more questions following Jesus and the 10 lepers...

NOTE:  This is part two of an expanding reflection on Luke 17: 11-19 - including the specific Old Testament texts of Leviticus 13-14 that exist behind the acts of Jesus and the words of the early evangelists - addressing a time when Jesus brought healing to 10 lepers on the road to Jerusalem.  It has evoked in me both a desire to better understand the meaning and rituals related to cleansing those diagnosed as ritually unclean for life in community; and, the importance of reevaluating how the Christian gospels tell this story.  As Winston Churchill observed, "History is written by the victors." By the 4th century of the Common Era, Christianity and the Empire of Rome were interpreting the legacy of a Jew named Jesus in ways that not only erased his Hebraic heritage, but demonized Judaism. Two millennia later we are still dealing with religions and political policies infected with the disease of anti-Semitism.
Walter Brueggemann writes in his recent Introduction to the Old Testament: the Canon and
Christian Imagination, that until Christianity is healed from our historic misrepresentation of Torah as a collection of wooden religious legalisms that steal the grace of God's love from Judaism, we will celebrate and even bless the violence and hatred that the world inflicts upon Jews. We will continue to believe the heresy of supersessionism - that Christianity has replaced the sacred covenant between God and Jews - we will perpetuate the historic anti-Semitic lies the New Testament teaches as God's truth, and we will blind ourselves and others to the beautiful possibilities for solidarity in the real world that await birthing by all who cherish "the steadfast love of the Lord that endures forever."

Torah may literally be translated as "the Law" - and many may still choose to ignore its poetic wisdom with willful ignorance - but the truth of Torah is more about living in "a way" that honors "miracle and gratitude" and the love of God embodied in history against all odds.  As Prof. 
Brueggemann writes, there are poems and commands, rituals and insights that "operate in the life of listening Israel as intentional and self-conscious acts of discipline whereby this community at risk may sustain itself in its wonder and gratitude."

The Israelites (not to be confused with modern Israel) knew concretely that if Israel did not have specific disciplines as a way of navigating its demanding cultural environment, it would soon or late helplessly and hopelessly submit to the commands of another Lord:  Pharaoh of Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, or Cyrus of Persia... It is to be noted concerning the commands that a conventional a Christian stereotype of "Jewish legalism" completely misses, the point of what the commands intend... There is little doubt that such dismissive caricatures of the commands of Torah on the part of Gentile culture have in face succumbed Enlightenment notions of freedom that culminate not in covenantal fidelity but in autonomy, a posture from which it is impossible to maintain a distinct, primal communal identity. (p. 24)

Brueggemann notes that exile, in all of its historic and thematic possibilities, shapes the writing and practice of Torah. He notes that much of the written material in Torah - the first five books of what Christians call the Old Testament and Jews knows as Tanakh - are "materials for the social construction of reality and the socialization of the young into an alternative world where YHWH lives and governs. It cannot be overstated that the Torah, in its final, normative form, is an act of faithful imagination that buoyantly and defiantly mediates a counterworld that is a wondrous, demanding alternative to the world immediately and visibly at hand. (p. 26) 

While we Christians are accustomed in Western Christendom to take the Bible as the ultimate source of our "given world," in fact the Torah is recurringly a contradiction of the world we regularly regard as "given." It was in the ancient world of hostile powers with their cultural hegemony where social "givenness" resisted the rule of YHWH. It is, moreover, surely so in the modern world of Enlightenment rationality or in the postmodern world of fragmentation and its privatization of meaning.  It has been a characteristic task of Jewish teaching, nurture and socialization to invite the young into the world of miracle, and so to resist assimilation. 

Only late have alert Christians in Euro-American contexts noticed that the challenge that has always been before Jews is not a fresh challenge for Christians as well. As the Western world has been perennially hostile to the claims of Jewish faith, so the merging contemporary world of commodity grows more hostile to the claims of Christian faith as well. the Church is having to rethink and act to maintain a distinct identity for faith in an alien cultural environment. While the church will characteristically attend to the New Testament in such an emergency, a study of Torah already alerts us to the resources for this crisis that are older and deeper than the New Testament. The Jews is exile reported themselves dismayed about singing the songs of Zion in a strange land (Psalm 137).

And now Christians face that same issue. The liberal Christian temptation is to
accommodate dominant culture until faith despairs. The conservative Christian temptation is to fashion an absoluteness that stands disconnected from the dominant culture. Neither of these strategies, however, is likely to sustain the church in its mission. More likely, we may learn from and with Jews the sustain power of imaginative remembering, the ongoing, lively process of traditoning that is sure to be marked by ideological interest, that in the midst of such distinctiveness, may find fresh closures of reality not "conformed to the world." The preaching, teaching and study of Torah is in order to "set one's heart" differently, to trust and fear differently, to align oneself with an alternative account of the world. All this Israel fashioned and practiced - imaginatively resolved, ideologically driven, inspired beyond interest - under the large, long, fierce voice of Moses. (pp. 26-27)

Torah, therefore, offers us a style and practice for strengthening our unique identity in the world as people of the Christian faith. We have been inspired to meet and love the Lord our God through acts of faithful compassion and radical trust in God's abiding grace. Further, the creative and tender application of this spiritual practice born of Torah can help us dislodge the ugly and misleading anti-Semitic interpretations of Jesus (and the Church) that continue to corrupt our knowledge of Christ's calling in the world. 

Just as James Fowler has taken Erik Erikson's "stages of human development" and
constructed a useful and fluid hierarchy of "stages of faith," I would suggest that there is a comparable way of reading and apply the wisdom of Scripture.  As children, there is the awe, joy and terror of the story - especially the miracles. In this stage we learn the movement of God's presence among God's people. In time, we see this lived out in community life and worship so we join in the telling and retelling of the stories on Sundays and feast/fast gatherings as well as potlucks and mission events. At adolescence, we begin to differentiate ourselves from our elders - including the Word - and let doubt and anxiety disrupt trusting the literal truths we have come to trust in Scripture. In early adulthood, we explore healthy new insights beyond our tradition and rarely even consider the Bible. This is a time for bold exploration and learning. 
At some point, however, one of two other developments takes place before old age: 

a) Fear and disappointment turn us back towards our childhood experiences. We reclaim Scripture and tradition in a fundamentalist fashion and hang our hopes on promises of security amidst a harsh world.

Or b) we journey with God through our hurts and wounds to a deeper trust in mystery. Using the Scriptures as a poetic but not literal guide, we move through Good Friday and Hell into Easter knowing that we have experienced a love greater than ourselves that we cannot control. 

One path is fear-based and ultimately regressive, the other is love-based and creates community. Both shape our aging, too:  the first pushes us towards ever greater mistrust while the later encourages deeper compassion and generosity.  To put this another way, one refuses to learn from the darkness while the other embraces what the Serenity Prayer calls acceptance as the path to inner and outward peace. In the next installment of this on-going reflection I will:  1) share a few thoughts about how anti-Semitic bias corrupts the blessings of the gospels in the New Testament; and 2) consider how the imaginative traditioning of Torah offers a corrective.



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