The Speckled Mind

Friday, March 14, 2008

Surprised by Hope Part 6: Symbol as Story as Action

What about Jesus
Didn't he do it too?
Hang out with prostitutes
And have a drink or two.
Power of example
My mama said it and I heard
She says one ounce of action
Beats a ton of words.~~Martin Sexton

I have promised to describe in more detail the difference that seeing Jesus as a first century Jew has made in the way I read scripture. In this post, I will offer what I hope is a clear example of that. But first, a few words of introduction are in order.

Categorically speaking, the biggest shift I've experienced in this regard is a new awareness to the presence of (and importance of!) symbolism in the gospels. My theological heritage had taught me that symbols were 'bare'--they didn't actually do anything, and they didn't even say all that much except in a dry referential sort of way. My conversion on this issue has been a new birth into understanding symbol as story, and story as action. In short, speech is action; and, often times, actions say more than words ever could. I suggest that this was the operating paradigm with which we should approach the Biblical texts, and the gospels in particular.

Luke 10: 38-42 provides an excellent test case for examining synoptic symbolism:

38As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all
the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" 41"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

This passage has been used in many sermons as a defense for the priority that women must give to prayer and scripture study. "Remember, ladies," so it is said, "time in the Word is just as important as doing the laundry or dishes." Such a reading of this passage, however, does not do justice to the subversiveness of Jesus actions or Luke's special theological emphases.

First, we must remember that Jesus lived (and Luke wrote) in a highly patriarchal culture. Women had their place, and men had theirs--and the clearly defined boundaries of those realms were not to be transgressed. Thus, a number of things about this story should seem curious to the reader. First, what would have given Mary the audacity to think she had a right to sit at Jesus feet? Such a position symbolically implied an inclusion amongst Jesus' disciples. Only Men were allowed to sit at the feet of a rabbi. Mary didn't just get distracted while she was setting the table for dinner. Her action was intentional, and it rocked the social world in which she lived--that's why Martha was so outraged. It wasn't because she needed an extra pair of hands in the kitchen.

The second--and bigger--question: why in the world would Jesus allow Mary to do such a thing? Mary, as a 'foolish woman' could perhaps be excused for considering herself more highly than she should have.

But not a rabbi of Jesus' stature.

By allowing Mary to sit at his feet as he taught, Jesus was giving tacit approval to her actions. In Martha's view, Jesus was brining shame upon himself by allowing the situation to continue. By her questioning, Martha is attempting to restore the all important social order of a first century Jewish household. She, essentially, was reminding Jesus of who he was.

In this light, Jesus response is all the more remarkable for its symbolism. He did not scold Mary when her embarrassing actions were brought to light by Martha--who, by the way, was certainly just saying what the rest of the male disciples were thinking. Rather, Jesus affirmed both her desire and her right to be included amongst the disciples. Essentially, Jesus response explained to Martha that Mary had gotten it right by shaking up the social constraints of her culture; and--by extension--inviting Martha to live in the new reality into which her sister had already stepped. Jesus, essentially, was reminding Martha of who she was.

In my view the application of this passage is clear. Women have the same right to sit at the feet of the Great Rabbi as men. And, by extension, they have the same right to further the legacy of that Rabbi by teaching others. The fact that women are still consistently denied the right, duty and privilege of exercising their gifts to the fullest possible benefit of the church is troubling. It seems to me that those who would deny gifted women a preaching role
(for instance) are simply echoing the voice of Martha--"Tell these women to remember their place!" And, I'm quite confident Jesus' gentle rebuke would be similar--"You are concerned about many things (i.e., maintenance of social tradition)...but they have chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from them."

Many, in their attempts to minimize the utter difference of this kind of reading, refer to this as a "deeper meaning." (I've described this problem in more detail elsewhere.) By this, they mean that it is nice for those who want to study the passage in a more extensive way, but that the normal reading also 'works just fine.' The reason that I chose the passage from Luke 10 is that it illustrates the folly of such dualism. What I've described above can't possibly be a 'deeper meaning' because it completely deconstructs the more common reading of the text. One reading says, "Don't forget to be pious while you accept the social norms handed to you;" the other says, "The social norms you've been handed--where women are viewed as second class citizenry--are not a part of the kingdom of God that is even now breaking in upon this world."

I think this is a good place to stop for the time being. But first, a word to those that disagree with the larger theological point I've made in this entry. I hope you see a pastoral heart in what otherwise might seem like a polemical bludgeon club. Certainly you could call up other scripture passages that may seem to oppose the point I've made here, and I'm confident it would make for an interesting discussion. What I'm primarily interested in, however, is: How would you render this passage differently in either meaning or application? And, if your reading is different, is it grounded in the concrete history of first century Judaism? I believe that the most fruitful discussions are to be had on those terms, and I sincerely thank you for indulging me if you feel differently.

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  • Bro.

    Sorry not much time to respond. Perhaps, some other time. I do love you and appreciate your zeal.

    I miss your red-type personality.

    In this particular example though I feel like you may have thrown your interpretation cards down on the table prematurely (and not just because I complementarian:)). Not prematurely in the sense that you haven't thought long and hard about this passage and its connection to other biblical teachings on this sensitive issue. But, prematurely in the sense that in my mind you didn't fully explain your belief in an analogous relationship between Jesus' deconstruction of a 1st century social construct and your reconstruction of 21st century church polity.

    In my mind, this seemed like a leap that you covered up with the phrase "in my view the application of this passage is clear." It's not so clear in my mind and it'd be great if you could fill out some of your thoughts bridging the centuries and speak more clearly why this particular teaching of Jesus necessarily points to that particular application.

    Does this make sense?

    By Blogger Pastor Cor, at 12:32 PM  

  • I have a hundred thoughts, though but one minute to type. Ah how I yearn for the day when I can be a single career persaon again. So rather than thoughts on the argument (which I have plenty) or on the case text (always go back to the GK. Always always always when commenting on it); I'll just say one word by way of caution. I read your posts and I wonder sometimes if I don't hear more Tom (Wright) than Tim. You know I think the Bishop has a voice and a pen we should be hearing and reading. But he is only A voice, remember. Certainly not THE voice.

    Clearly he's the Barth of our generation. I got that. But Wright, like Barth, is only one instrument in the symphony. The two together are only two students of scripture out of the host of students since the first disciples. Just promise me that you will continue to be a student of the text first, and a printing press of the newest ideas last.

    Love you brother.

    By Blogger Aaron, at 10:31 PM  

  • Wow. A host of issues to address. Cor, first of all, I want to thank you for sticking with me through this journey despite your busy schedule. It really means a lot to me that you're still committed to my spiritual development as a pastor even though I'm a thousand miles away.

    I should say that, after giving your comment some serious thought, I should maybe tone down my language the 'obviousness' of that passage's application to our day. I realize that, even if the challenging of gender based social structures is a meaning upon which we can all agree, there are still a host of directions that a person can go with that meaning.

    The reason I went the direction that I did is because there seem to be so many relevant points of contact between first century meaning and 21st century polity. Women are often told in our day that their perception of the Spirit leading them toward ministry (yes, including the ministry of preaching) could not possibly be the work of God. It seems to contradict everything that "we know from scripture." I would say that Martha's critique of Mary was also based on "what she knew from scripture" in the sense of how the Torah had been applied in her particular culture. Jesus' subversion of that paradigm should, in my opinion, cause us to at least carefully question our readings of "what we know to be true" so that in our "being concerned about many things" we don't end up taking away something that Jesus said couldn't be taken away.

    Maybe this is still too vague. I wrote a bunch more about the egalitarian/complimentarian issue but then erased it because I promised I wouldn't go there....maybe I'm learning self restraint through this process after all.

    By Blogger timmer k., at 9:03 AM  

  • Aaron.

    Thank you for that criticism. It's one I always, ALWAYS need to hear. I'm alway, I'm afraid, profoundly shaped by what I've been reading lately. As circumstances would have it, I'm just reading a lot of Wright--one book for this class and one for a discussion group.

    Also, over the last four years, I have been under the tutelage of many who advocate his methods for learning HOW to read scripture. In that sense, I guess my readings are bound to reflect the tools and principles of the bishop. It seems to me that it's much like baseball--if you work with a particular hitting coach, your swing is bound to look like his. Or, if you're studying under a particular violin teacher, the master is in some ways bound to come out of the apprentice. That, of course, is why we all must choose carefully those to whom we apprentice ourselves. I pray that I have chosen wisely.

    Again though, Aaron, your admonition to be a person of the scriptures is well taken. Going back to them constantly is the lone defense against a quadrilateral that has been bent badly out of shape in favor of a particular tradition.

    My words to Cor apply to you as well, Aaron--thanks for making time in your busy schedule to help me along the journey.

    By Blogger timmer k., at 9:14 AM  

  • Wow, it looks like people are taking swings at Timmer like a Carlos Silva sinker! (or perhaps a Livan Hernandez pitch ... as we may soon see every fifth game)
    I like where you are going with the need to read in a first century jewish context with our ears sensitive to symbol. Are there other examples in the gospels that don't raise sticky issues of church polity? As a complimentarian, I tend to agree with Cor that a jump to 21rst century church polity may be premature. But then, I am also an odd type of comlimentarian who thinks that today's prohibition of women as pastors originates by people making the very same erroneous jump to 21rst century church polity and practice through readings of Paul that pre-assume our church polity as Paul's setting and them find the great apostle writing in support of it today.
    On the larger issue of first century context and symbol are there must be others. The cross as symbol? The Lord's last supper? I happen to love Marks telling of demons who are named after a high Roman military position (Legion, for we are many) who then beg to be ordered into pigs by Jesus' words. There must be symbol is the author's question through the disciples of "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him" Clearly the author is doing more than just reporting historical facts!

    By Blogger Post_Fidelitas, at 11:27 AM  

  • I'm confused. Am I supposed to be in the kitchen or out of it? :P

    Thought I'd offer up a shallow thought for ya there.

    (Just fyi: Though I do not comment on these posts, for I am not a student of theology and feel unable to offer intelligent commentary, I have appreciated them nonetheless. And so I will only offer this: As a limited student of Rob Bell and others like him, I now demand historical context. To me, there is no more accurate a way to interpret scripture. Being raised in the Southern Baptist youth group tradition, my faith suffered at the hands of bad scriptural interpretation that later caused me to seriously question whether I wanted to be a Christian at all. Through historical context and, I believe, accurate interpretation of scripture, I was brought back from the precipice.)

    By Blogger Jess(ica), at 11:47 AM  

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