How did you feel about the story of the Good Samaritan?
Was it a familiar story that had a happy ending?
How about that Old Testament reading? Have you heard it before?
Did it make you uncomfortable?
Did you notice contrast between compassion for the man who had been mugged, and the threat of violence against the woman?
Here at Hope Community United Church of Christ, we like to say we take the Bible seriously, but not literally.
For many who have experienced communities of faith who do take the Bible literally, that "but" may be a very important difference.
- The movie was good, but too long.
- He isn't the most handsome guy in the world, but he's fun to be with.
- The dog seems friendly, but he bites.
Our slogan is inspiring, but... I'd like to suggest we turn it around:
We don't take the Bible literally, but we do take it seriously.
The Bible is often considered one book, but it is a very large collection of different writings.
Some of the books - like The Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles, for example
- may share an author; some, like Isaiah, may have multiple authors.
And the Bible has many examples of how to live, but can we consider the whole of the Bible as a manual for life, or as some say, "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth"?
For those of us whose exposure to the Bible is primarily the texts read on Sunday morning,
we need to recognize that many churches - like Hope on most Sundays - follow the Revised Common Lectionary.
This lectionary is a set of prescribed readings on a three year cycle. You might think the lectionary would cover the whole Bible in those three years, but it doesn't.
Left out of the lectionary are texts that may not mean a lot to us: for example, the genealogies or, as some may call them, the "begats." Also left out are some texts that are difficult to figure out, such as parts of Revelation, and some texts that are downright disturbing, like parts of the book of Judges.
In fact, the Revised Common Lectionary does not include the books I and II Chronicles, Ezra, Obadiah, Nahum, II and III John, and Jude at all!
The lectionary helps us to read through a lot of the Bible, but it leaves out some parts. And those parts are sometimes used in ways that harm people.
There are some very difficult passages in the Bible about women, such as the one in today's Old Testament reading, which is not from the lectionary.
What do we do with these scriptures? Should we embrace them? Ignore them? Wrestle with them?
Hope is a progressive Christian church, and I'm hoping all of us reject the idea of violence against women. We're not going to embrace these scriptures uncritically. Nor are we going to ignore them. We may not take the Bible literally, but we are going to take it seriously.
So perhaps we'll focus on what they're meant to teach. Clearly there must be a point the prophet was making. In fact, the prophet is talking about Israel not being faithful to its covenant with God, and worshiping other gods. So why did the prophet use imagery of violence against women?
For a couple of reasons:
This metaphor was understandable to the audience - primarily men, and this language held the attention of that same audience.
In Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets, Renita J. Weems writes:
Ancient men were deeply invested in talk about wives deviating from the norms and wives flouting their marital responsibilities. After all, promiscuity in women posed a threat to the social and property codes that were the basis of Israel's patriarchal identity.
So the prophets used vivid descriptions of something familiar and important in men's lives. The prophets used the customs of the time to graphically illustrate a point.
We also need to recognize that the cultural context informed the writing of scripture,
and the scripture reinforced the cultural context. In a society where property is passed down from father to sons, and where the man's control of a household is a major portion
of his status in the community, it is not surprising that such writings will reinforce behavior that supports these notions.
Of course, this was thousands of years ago. Society has come a long way since then.
The basis of the metaphor - the social acceptance of violence against women as a means of maintaining social order - is no longer valid, is it? Can't we just skip these scriptures as meaningless in our current context?
We might think they no longer hold meaning, but for many, they do.
In "Every Two Minutes: Battered Women and Feminist Interpretation",
Susan Brooks-Thistlethwaite writes:
... the metaphor of patriarchal marriage for divine-human relationshipis not one of mutuality;it is an image of dominance and subordination in that cultural context. Likewise, tying marriage to the divine-human relationship clearly divinizes male superiority in that relationship,Doctor Thistlethwaite is saying that using human heterosexual marriage as a metaphor for the relationship between God and humankind - or Jesus and the Church - turns male dominance in a relationship into something that is ordained by God. Can that really be true?
We may say these metaphors cannot be read in reverse, that we cannot say that the relationship between Israel and God, or the Church and Christ, are a picture of the relationship between men and women, but they often are read this way. Let me give you one example from my experience:
In a tradition called the Bible Students, with which I was affiliated about a quarter of a century ago, there was a question about the roles of women.
This was primarily among the young adults, as those senior to us seemed to have settled on the silence of women in the church and that women should wear headcoverings. But among the young adults - I really was a young adult way back then - the argument for keeping women in subjection was this:
"If we allow women as equals, then it distorts the picture of Christ as bridegroom and church as bride."
Let me rephrase that:
"We must continue behavior from an older cultural context because it was used as a metaphor for something important, and now we're stuck with it."
Renita J. Weems writes:
Metaphors matter ... because they teach us how to imagine what has previously remained unimaginable. In this case, the battered, promiscuous wife in the books of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel makes rape, mutilation, and sexual humiliation defensible forms of retaliating against wives accused of sexual infidelity.
In our Gospel reading, which is in the lectionary for this very Sunday next year, we have a story more familiar to most, if not all, of us: the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Should modern-day priests and Levites - perhaps pastors and theologians - continue to leave mugging victims to die along the way, so that a modern-day good Samaritan can have the opportunity to help? Can a pastor or theologian use the excuse "I would have helped, but it would mess up Jesus' story".
I would argue that blatant disregard for the suffering of another cannot be excused simply because it upholds a Biblical illustration.
Likewise, in the treatment of women in the Bible, we need to recognize that the cultural context of these illustrations made the illustrations work, but that doesn't mean the cultural context is God's way for people to live. We can only discern that such a context was prevalent and understood by those who heard it.
When we read Biblical illustrations that use violence against women as a picture of God's wrath against a nation - and we should read them - we should not assume that the violence against women is the lesson.
But we must also recognize that there are people who do take the Bible literally. There are men who use texts like these to justify their mistreatment of women. There are also women who use these texts to blame themselves for their own abuse.
And here's where it gets tough, people.
While we maintain our right - even our duty - to wrestle with these troubling scriptures to see how they speak to us as illustrations of relationships with the eternal, rather than to accept the scriptures as examples of the proper relationships between men and women, what do we say to those who do take the Bible literally?
Can we just say "you're wrong", as some of them have said to us?
Or do we just ignore the abuse and say "it's their belief"?
I want to go back to the story of the Good Samaritan.
We might assume that the priest and the Levite were keeping the law of the covenant. Some interpretations of this story have the priest and the Levite keeping to the opposite side of the road so that they don't touch the suffering man, in case he might be dead and by their touching the dead they become ritually unclean.
But the Samaritan was moved with pity - some interpretations say his guts were wrenched - and showed the man mercy. The Samaritan acted as a neighbor to the man.
In our case, when we see someone who is a victim of abuse, can we turn our heads away and say "this is not our business?" Can we be more concerned about our modern ritual cleanliness - our religious tolerance - than the suffering of another human being? In short, what does it take for us to be neighbors?
As "a progressive church whose mission is to witness to God's compassion, enable God's justice, prosper God's peace, and be God's presence,"
when there is discussion about whether rape jokes are funny,
when a judge says an attack is not attempted rape because the victim is transgender,
we must be engaged as people called to "unite personal faith with social justice, prayer with peacemaking and spirituality with action."
At Hope, we do not take the Bible literally, but we do take it seriously. Taking the Bible seriously means engaging the text, wrestling with it, understanding the context in which it is written, what it was supposed to teach, and why. We may want to leave room for different interpretations of the text, but we have to recognize when an interpretation is causing actual harm to our neighbors.
As much as we would like to reject these troubling texts, we cannot pretend they do not exist. We cannot pretend they do not matter. And we cannot make them go away.
Instead, if we are to be responsible as people of the book, we must take the Bible - and its implications for us and our neighbors - seriously.
But not literally.