Parables: finding the kingdom in the mystery

by Sara Miles

Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

What is the kingdom of heaven like? In the parables, it’s like a tree alive with birds, a hundred rising loaves, a pearl, a net full of writhing fish. It shows forth in coins, a lamp, a dishonest steward, a lost son, a wedding feast. The kingdom of heaven is very near; it’s right here; it will come at the end of the age. The Kingdom is like the world, it is not of this world, it is the world. Parables are infuriating. Why is Jesus speaking this way?

I was talking with a parishioner a while back about how hard she finds it to engage with what she calls “Jesus-y” preaching. “Well, I’m pretty Jesus-y myself,” I said, apologetically, and then she gave me about the best compliment I’ve ever received. It was very parable-like. “No, I enjoy your sermons,” she said. “It’s like listening to someone with a rare and extremely interesting mental illness.”

She’s right. I’m crazy about Jesus. And I love hearing Jesus’ parables exactly the way I love eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

What’s revealed to me about God and God’s kingdom through the Eucharist and parables gets delivered in a way that manages to be both physical–– the detail of the nests in that mustard shrub, for example, or the taste of that yellow, sweet wine in my mouth –– and profoundly mysterious. In parables and in the enacted parable of communion, I find an overload of treasure, a frustrating excess of metaphors, a surplus of meanings. The most ordinary, prosaic gestures happen and happen again, and then time stops. Language starts out simple: bread, wine, a man, a woman.... then the words go off all over the place like fireworks, shooting up, blossoming sideways into unlikely shapes, surprising everyone into gasped aaahs, then disappearing into the night sky as you huddle together in the dark, looking up, trying to see more.

Why does Jesus speak in parables?

The parables are often paradoxical. They present as good something that Jesus’ listeners commonly thought of as bad –leaven, for example, a corrupting, rotten, sour thing that made flour dirty and unclean. They present as important things thought of as insignificant or bizarre: invasive, weedy mustard seeds, an ordinary woman baking a massive quantity of bread. They present values backward: people sell everything they have for something they find by accident. The kingdom Jesus speaks about in parables and enacts with his body has a crazy, upside-down logic: as if a pigeon-infested shrub could be the cedar of Lebanon, the very tree of life and healing for the nations. Or, for that matter, as if God the Almighty could be a helpless baby, or arrested as a criminal, or mocked and pierced and killed.

I think maybe Jesus speaks in parables because he loves us too much to talk in a more reasonable way. Scripture, the record of God’s love affair with humankind, offers multiple witness to the revelation of the living word, and the complete joy to come, in language as confusing and powerful as his passion. Being in love, after all, is much like living in the kingdom: words fail, and all you can say is that your love is like an apple, like sunshine, stronger than heights or depths. The strange becomes familiar, and the old new.

So I put this before you: the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. It’s like my friend Lisa, who always prays for people while she weeds. Lisa is a priest, but her multiple sclerosis eventually made driving and standing and talking on Sunday mornings too hard. The MS made gardening hard, too, but she loved everything that grew in her foggy backyard, and kept trying to get people to come take her bulbs and slips and seeds. One afternoon we were walking very slowly together along the little pathways, while Lisa introduced me to plants she thought I might like cuttings from: this is the Graham Thomas rose, here’s a clarkia, look at that cute little succulent. “What about that blue stuff ?” I asked. “The forget-me-not?” said Lisa, “ I keep trying to get rid of it—it takes over your garden.” I looked longingly at the plants, and she yanked one up. It had tiny little burr-like seeds. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she said, “it’ll spread everywhere.” It did. There are clouds of blue flowers all over my garden now, and whenever those annoying little seeds stick to my pants legs and invade the decent, orderly beds of roses, I think of Lisa. I can’t forget her. The kingdom of heaven is like a forget-me-not.

Or the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. It’s like my friend Ruth, a baker and student of Torah who lives over her bakery. One Passover I helped set the long, handmade wooden table in her home as she told me about searching out all the leaven--everything puffed up and impure-- the night before, and how she baked matzoh and wrote a blessing for “our imperfections, our burnt spots, our jagged edges.” At Seder twenty people talked and drank and ate and laughed and prayed, and at the end of the evening Ruth sent a child out to find the hidden piece of matzoh she’d stuck under a couch cushion. “We share the hidden piece,” she prayed, “as a pact to join together in the ongoing journey of revelation. ” We broke the matzoh and gave it to each other, and it was delicious, and the unclean yeasted cake a guest brought by mistake was delicious, and the dulce de leche ice cream was delicious, and Ruth said, “We have done our part, we have kept the Passover, as it has been done for three thousand years.” The kingdom of heaven is like feasting together at a big wooden table.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. It’s like my neighbor Rosana, whose first baby was stillborn, and who grieved all during her next pregnancy, picking a calla lily from our yard each day to put on the shrine she’d built in her bedroom for the lost daughter. She cried and she feared for nine months, and when the new baby was born, healthy, beautiful, Rosana named her Lily, and was radiant with joy. And one day she carried the baby over to visit us and said, surprised, “I just realized I haven’t put any fresh flowers on the shrine for a while. I guess it’s OK.” The kingdom of heaven is like finding the one thing that matters and letting the rest go.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea that pulls up fish of every kind. It’s like walking down the sidewalk on my way to the bank, and gazing at an old woman sitting by the bus stop deep in conversation with a young bearded man. At a Guatemalan Indian boy walking alone, eating a piece of pizza. At the two guys outside the fish market discussing astrology, and the older man with his pit bull, and the mother helping her chubby toddler out of a stroller; at a window full of Italian wedding cakes and a locked-up storefront covered in graffiti, at the dollar stores with their cheap luggage and Che t-shirts and plastic buckets and brooms and earrings. At the hot-dog cart and the truck full of watermelons, the hipsters and paleteros and drunks and cops and teenage girls. The kingdom of heaven is like Mission Street.

The kingdom of heaven is like you when you’re hungry, and you drinking deeply on the hottest day of summer. It’s like you fighting with your sister and you taking care of your father. It’s like you being generous, like you being rich, like you being cruel and gnashing your teeth. The kingdom of heaven is like weeds and roses, dirt and precious stones, bread and rotten potatoes: and all of it, all of it, held in love in Jesus’ heart.

Have you understood all this?

I haven’t. Listening to parables I can’t figure out what Scripture really means–– even with the most painstaking fundamentalist or feminist or historical or anthropological analysis. Because the Bible is not a system, but a relationship. And the kingdom it witnesses to is as about as easily managed as a cloud, or a fire, or living water.

And so, like Jesus, I think we need to keep asking each other, what is the kingdom of heaven like? and offer up not answers but parables, our real experiences. We need to listen carefully, because each one of us alone just gets a glimpse of heaven from time to time: it is the whole of God’s creation that is God’s kingdom, and I can’t begin to know what it’s like unless you say what it’s like too, unless the children of God all hum together, each adding her own little scrap of music to join in the angels’ song.

What is it like? Not what it means. Not how we can master it. We can’t find the kingdom of heaven if we try to explain it, solve it, or own it. The kingdom is hidden, just as our lives are hidden with Christ in God: hidden right here, in plain sight, waiting for something as crazy as a parable or the Eucharist to reveal it. And when we find it, when it finds us, it is revealed as old and new at the same time: a feast prepared for us from before the foundation of the world, a feast we can taste and chew and swallow right this moment.

We don’t have to get the parables right. All we can do is plant the weeds, eat the impure bread, gaze in wonder at the odd fish dredged up, shining, in this blessed net of life. All we can do is give thanks: that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Sara Miles is Directory of Ministry at St Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco; she's the author of Take This Bread, Jesus Freak, and City of God (forthcoming January 2014.)

How to be in the presence of Jesus

by Deirdre Good

Text: Luke 10: 38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

Think about the last meal with friends you really enjoyed. Was it at your house or theirs? Or maybe you were at a restaurant. In which case you were able to enjoy the company and the food without having to prepare, cook, or clear away afterwards. If the meal was at your house, then you know what was involved.

Before I arrived in Maine this summer, I was able to share a memorable meal at home with friends. It all came together at the last minute. I wanted to extend hospitality to our new President at the seminary where I live and work since he had just arrived and was temporarily without family. Fortunately, I was able to invite two other couples to join us. And thanks to Whole Foods, I was able to assemble the dinner at the last minute rather than cook it. So I was able to enjoy the company rather than worry about whether they liked the food I’d cooked. Why was it so enjoyable? Because all the couples (including us) knew and liked each other. Three of us work together, and six of us went to the same church at one time. We have the same sense of humour, values and interests. We respect each other’s viewpoints.

The meal Jesus shares with Martha and Mary presupposed in today’s gospel is quite similar in that the three of them are friends—they eat together in Bethany; they probably worship together and they love each other. How do we think about it? Does the story describe types of people, and continue by commending contemplative types over active types, as Luke’s Jesus apparently does? I know the story can be read this way but there’s a price to pay. It’s a moralistic reading, seeing figures as exemplars. It favors one character over another. Are all of the characters in Jesus’ stories intended to advise readers? Are they meant to evoke empathy and strengthen our proclivity for doing good? Or might we see the whole story in a broader context of Luke and thus as a meditation on deeper issues in the surrounding material. I want to suggest that the passage is a meditation on what it means to be blessed to see and hear what is at hand since others longed to see and hear it but did not (Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” Luke 10: 23-4)

A few words about context. Today’s gospel lies close to the start of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (9:51) that is a journey of many functions besides travel. One of them is shaping of a community around Jesus (followers, disciples, crowds) alongside the shaping of opposition outside that community. Travel and following Jesus to Jerusalem to death and beyond is also about discerning the meaning of presence and absence and how to be in the presence and absence of Jesus.

So here’s a suggestion: If you are on a journey and Jesus joins the journey, stop whatever you are doing. Look and listen. If there’s time for a meal, order a take-out and food to go. This is a meal to remember: tastes, sights, sound. Savor the meaning of Real Presence.

Now what Martha is doing in our gospel is the important task of service (from which we get the word “deacon”) that can be applied to church leadership with connotations of administration and organization. And the verb in Luke’s description, “Martha welcomed him into her home” shows Martha as head of a household, which leads us to think more broadly about Martha in the rest of the New Testament and beyond.

In John’s Gospel, for example, the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus are described as loved by Jesus, a term that scholars understand to describe relationship of disciple to teacher Jesus. In the episode reporting that Lazarus has died, it is Martha who engages Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” “But,” she continues, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again and when he declares, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-6) Martha professes: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:27). Her confession is a high point of the Johannine communities’ profession of belief in Jesus. Martha is every bit a thinking person.

And, when we look at the rest of the New Testament, it turns out that Mary of Bethany is every bit a doer. At a meal in Bethany where she functions as host and her sister Martha serves, Mary anoints Jesus as a prefiguring of self-giving in the service of footwashing he is about to enact and his death and burial. She does what friends are taught to do by Jesus says Johannine scholar Cynthia Kittredge.

If we take all the evidence of the New Testament, we see that both Mary and Martha have been with Jesus in ways that indicate they both listen, think, and act out a deep understanding of Jesus’ ministry.

I think the lesson for us from the gospel is how to be in the presence of Jesus.

Anthony Bloom, an archbishop in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, recounts in his book Beginning to Pray an experience with a Russian woman whom he visited in a nursing home before she died at the age of 102. It was shortly after his ordination and she sought his advice. “All these years I have been asking people who are reputed to know about prayer, and they have never given me a sensible reply, so I thought that as you probably know nothing, you may by chance blunder out the right thing.” She explained further that for 14 years she had been praying the Jesus prayer almost continually and had never perceived God’s presence.

Bloom blurted out in response: “If you speak all the time, you don’t give God a chance to place a word in.” “What shall I do?” she said. Then he suggested:

“Go to your room after breakfast, put it right, place your armchair in a strategic position that will leave behind your back all the dark corners . . . into which things are pushed so as not to be seen. Light your little lamp before the icon . . . [Orthodox homes traditionally have an icon altar, often with an image of the face of Christ.] and sit, look around, and try to see where you live. Then take your knitting and for fifteen minutes knit before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room.”

At first, Bloom writes, the woman was suspicious that this advice was superficial. But when she returned to see him some time later, she announced, “It works!” Bloom was eager to hear her elaboration, so she told him how she had followed his instructions to neaten her room and then settle herself peacefully before her icon. She continued:

I settled into my armchair and thought, “Oh how nice, I have 15 minutes during which I can do nothing without being guilty! I looked around the room and thought how nice it was. After a while I remembered that I must knit before the face of God, and so I began to knit. And I became more and more aware of the silence. The needles hit the armrest of my chair, . . . there was nothing to bother about, . . . and then I perceived that this silence was not simply an absence of noise, but that the silence had substance. It was not absence of something but presence of something. . . . the silence had a density, a richness, and it began to pervade me. The silence around began to come and meet the silence in me. . . . All of a sudden I perceived that the silence was a presence. At the heart of the silence there was the One who is all stillness, all peace, all poise.”

So if Jesus appears on our doorstep, close the laptop, turn off the ipad, and sit down at his feet. This is a time to savor. And if Jesus doesn't appear – do what ever it is that you naturally do; and in that very action; in that deep silence, look and listen for the Divine Presence.

**Preached on Sunday July 21st 2013 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Castine, Maine.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.

Using and misusing St. Paul: wisdom, gender and sexuality

by Savi Hensman

Abstract

This article focuses primarily on the use and misuses of St Paul in fractious contemporary church debates about sexuality and gender. It can also be read in parallel with the growing body of theological and historical work on re-understanding one of the key figures in the history of Christianity, suggesting that Paul’s project was to create a new community and dynamic which was capable of re-energising the suppressed radicalism of Torah religion in a dangerously imperialistic setting.

Introduction

Some Christians look to St Paul as the guardian of a narrow doctrinal and moral purity, and cite his writings to ‘prove’, for example, the sinfulness of homosexual relationships. Others criticise him for the parallel reasons, seeing him as oppressive of women, gays and others. Indeed he is sometimes regarded as radically altering the faith Jesus founded, replacing freedom in Christ with rule-based religion. Neither view, I will argue, is fair to Paul, to the radical transformation he underwent, or to the contradictions with which he wrestled – personally, theologically and as a leader of a growing movement.

This article focuses primarily on the use and misuses of St Paul in fractious contemporary church debates about sexuality and gender. It can also be read in parallel with the growing body of work on re-understanding one of the key figures in the history of Christianity – including, for example, the conversations opened up by Neil Elliot’s book Liberating Paul, and the work (in German) of Ulrich Duchrow and others, suggesting that Paul’s project was to create a new community and dynamic which was capable of re-energising the suppressed radicalism of Torah religion in a dangerously imperialistic setting.

1. Who was Paul?

A complex figure, Paul first appears in the Acts of the Apostles as Saul of Tarsus, a young religious fanatic who tries to stamp out Christianity by violence. After a dramatic conversion experience in which he encounters Christ, he becomes a Christian himself and, while Jewish himself, focuses on bringing the good news to other peoples.

His influence on the church has been profound. His letters (epistles) are part of the New Testament and are often quoted, though scholars now believe that several ‘Pauline’ epistles were actually written by other people.

According to John Dominic Crossan, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon were by the historical Paul, but Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians were probably not his work, and 1-2 Timothy and Titus certainly not by him. (Jouette M Basler suggests that, while 2 Thessalonians and Colossians could possibly have been by Paul, there is overwhelming evidence that Ephesians, 1-2 Timothy and Titus were not.)

Difference in authorship explains some of the contradictions which have puzzled many readers, though other differences arise from the range of specific problems he was addressing, and the nature of the Wisdom tradition which helped to shape his approach.

2. Wisdom’s call and Paul’s response

The Wisdom tradition runs through much of the Hebrew Bible, and is particularly marked in what are known as the Wisdom books – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. The later Jewish books of Wisdom (of Solomon) and Sirach (the Wisdom of Jesus the son of Sirach, sometimes known as Ecclesiasticus) are included in some Bibles and regarded as Deuterocanonical works of value (though not Scriptural) in certain other Christian traditions, and were influential in Paul’s day.

The name of Solomon – the scholar-king with wide knowledge of natural history (1 Kings 4.29-34) and deep understanding of the human heart (1 Kings 3.16-28), whom people travelled from afar to hear – is often associated with Wisdom. Some now associate the figure of Wisdom (Sophia in Greek) with the Holy Spirit. Through observation, experience, learning and reflection, this tradition sought a deeper understanding of the universe, how God is at work in it and how people ought to live.

In the words of Proverbs:

Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?... “To you, O my people, I call, And my cry is to all that live.... I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me”... The mind of the wise makes their speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to their lips. (Proverbs 8.1, 17, 16.23)

Some passages in the Wisdom books are subjective (for instance the lament in Psalm 55 at betrayal by a friend and the sense of futility in Ecclesiastes 2), or are based on outmoded knowledge. For example, unlike the time when Psalm 19 was composed, it is known today that the sun’s journey does not cover the whole of the heavens: the universe is far larger. However an illustration based on flawed science does not necessarily invalidate an argument.

Indeed people in the twenty-first century have much to learn from those in earlier eras who, without modern scientific equipment, found out so much about the workings of the universe and, without computers or even printing, sought knowledge so diligently and made efforts to communicate it widely. And it is useful to remember that, to many even in the ancient world, religion was not seen as solely a matter of revelation detached from reason.

In Acts 17, Paul is portrayed sharing the good news in radically different contexts – with a mainly Jewish audience in Thessalonica, then Beroea, and later with Gentiles in Athens. In Thessalonica, he went to the synagogue and “argued with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead”. So Paul drew creatively on the Hebrew Bible, reinterpreting it in the light of new experience.

In Athens “he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols”. But he did not launch into a fierce denunciation of Gentiles’ wicked ways. Instead he entered into debate with philosophers and accepted an invitation to the Areopagus (named after the god Ares).

There, he engaged with them on their own intellectual as well as physical terrain, saying, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands”.

Paul went on to explain that God made all nations from one ancestor, intending that “they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’”

So he was able to affirm and build on what was positive in their culture, while challenging aspects which he believed alienated them from the living God.

In Paul’s writings too, he acknowledged the importance of Wisdom, for instance in Romans 11, where he drew on Hebrew Scripture, including Job:

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?”

In 1 Corinthians 1-2 Paul contrasted worldly with true wisdom:

since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe... Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages.

He went on to write that “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” This resembles Wisdom 9: “Who has learned your counsel, unless you have given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?”

1 Corinthians 8 declares that “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” The author of Colossians (possibly Paul) extols Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” There are echoes perhaps of Wisdom 7-8, in which Wisdom:

is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.
Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things...
She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
and she orders all things well.

According to Sirach 1:

Wisdom was created before all other things,
and prudent understanding from eternity.

Thus the Christ to whom Christians are joined may be seen as an embodiment of divine Wisdom.

When considering what Paul said and wrote on particular topics, it is instructive to take account of his wider approach of seeking to discern, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, how God was and is at work, including in the lives of believers. Indeed in 2 Corinthians 3, he informed his readers that “you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts”.

3. Paul and women

As has often been pointed out, Paul’s attitudes to women were seemingly contradictory. This is explained to some extent by the different authorship of some ‘Pauline’ epistles, but not entirely.

Paul wrote appreciatively about female fellow-evangelists and church leaders, including the deacon Phoebe, and Junia, “prominent among the apostles” (Romans 16). He also stated in Galatians 3 that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Some regard this statement as being solely about spiritual equality, without implications for social relationships, but this distinction is questionable: for instance Paul was critical of Jewish believers who shied away from eating with Gentiles.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul wrote on marriage in terms of mutuality. Yet in 1 Corinthians 11 he declared:

I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head... a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man.

(We should note that this is contrary to Genesis 1, cited by Jesus in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, in which both man and women are created in God’s image. Peter Williams and others have suggested an alternative reading of this ‘headship’ language, pointing out that in Hebrew anthropology, the source of decision-making authority is the gut, not the head, and that ‘head’ was understood as denoting source or origin. In which case Paul is here citing the Genesis account of woman being created out of the rib of a man – itself meant as an alternative to violent Mesopotamian myths that required the destruction of the feminine as the condition for creation – and stretching it into an argument about propriety and church order. There may be something in this, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Paul ends up with a depiction which is inherently subordinationist, even if this is not the intention.)

There are strong cultural factors at work here. In Paul’s day women’s hair was believed to inflame men’s passions and going about with free-flowing hair was frowned upon, rather like going topless in some societies today. He was concerned not to stoke the prejudice which Christians were already likely to face from those around them, as well as being swayed by the prejudices of the Jewish and Hellenistic cultures of his day, in which gender distinctions and male dominance were heavily emphasised.

In chapter 14 he went on to urge, in the context of avoiding disorderly worship:

As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Confusingly, he then advises the Christians in Corinth (presumably of both sexes) to “be eager to prophesy”. It has been suggested that the practical concern he was addressing arose when women and men were sitting apart (as customary in worship) and wives called out to their husbands, disrupting the service.

In addition the authors of Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy and Titus urged female submission.

It would seem likely that Paul experienced a tension between, on one hand, the freedom of a new community where barriers were broken down in Christ and roles determined charismatically and, on the other hand, the pressure of social and cultural expectations, as well as practical challenges.

However, especially when taken out of context, these passages appeared to endorse women’s inferiority. They could also be read as criticising anyone who sought to change gender, since this could be perceived as either abandoning one’s God-given dignity if born male, or improperly aspiring to a higher status if born female. Later teachers and leaders, including the authors of other ‘Pauline’ epistles, tended to shy away even further from the radical implications of being “one in Christ”.

Far more evidence is now available of the suffering and waste resulting from sexual inequality and rigid gender roles, and the benefits to church and society as well as individual women of recognising their gifts. The fruits of scholars’ knowledge and many people’s experience should be taken into account: as Sirach 6 puts it:

If you love to listen you will gain knowledge,
and if you pay attention you will become wise...
If you see an intelligent person, rise early to visit him;
let your foot wear out his doorstep.

(Or, in the era of modern communication, search out the relevant journal articles or websites as well as listening to others in person before reaching firm conclusions.)

4. Paul and homosexuality

Paul’s stance on sexuality has also been the subject of much debate. This is complicated by the fact that the modern concept of homosexual orientation was probably unknown in the ancient world, though of course some people engaged in sexual relationships with those of the same biological sex (and might today have been regarded as LGBT – lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans).

Ancient Jewish law forbade sex between men, a practice largely seen as associated with other, idolatrous nations, though not sex between women. The Greeks and Romans tended to approve of sex between males only if one was clearly socially inferior to the other (e.g. a youth or slave penetrated by an adult freeman), while a man who chose to “play the woman” would face mockery or worse.

1 Corinthians 6.9-11 and the pseudo-Pauline 1 Timothy 1.8-11 are often quoted as forbidding gay sex, yet there are widely varying views on how the relevant terms should be translated, let alone what weight they should be given today. 1 Corinthians 6 includes a list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of heaven, including malakoi and arsenokoitai, while the latter term is part of a list in 1 Timothy 1 of those to whom the law applies. The term malakoi (soft/weak/unmanly) may or may not have sexual connotations, while the obscure arsenokoitai may refer to male prostitutes, pimps or men having sex with men in general.

In the Authorised (King James) version, 1 Corinthians 6.9-11 reads, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.”

This might indicate that Paul set the bar higher than Jesus, who was himself labelled as a glutton and drunkard by the religious leaders of his day (Matthew 11.19), and who warned them that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21.31). Indeed Paul’s warning would appear to be at odds with other Pauline teachings such as Romans 10.9 (“if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”).

However it is understandable that Paul would want to affirm the positive changes made by people joining the church and, like other Wisdom writers, encourage virtuous living. It is unclear what bearing 1 Corinthians has on equal relationships between adult men.

Romans 1 possibly comes the closest to addressing what might be regarded today as homosexuality. To quote the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth... Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles...

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error...

They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

The main thrust of the argument is that those who condemn them are also sinners: “you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself” (Romans 2.1), in the context of an argument against legalism. He chose behaviour which pious Jews would abhor in order to drive home the notion that both Jews and Gentiles were reliant on God’s grace, and could be saved by faith. So using the passage legalistically misses the point.

Nevertheless the theory Paul seems to be espousing deserves attention: of idolatry leading to ‘perverse’ heterosexual behaviour, probably anal sex, giving men a taste for ‘unnatural’ sex which they then indulged with one another. (It is also possible, though unlikely, that the passage alludes to lesbian sex.) After all, it is not impossible for the direction of desire to be influenced by social ideals, e.g. of feminine or masculine attractiveness.

He seems to refer to the theory in Wisdom 13-14 about the origins of immorality:

all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature;
and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists...
the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication,
and the invention of them was the corruption of life...
they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure,
but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery,
and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury,
confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favours,
defiling of souls, sexual perversion,
disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery.

The behaviour of some members of the Roman ruling class in the first century, including Emperor Nero and his family, would have given further credence to this belief. However, in Romans, Paul questioned whether even those who worshipped one God were as righteous as they supposed.

As has been pointed out in recent decades, Romans 1 does not appear to fit LGB people, partnered or otherwise, whose orientation has not arisen from idol-worship and who are no more prone to vices such as envy and malice than their heterosexual neighbours.

In addition, far more is known now about sexuality than two thousand years ago, for instance that same-sex acts or pair-bonding occur in many species. Also, across cultures and throughout history, a minority of people have been mainly homosexual in orientation, and physical intimacy and/or marriage have often taken place between partners of the same biological sex. However how same-sex desire is perceived and expressed has varied considerably. As Paul sought out and learnt from the most plausible theories of his day, we would do well to do the same today.

More positively for LGB people, at a time when there was heavy emphasis on procreation, and the single and childless risked being marginalised, Paul upheld the acceptability of being unmarried (as Jesus had done), creating space for sexual minorities. He also encouraged a sense of ‘family’ that went beyond biological bonds, urging Christians to “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour” (Romans 12.10)

Though almost certainly celibate himself, he was also realistic about the fact that most people were not cut out for lifelong abstinence. His suggestion that “because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband... To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn” was not the most enthusiastic endorsement of marriage! However it is still an important practical point that partnership allows people to channel desire constructively.

He thus prudently steered a path between the extremes of taking all sexual feelings at face value and suggesting that people could easily refrain from ever expressing their sexuality physically.

There is now extensive evidence that heterosexual marriages entered into by lesbian and gay people, though occasionally successful, are often tokenistic, short-lived or damaging to both partners; and that permanent celibacy works well for only for a minority of people, LGBT or heterosexual. In contrast, same-sex partnerships can be stable, joyful and a source of love which overspills to others in the community. It could be argued that “it is better to marry than to burn” could apply to same-sex as well as opposite-sex marriage.

5. Wider principles and ethical trajectories

Other writings by Paul are indirectly relevant when wrestling with ethical issues linked with gender and sexuality.

He made it clear that, in his view, moral conduct was not a matter of following arbitrary commands supposedly issued by God. In Romans 13, he wrote:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

In Galatians, likewise, Paul strongly criticised legalism: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery... You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ... the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”

Love is not a sentimental notion: Paul writes at some length about what this might involve in practice (e.g. 1 Corinthians 13), and elsewhere suggests criteria for determining whether the Holy Spirit is at work in particular relationships and situations (Galatians 5.22-23).

There is an overlap with Jesus’ ‘Golden Rule’ in Matthew 7.12: “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

In addition, he advocated – and strove to build – a community not fundamentally based on hierarchy or competitiveness, an approach that remains radical even today. For instance he portrayed the church as a body with Christ as the head:

just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit... God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. (1 Corinthians 12

Thus exclusion of any comes at a cost to all. And, within this ethos, there is no reason to suppose that improving the status of women or LGBT people will necessarily result in reduced status for men and masculinity, or heterosexuals and heterosexual marriage.

He also went to considerable lengths to challenge the marginalisation of converts and insistence that they adopt Jewish law to be fully included in Christian worship, to the point of challenging the main church leaders (Galatians 2.11-14, Acts 15). Attitudes and measures that discourage some groups of people from joining, or fully participating in, the church should not be lightly adopted.

6. Learning from Paul

Paul’s writings are sometimes cited by both supporters and opponents of women’s equality. Likewise, in debates on sexuality, he is often quoted by those who regard same-sex partnerships as wrong, while others believe such passages are not relevant to committed and equal relationships today.

However, perhaps even more important than Paul’s perspective on specific issues is how he reached his conclusions. Using particular passages as a new ‘law’ that means that other Christian views can be rubbished and the fruits of experience, learning and reflection ignored, misses the point of much of what he taught, and how he himself worked.

Steeped in the Wisdom tradition, he set an example of grappling with difficult issues. Christians today would be well advised to learn from him to study Scripture diligently yet approach it creatively, engage critically with surrounding cultures and advances in knowledge, and seek to determine whether particular acts or omissions involve harming one’s neighbour. The building of a community in which all are valued and brought to fullness of life, through the grace of Christ who died and rose again, is also of crucial importance, even if this involves challenging the seemingly important and self-righteous.

If indeed the refusal of full equality is demonstrably causing damage at both a personal and community level, we might be well advised to follow the advice in Sirach 4.26:

Do not be ashamed to confess your sins,
and do not try to stop the current of a river.

------

See also:

* James Alison, “But the Bible says...”? A Catholic reading of Romans 1: [The author is a Catholic theologian and author. He is noted for his application of René Girard's anthropological theory to systematic theology and also for his theological work on LGBT issues.]

* Savi Hensman, 'Thinking theologically: Bible, tradition, reason and experience'

* ____________, ‘Journey towards acceptance: theologians and same-sex love’: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17246

* Noel Moules, Sex, orientation and theological debate: an evangelical response

* Neil Eliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God And the Politics (Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

* Simon Barrow, ‘St Paul: uniting past and future’, Ekklesia, 1999.

This essay was first published at Ekklesia. Used with permission.

© Savi Hensman is a regular and widely published Christian commentator on public, political and religious/theological issues – writing in the Guardian newspaper, among other places. She works in the care and equalities sector, and is an Ekklesia associate. Her regular blog is here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/blog/13 Her column can be found at: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/news/columns/hensman

A hands-on Jesus

By Deirdre Good

Mark's Gospel explores ways Jesus is tangible. Yes, Jesus is a powerful exorcist, recognized by demons. Yes, Jesus tells enigmatic parables. But Mark seems particularly fascinated by ways this same figure reaches out to touch ordinary people. In Mark, more than in any other gospel, Jesus reaches for and grasps women and men firmly to heal them by the power of God. This makes Jesus accessible and vulnerable. Is it not extraordinary that in John's gospel, the gospel that describes the incarnate Word, Jesus does not touch, grasp or hold anyone firmly? It is left to the author of 1 John 1 to write of "what was from the beginning," what was heard, seen, looked at and touched.

At the beginning of Jesus' ministry in Mark, Jesus grasps Simon Peter's mother in law by the hand, raising her up from a bed of fever. He then extends his hand (either in anger or compassion, the text is not clear) and touches a leper who requests healing. Sometime later, a woman in a state of impurity lays a hand on his garment and is healed. In the same episode, Jesus touches a corpse and raises a young girl thought to have died. But the actions and force with which he reaches out to heal are turned against him in the course of the gospel narrative. Those around Jesus-- perhaps his family, perhaps his disciples-- seek to detain him early in his ministry, thinking him unbalanced. His healing ability is inhibited by the skepticism of those in his hometown. A crowd presses against him. In the latter half of the gospel, opponents seize people Jesus knows: John the Baptist, the naked young man in the garden, and finally Jesus too. Until his arrest Jesus nonetheless continues to raise people up and heal them from sickness and death. After crucifixion, he is raised by God to new life.

Because Jesus' critics are bent on destroying him right from the beginning of his ministry, there's little time to grasp or apprehend him. But there is a glimpse of faith growing secretly one day as Jesus responds to a request from Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, that he lay hands on Jairus' dying daughter (5:22-34). A great crowd oppresses Jesus as he moves forward to respond to Jairus' request. Hiding in it is someone who reaches out to Jesus in faith. Mark structures the account of the woman who interrupts Jesus' move towards Jairus' daughter in such a way that the whole narrative focuses on her intent to touch Jesus. Bullet points in the translation below show a string of circumstantial participles indicating what the woman overcame to bring about her action in the main verb: "she touched his cloak."

A woman
· Being in a flow of blood twelve years

· And who had suffered much from many physicians

· And having spent all she had

· And having received no benefit but rather

· Having become worse,

· Hearing about Jesus

· Having come behind in the crowd,

Touched his cloak for she said, "If I touch just his cloak, I will be healed."

The plight of the woman is pitiful. But her belief is firm that touching (and grasping firmly) with faith can lead to healing and understanding. We see the way she thinks: "Even if I just touch his clothes…" (5:28) And we hear the physical vindication of her faith: "she knew in her body that she had been healed" (5:29). As she touches Jesus for healing, she affects his physical self-awareness: "he knows the power has gone out of him" (5:30). Ignoring the disciples' incredulity: "You see this crowd pressing against you," Jesus "continues looking around to see the woman who had done this." (5:32). His search for that woman, not just someone who has touched him, is ignored by all modern translations. Surely we should render it correctly. When each recognizes what the other knows, the woman tells Jesus "the whole truth." Calling her "Daughter" and identifying her faith, Jesus names her healed and restored to the community.

Holding a leper by the hand, being touched by those with diseases (Mark 3:10; 6:54-6) or a woman in a flow of blood renders Jesus ritually impure. It explains why the woman comes behind him from the crowd, and why she falls at his feet publicly in fear and trembling after she has been healed; and why the leper asks for healing. Neither the woman nor the leper is observed by Mark to contaminate Jesus; instead Jesus heals them. Perhaps the healings that result overcomes the threat of ritual impurity: the healed woman is called a daughter of Israel and the healed leper shows himself to the priests so that he can rejoin the community. Could these two experiences enable Jesus to step on into the house of Jairus and risk corpse impurity by grasping the hand of a girl thought by many to have died?

Mark's Jesus can heal the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman from a distance but he heals people more frequently by touching, laying on of hands and holding them firmly. In describing an angry and compassionate Jesus; in showing Jesus being inhibited from healing by doubts of others and having others take healing from him, and in being tortured and crucified, Mark seems to be meditating on the wonder of Jesus' physical body from which power seems to ebb and flow. This reflection is the miracle of a tiny window through which we can see and hear a human being mediating God's healing power for life and being enacted upon for life after death.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

Schooling Nicodemus

By Adam Thomas

In the film Men in Black, Jay discovers that aliens exist and many of them live on Manhattan Island. When he confronts Kay about this unnerving new detail, of which he (Jay) was previously unaware, Kay deadpans: “A thousand years ago everybody knew, as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on it. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.”

The season of Lent invites us to examine what we know, or, put more precisely, what we think we know. When we tackle this examination, we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ, which tend to augment, rearrange, and expand our knowledge with the addition of deeper faith. The Gospel contains myriad stories of Jesus blasting people with new knowledge, so we should expect nothing different in our own lives. One such story co-stars the Pharisee Nicodemus (read up on John 3 before you continue).

As a general rule, if someone in the Gospel besides Jesus says “I know” or “we know,” then that person either knows a small fraction of the whole or, more commonly, nothing at all. Strangely enough, knowing nothing at all can even manifest itself when the statement made is quite true and correct. Such is the case with this leader of the Jews, who comes to see Jesus one night.

Nicodemus uses his “knowledge” displayed at the beginning of the conversation as a weapon to corner Jesus into a particular set of expectations. The Pharisee says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Apparently, so far so good. This statement is true: Jesus has come from God and most definitely stands forever in the presence of God. But there’s irony in the statement, also. Nicodemus calls Jesus “teacher” twice — once in Hebrew (Rabbi) and once in Greek (didaskalos, from which comes the word “didactic”). But at the same time, Nicodemus’s conversational opener allows no room for Jesus to teach. Instead, Nicodemus is the one attempting to teach Jesus, to pigeonhole him into what Nicodemus and his colleagues have labeled him.

But Jesus refuses to be put on the defensive. In usual fashion, he completely ignores Nicodemus’s opening salvo and immediately expands the conversation to a depth and height that Nicodemus is not expecting. Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above/again.” There’s a delightful ambiguity here: in Greek, “from above” and “again” are the same word (anothen). They both work in the context, and Jesus probably means both when he says the word. How better to jostle someone loose from his rigidity than with a small helping of ambiguity?

But Nicodemus grasps at the more mundane of the two meanings and responds: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” This may seem like a sarcastic response, but at least this Pharisee, who has always been the one answering questions, is now (albeit haltingly) beginning to ask some of his own. But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in staying on the terrestrial plane, so he ignores Nicodemus questions and pushes him to a new level of understanding. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” At this point, I imagine Nicodemus’s brain starts hurting.

But Jesus keeps pushing him. Nicodemus’s opening “we know” now sounds empty in comparison to the mysteries Jesus is revealing to him. To begin to absorb these mysteries, Nicodemus must turn this empty “we know” into an “I don’t know” full of desire and curiosity. With his next words, Jesus gives Nicodemus license to let go of what he thinks he knows: “The wind/Spirit blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (Here’s another delightful ambiguity—in Greek, “wind” and “spirit” are the same word, pneuma.) Nicodemus must now consent to trusting in things he can never quite figure out. Indeed, he must realize that the truest things that have ever been or ever will be can be believed without being adequately explained. In a word, Jesus asks Nicodemus to have faith that the words he speaks are true, no matter how difficult, preposterous, or confusing they may sound.

And Nicodemus takes a tentative step into the shallows of faith in Jesus. He asks one of the sincerest questions in the Gospel: “How can these things be?” With this question, Nicodemus allows the cognitive dissonance that has been cresting to break on him like a wave. This dissonance is the necessary distress that happens when he realizes he doesn’t know something he thought he knew. But dissonance isn’t a bad thing. In music, dissonance is the interesting part, the part that pushes the piece onward. A pleasing harmony (called “consonance”) can hang in the air indefinitely, but a dissonance begs to move forward to the next consonant chord.

So it is with Nicodemus and anyone who opens up himself or herself to the possibility of the unknown. Allowing the cognitive dissonance to enter our comfortable worldviews pushes us to grow into the next consonant chords in our lives. When Jesus confronts us, like Nicodemus, with the mysteries of the faith, we can either step backward into the comfort of what we think we know or step forward, fully expecting the boundaries of possibility to be far wider than we can perceive. This confrontation goes by another name: revelation.

Every encounter with Jesus, whether in the text or in life, promises an opportunity for revelation, which obeys no boundaries of possibility. Revelation is that thing you know, but don’t know how you know it. Revelation is visceral as well as mental because the brain alone is ill-equipped to handle it. Revelation infuses us with an odd mixture of peace and exhilaration—peace because we know God is there, exhilaration because we know God is calling us to serve. Cognitive dissonance is the birthplace of such revelation. The dissonance reminds us that what we know is far less than the whole. When we can acknowledge that we don’t, in fact, know where the wind comes from or where it goes, we are primed for receiving the revelation of God’s love that Jesus is forever revealing to the world. This is a scary proposition, for if we do, indeed, remain attentive we might actually hear God calling us to serve in a way that doesn’t fit our plans.

But revelation bursts our ability and our desire to control because it blows where it chooses on the wind of the Spirit. When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “We know,” he is seeking to control the conversation that will follow. But he immediately discovers he’s in over his head. When we acknowledge that Jesus has things to reveal to us that we couldn’t possibly imagine, we discover we’re also in over our heads. The trick is to learn to breathe in the wind of the Spirit while underwater (to grow gills and fins) and to find a new natural state submerged in the revelatory love of Christ.

When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can these things be,” he allows the possibility for revelation to strike him in his head and in his gut. His cognitive dissonance jettisons his need to control. He is open for Jesus to reveal new and wonderful things to him. And Jesus does — things about the Son of Man ascending to and descending from heaven, things about the Son of Man being lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, things about eternal life and self-giving love and believing and salvation.

I imagine Nicodemus left his encounter with Jesus in a daze, his heart and mind on overload attempting to process all he had seen and heard. Is he able fully to put his trust in Jesus, to allow the dissonance to resolve into a new and deeper consonance? Not quite yet. But we are lucky enough to meet Nicodemus twice more in the Gospel (check them out! John 7 & John 19). His journey towards the consonance of a life of faith following Jesus models for us our Lenten journeys of self-examination. If we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ during this season of Lent, then (as Kay says), “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

A tip top sermon

Regular visitors will remember that a week or so ago, in reference to Mark 8, I mentioned that the "feeding miracles" were the textual fodder for some of the best sermons I have ever heard. So, a few days later, I walked into church, heard John's account of a feeding miracle, and sure enough, it was followed by one of the best sermons I have ever heard.

And here it is, courtesy of the preacher, the Rev. Martin L. Smith of St. Columba's in northwest DC:

I taught myself to read during daycare at my grandmother’s using the only reading matter available—her weekly women’s magazines. My grandfather used to read aloud in a satirical tone extracts from the personal advice columns, the equivalent of Dear Abby. He called them “the dirty bits” because they contained veiled allusions to sexual problems. This greatly intrigued me at age four, so I turned to the back of the magazines and laboriously spelled word by word what “Evelyn Home” or “Angela Gray” had to say to help the women who had written to them deal with their painful issues, conflicts, dreams, aspirations, and fears—and above all how to deal with men, the biggest problem of all, it seemed. Most of it was veiled in an adult code I couldn’t crack, but that didn’t deter me in the least.

So for me, reading and writing were for ever after indissolubly linked with the possibility of reaching out to people struggling with their unhappiness and seeking ways to negotiate their relationships. And I was precociously alerted to undercurrents of gender conflict that are constantly pulling all of us this way and that. That’s why many passages from scripture only really come alive for me when I can uncover the gender tensions that are just below the surface. Let me demonstrate. The story of the feeding of the five thousand is electrically charged with high voltage tension about ‘gender agendas.’ What do women really want? What do men really want?

First of all, I must warn you there is a deliberate mistranslation in today’s gospel reading which arises from our present-day nervousness about gender inclusiveness. “So they sat down, about five thousand in all.” But the Greek text says, “So the males sat down, about five thousand in all.” That sounded “exclusive”, so the translators cheated and changed it to the generic “they”—defying the hard fact that all four gospels insist that this story concerns five thousand men. Mark says so directly. Matthew underscores it with an expression that means women and children were off the scene. This is a gender-divided occasion.

Why did five thousand able-bodied males converge on Jesus when he had sailed over the Sea of Tiberias with the twelve into the uninhabited hill country? Well, let’s see what this would look like to Roman intelligence officers, if they could have done an aerial reconnaissance. First, they would have been very aware that the feast of the Passover was near in which Jews celebrated their liberation from Egyptian oppressors. Jewish insurgents often launched their rebellions just before Passover when feelings were running especially high about the shame and misery of being under pagan occupation. Secondly, the gathering was in the wilderness, which, as we know from the Jewish historian Josephus, was the traditional mustering place for rebels, out of range of military surveillance.

Click for more. And think about printing it out. You deserve the chance to read it at your leisure.

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