We need not think that hermeneutical despair (‘anything goes’) and hermeneutical arrogance (we have ‘the’ interpretation) are the only alternatives. We can acknowledge that we see and interpret ‘in a glass, darkly’ or ‘in a mirror, dimly’ and that we know ‘only in part’ (1 Cor. 13.12), while ever seeking to understand and interpret better by combining the tools of scholarship with the virtues of humbly listening to the interpretations of others and above all to the Holy Spirit. — Merold Westphal, Whose Interpretation? Whose Community?, Kindle ed’n, 2009, p.18
I became a Christian at the age of fourteen after accidentally going to a Billy Graham rally. (Yes, it was a genuine accident!) I didn’t go to church for some months after that, but eventually I my best friend asked me to his church. I went, and I found that it was a Plymouth Brethren congregation. There are varieties of Brethren church; mine was the most ‘open’ there is. But they are mostly a fundamentalist group. In my time in the Brethren, I gained an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the scriptures, but really I didn’t learn good habits of interpreting scripture.
I was taught that the bible is a book chock-full of propositions and facts to be believed without question. I was taught that the way the Brethren read the bible is the only way to read it.
So there were no contradictions in the bible. The bible taught a literal six-day creation of the world, which occurred only a few thousand years ago. Jesus was coming again by the end of the 1980s. And women were not allowed to speak in church.
Moving out of the Brethren became another conversion. It was just as profound as my first conversion, and taught me not to stand on a supposedly inerrant bible.
It also taught me that we need to ask questions of the scriptures. I’d like to ask one of those questions today of the Gospel Reading. The question is Whose story is the text telling?
In today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus ‘was asked: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”’
The Pharisees who asked Jesus knew their scriptures. Let’s look at what they asked again: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?
Whose story is the text telling?
For the Pharisees, it was the man’s story. They were really asking,
Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?
Whose story is it? It’s about the man, because it wasn’t lawful under any circumstances for a woman to divorce her husband. They were quoting a biblical text, from Deuteronomy.
Remember: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ We are used to no-fault divorce, which either the husband or wife can initiate. It was very different in Israel two thousand years ago, and it’s still different in some parts of the world today.
So in that world, one in which wives are powerless to escape destructive marriages, Jesus introduces another text, this one from Genesis 1. He says
from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’
In this Battle of the Texts, Jesus brings women into the discussion. The new text includes another partner, the woman; the needs of the wife are on an equal level with the husband’s needs.
The husband of Jesus’ day may feel his position had been downgraded. But Jesus says that the marriage relationship belongs to both. His words against divorce are a means of making women equal partners with men, and not a law for all time.
I want to look at another story in John’s Gospel of which we should ask the question Whose story is this text telling? It’s the one about the woman caught in the act of adultery.
This is the story about Jesus that we had to have. In most bibles, it’s found in the first part of John 8. But some early manuscripts have it at other places in John, or even in Luke. Some don’t have it at all. No one seems to know what to do with it; it’s a story we all know, yet it doesn’t appear in the Lectionary
Here’s the story:
Then everyone went home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early the next morning he went back to the Temple. All the people gathered around him, and he sat down and began to teach them. The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees brought in a woman who had been caught committing adultery, and they made her stand before them all. ‘Teacher,’ they said to Jesus, ‘this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. In our Law Moses commanded that such a woman must be stoned to death. Now, what do you say?’ They said this to trap Jesus, so that they could accuse him. But he bent over and wrote on the ground with his finger. As they stood there asking him questions, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her.’ Then he bent over again and wrote on the ground. When they heard this, they all left, one by one, the older ones first. Jesus was left alone, with the woman still standing there. He straightened up and said to her, ‘Where are they? Is there no one left to condemn you?’
‘No one, sir,’ she answered.
‘Well, then,’ Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again.’
This story speaks the truth, whether it actually happened or whether it was the kind of story that people told about Jesus.
But who was it about besides Jesus? The woman, or the men?
To answer that, let’s ask this question: what’s the point of the story?
We might all agree that the point is that whoever has committed no sin may throw the first stone. It’s a story of great grace.
That’s not enough for some people, who want to turn the spotlight back on the woman. They put the emphasis on Jesus’ final words: ‘Go, and sin no more.’
In doing that, they cast the first stone. They just sneak it in, it’s a cheeky underarm throw; but it makes the woman the villain of the piece. And it justifies the anger of the men. (Who, incidentally, forgot to bring the man to be stoned alongside the woman.)
Time and time again, the scriptures are written from a male perspective. In our day, we need to reinterpret them to be inclusive of all people. In doing that, we are following Jesus who did just that.
It’s not just the scriptures that are often told from a male perspective. Life is often told from a male viewpoint, even in our day. Many men feel they have a right to control women’s lives. These are 2017 figures in Australia:
- On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.
- 1 in 3 Australian women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15.
- 1 in 5 Australian women has experienced sexual violence.
- 1 in 6 Australian women has experienced physical or sexual violence by current or former partner.
- 1 in 4 Australian women has experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner.
I saw the other day that some men have used drones to track down their ex-partners. We still live in a world in which many men feel entitled with regard to women.
Let me sum up with a picture. You may have heard of the controversy in the USA right now, where Brett Kavanaugh has only just been appointed a judge of the Supreme Court there. Christine Blasey Ford and other women have come forward to testify to his abusive behaviour towards them. It’s too much for some men (and some women!), who will not turn from their political course to give the women any credibility. Kavanaugh has been angrily demanding that he be believed and no one else. Yet look at the women’s faces in this picture:
They are by turns appalled, aghast, disgusted, questioning, and unable to believe their ears. (And these women are on his team! The woman to his right is his wife.) We need to listen to the message on their faces, not only to the words that are coming forth so fiercely from the central character’s mouth.
Today, I’ve tried to look behind the text with you. I haven’t spoken about marriage or divorce, except by the way. I’ve done that because we can’t even get what this text is saying without asking these questions first. First century marriage was a very different reality to marriage today. So if we don’t ask questions of the text, we might end up with a harsh view of divorce, or we may decide the bible is unrealistic and really doesn’t have anything useful to say to us at all today. Both of which are disastrous positions to take.
Whose story is the text telling? More than that, whose story are the media telling us today?
When we read the bible or watch the news, do we just hear the story of the powerful or are we intentionally discerning the story of those on the edge of things?
Jesus takes us to the edges to get a good perspective. West End is a great place to go to the edges. Let’s go there with Jesus.