Herb Montgomery | April 10, 2020
“Texts must be interpreted in life-giving ways within communities that prioritize the voices of the most vulnerable in our society. These communities practice a preferential option for the marginalized and see every human as bearing the image of the Divine and welcome, affirm, and include each of us in God’s vision of love and justice for society.”
The loss of human life, our friends, family or even those we don’t know but are also connected to us a part of our humanity, is painfully tragic. At RHM, our hearts are with those who are suffering and those who have lost someone they love. A pandemic provides a unique moment for us to critique our present order or system and to begin both dreaming up and working toward a better way of organizing human communities shaped by justice, equity, inclusion and compassion for everyone.
In the gospels, we find a relevant metaphor for this process. The synoptic gospel authors used the metaphor of new wine being placed in old wineskins.
In Luke’s gospel, we read.
“He also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good.”’”—Luke 5:36-39
Over the next two weeks, I want to explore this process. We’ll begin with Jesus’ social vision and cooperative ethical teachings. There are two ways that I often see folks responding to Jesus and his ethical teachings today when something he taught challenges their paradigm.
The first way is continuity. In other words, they say that Jesus is not really bringing anything new to the table. If his teachings seem new to us, that must mean that he is correcting a present-day application of old ethics. This view gives the Biblical narrative an unchanging quality. Jesus’ ethics then belong to a consistent whole or seamless narrative. On the surface, this view gives some privileged folks a sense of security.
But this approach becomes problematic with scriptural passages that have been used to justify oppression. Those who have had the Bible used to marginalize or exclude them (women and the LGBTQ community) or enslave or eliminate them (Indigenous populations, Black people, and other people of color) find this approach simply does not work.
Bible-believing Christians in the Southern region of the United States in the late 19th century believed there was nothing wrong with owning other human beings as property. If we use the continuity lens, the best we can ever get from Jesus is a pat on the back that we now have it all right or a “tune-up” of our already smoothly running theological systems. Never do we become fundamentally different. The Bible or God simply justifies our already present dysfunctions.
Please note three things about the passage we read in Luke.
First, the piece torn from the new garment is incompatible with the old garment.
Second, new wine doesn’t work in an old wineskin. It bursts the old skin and you lose the new wine.
Third, Jesus was lamenting that when faced with an alternative faithful Jewish interpretation of the God of the Torah, the elites preferred interpretations, or “old wine,” that justified their privilege and position of power and their marginalization and exploitation of others less centered in their society. “No one who is accustomed to aged wine says the new is better,” he says.
Take a moment to dream what a world that operated in harmony with the values of cooperation, love, compassion, inclusion, and justice might look like compared, both positively and negatively, with our current system.
I want to add a word of caution here. It is not life-giving to interpret this passage as if Christianity is the new wine and Judaism is the old. That interpretation has led to Christians committing incalculable damage to our Jewish friends and neighbors. Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew. His teachings were not anti-Semitic and weren’t pitting Christianity against Judaism, but rather offered alternative ways to interpret the Torah within Judaism. The voice of Jesus that we discern in the synoptic gospels was one of many in Judaism describing what it meant to be faithful to the Jewish God of the Torah.
This leads me to the second way we can understand Jesus and his ethical teachings when they challenge our favorite paradigms rooted in other Biblical texts.
Consider these passages, for example:
“No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD . . . No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation . . . Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.” (Deuteronomy 23:1-6)
“Let no foreigners who have bound themselves to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.’ And let no eunuch complain, ‘I’m only a dry tree.’ For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigner who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:3-7)
There is no way to harmonize these two passages using the continuity lens. Notice, too, that neither of these passages pits Jesus against Judaism. These are two Hebrew passages that seem to contradict before we even get to Jesus and the gospels. How can we read these sacred texts and others in the gospels when we run into a discontinuity like this?
We don’t have to ignore problematic texts. We can be honest about their existence. Some texts can be reclaimed through new reinterpretations. But a few others, I have found, cannot. There are texts that support injustice, misogyny, slavery, war, capital punishment, the conquest of Indigenous peoples’ lands, persecution of Jewish people, and dehumanizing of LGBTQ people. We must begin to be honest about these passages.
We must also hold in tension our goal to interpret all sacred texts in life-giving ways. Some passages are easier to interpret that way, and in the gospels, Jesus modeled using these passages to combat destructive passages and destructive interpretations (see Mark 12:24-16). He did not ignore destructive passages or interpretations but met the elites’ use of these passages and interpretations with others that contradicted them and turned them to life-giving ends.
When we can see our sacred text not as a flat book with all passages being equal, but as a narrative, a story over millennia with the end goal of liberation, survival, reparation, restoration, and healing, we can hold problematic texts in tension with the overall arc. We can be honest about problem texts and how they relate or are out of place with the text as a whole. Texts that oppress and exclude should be contrasted with texts that teach the themes of love, compassion, equity, inclusion, and justice.
In this approach, we push texts that teach oppression and exclusion to the margins, and texts that teach love, compassion, equity, inclusion, and justice become normative—central to the life of a person following Jesus.
When we take this approach, we open ourselves to a Jewish practice of embracing the reality that within our text, the voice of Love and Justice mixes with the voice of the writers’ own pain and own brokenness, and the writers’ voices can be mistaken as the voice of the Divine. The writers, though inspired, were also human. Sacred texts are a mixture of love and brokenness, love and high ideals incarnated in the writer’s own brokenness. Sometimes the writer cannot distinguish between their own brokenness and need for healing and their own perception of “the voice of God.”
We have to ask what caused texts to be written the way they were. We also must be honest about the distance between our own culture and the cultures of the Biblical authors, as well as the distance between the various cultures of the Bible. Even some more problematic texts can be more life-giving when we see them in their own cultural context.
How do we discern where a passage is the outgrowth of the author’s brokenness or rooted in life-giving love, justice, and healing?
This, in my opinion, is the most important guideline in reading our sacred texts. We must interpret texts in community, but not in just any community: a varied, diverse community where our differences are celebrated. When we do this we realize that we are all equal and our experiences are very different. People who live in different social locations experience life in society differently. These experiences determine the questions we ask of our sacred texts and the answers we can find in them.
Texts must be interpreted in life-giving ways within communities that prioritize the voices of the most vulnerable in our society. These communities practice a preferential option for the marginalized and see every human as bearing the image of the Divine and welcome, affirm, and include each of us in God’s vision of love and justice for society.
When interpretations cause harm, we can make those interpretations give way to more life-giving interpretations. Again, some problematic texts can be reclaimed, while others may be unreclaimable now even if they may be reclaimed in the future.
I’ll close with two examples for you to contemplate that I consider being examples of the gospel authors’ contrasting old wine and new wine in their own Jewish contexts:
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:38-39)
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies. (Matthew 5:43-44)
In the gospels, Jesus challenged his listeners to bend their sacred texts and interpretations along an arc that leads to love, justice, equity, inclusion, compassion—life!
I believe we can do the same. Then, and only then, can we allow those interpretations and sacred texts to speak into our work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all, today.
It has been shown that we have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful and resilient than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”
We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time, and encouraging each of you to stay virtually connected and to practice social distancing. We can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. We ask that when you do go out, you keep a six feet distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.
This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this has proven. And we need each other during this time.
This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. For now, let’s figure out new ways to take care of each other while we are physically apart.
1. What are some problem passages in or interpretations of your sacred text that you have had to reclaim or find new interpretations for? Share with your Group.
2. From your time imagining what our world could look like, share with the group one way you wish our present system in the U.S. was different.
3. What are some ways that you as a HeartGroup can work toward making our world a safer, compassionate, just home for everyone this week? Pick something from this discussion and begin putting it into practice.
Thanks for checking in with us.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, working toward justice.
Another world is possible if we choose it.
Stay well! And if possible stay home.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week.