using an image of the sheep brought through the Sheep Gate of the Jerusalem Temple complex, where you can check-in any time you like but you can never leave; until, that is, you are slaughtered as a sacrificial offering.

Who is doing the interpreting makes a difference doesn’t it?  If I’m a slave reading these texts, I must ask, “Where is the freedom and abundant life that Jesus was willing to die for?”  Or, as so many African slaves did in these United States, I might read I Peter in light of the Exodus narrative and ask, “If God freed the Hebrew slaves, why should I be treated any different?”  As a slave master, should not my conscience be seared by the realization that if I own slaves, much less mistreat them, I am complicit in the suffering of Christ?  

Even on the terms of the argument of I Peter, if slaves and wives are suffering unjustly in imitation of Christ, then those who cause their suffering are doing so in imitation of those who persecuted Christ.  This is simply a way of saying that there is no true reading of scripture that is not self-implicating, that doesn’t allow me to find myself on the inside of the story.  But where we find ourselves in the story can be quite different for different people:  it all hangs on our relationship to the victims of suffering.  Jesus enters into solidarity with our suffering in order to resist it, to judge it, and finally, to overcome it.  He does so nonviolently, but not passively.  He invites us to imitate him in his resistance, not in the making of victims, much less in some masochistic embrace of suffering for its own sake.

Not all scripture is equal, and scripture can only be interpreted in conversation with other scripture and in relationship to the community of interpreters.   Be careful what scripture you read.  You may not like where you find yourself in the story, because the community of interpreters includes slaves as well as masters, women as well as men, immigrants as well as citizens, people with pre-existing medical conditions as well as health insurance company executives, lay people as well as clergy.   As a cleric, I have not invariably found myself to be comfortable with where I find myself in the story.  Most of the oxen that Jesus gored belonged to religious leaders!  We cannot interpret these stories together without being variously liberated, convicted, admonished and encouraged by where we find ourselves on the inside of the story. 

It is, of course, Jesus, who is the interpretive key, but not just the Jesus back then and there; rather, the living Jesus present in the gathered worshiping community.  It is here that we read the words of scripture and wrestle with them together, confident that Jesus is present with us, and that this Presence is made known in the scripture and the breaking of bread.  We know that our interpretation of scripture is not completely off the mark, so long as it is productive of the kind of community that is able to share abundant life from its communal reading and enactment of the story of God-with-us.  

If our reading of scripture can’t help our world to be more like a green pasture, and less like a slaughterhouse, what good is it?  The truth of scripture is found, not simply in our interpretation of the story, but in how we live it together.   How we live it is, in fact, our interpretation of it. 

[1] John 10:10.
[2] I Peter 2:18.
[3] I Peter 3:1.
[4] I Peter 3:8.
[5] I Peter 3:17.
[6] I Peter 5:10-11.
[7] James Alison, He opened up to them everything in the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24,27b): How can we recover Christological and Ecclesial habits of Catholic Bible reading?”  Lecture for the “Voices of Renewal” Lecture Series at Corpus Christi University Parish, Toledo, Ohio, 9 October 2001.
[8] John 10:4-5.