Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Wednesday, June 15, 2011 -- Week of Proper 6, Year One
Evelyn Underhill, 1941
To read about our daily commemorations, go to our Holy Women, Holy Men blog:

Today's Readings for the Daily Office
(Book of Common Prayer, p. 970)
Psalms 119:97-120 (morning)      81, 82 (evening)
1 Samuel 2:12-26
Acts 2:1-21
Luke 20:27-40

It is interesting that the Sadducees try to trap Jesus into a futile conversation about Biblical interpretation and disputes.  For the Sadducees, the issue is resurrection.  They are a more conservative group.  They follow the Torah -- the first five books of the Bible -- as the authoritative source for their doctrine.  The Pharisees and other interpreters include other, less ancient texts as authoritative for their beliefs, including many of the texts that are part of the current Hebrew Bible.  Resurrection is a notion that does not appear in the Torah, but only in later texts and interpretations. 

The Sadducees offer a question that makes the notion of resurrection seem ridiculous.  Jesus transcends the question by changing the categories.  In the age to come, marriage will be irrelevant, he tells them.  Then he quotes to them from the Torah in a way that might be interpreted to support resurrection -- Moses speaks to God in the burning bush as the God of his late ancestors.  But God is God of the living, not the dead.  Therefore, our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still alive.  One can imagine that this was not a convincing argument to the Saducees.

But Jesus' answer does show an interesting model for interpretation.  Jesus doesn't get stuck in the categories that framed the debate for the Sadducees.  He imagines a reality far more profound than the limitations of earthly marriage, and the implication that a man "has" or even "owns" a wife.  For Jesus, God's possibilities are greater than we can imagine.

These same conversations happen today.  In my newspaper column last Sunday I mentioned how anemic it seems to me for Biblical literalists to insist that there is only one way to interpret scripture (or one more privileged way) -- the literal, objective interpretation:  Jonah therefore was literally swallowed by a whale.  (It makes more sense to me to read Jonah as a short story, with an interesting political-theological point.)

I received an email objection.  My correspondent reasoned:  Since the New Testament mentions "the sign of Jonah" as a pre-figuring of Jesus' three-days in the tomb, if I deny the literalness of the story of Jonah, I must deny the resurrection of Christ and therefore be a... (well, you can fill in the blanks about what I might be.  But it's not nice.)

I found it interesting that this same writer used his response to me as an opportunity also to rail against "illegals" as criminals who need to be jailed or deported.  (It was a a long, rambling email.)

I tried to be brief in my response.  I simply affirmed my faith in the resurrection, bolstered by my own experience of the presence of the Risen Christ.  Then I mentioned that the book of Jonah is a book about prejudice.  It is about one of God's leaders who failed to see the creative possibility of grace among foreigners of a different faith.  Jonah was humbled for his racism and pride, and God's power became manifest among the foreigners.  I imagine that my response was not very convincing to my email correspondent.

Thoughts of interpretations and Biblical quandaries popped up in my mind as I read the other readings today. 

We have the story of the rotten sons of Eli.  (And his poor fathering.)  All of us have known similar guys --  bullying, stupid, arrogant.  Their hearts are hard.  Eli pleads with them to cease the most troubling of their behaviors, their offenses against God.  "But they would not listen to the voice of their father; for it was the will of the Lord to kill them."

Now that gives me pause.  "It was the will of the Lord to kill them."  The story is not unlike the story of Pharaoh, who would not listen to Moses, it is said, because God hardened the heart of Pharaoh.  In some places in scripture, the writer sees God's hand in the obstinacy and rebellion of figures like Moses and Eli's sons -- God hardens their hearts and closes their ears so that they cannot repent.  God then uses their rebellion for God's further purposes -- the Exodus for Pharaoh, the replacement of a dysfunctional priestly family with the faithful leader Samuel. 

I do not think of God as intentionally closing someone's heart to the possibility of goodness or keeping them in evil because it is God's will to kill them.  But I do see God's hand at work among the hard hearts and evildoers, bringing resurrection and good things beyond my imagination out of their destructive behavior.  When I see hopeless stupidity and violence, I can hope that God is using their wrong to create something new and wonderful.

The story of Pentecost seems to be a story of just such a reversal.  The Torah tells us in the story of the Tower of Babel that human hubris led to the division of people into the confusion of various languages.  In the Spirit, God gives humanity the gift of understanding that transcends boundaries of language.  It is a compelling story. 

But there is a tag line toward the end of the Pentecost narrative:  "Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."  (Acts 2:21)  But, my literalist shadow asks, what about Matthew 7:21:  "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven..."  One of those contradictions.  (Like the question, "How did Judas die?"  We've got two, irreconcilable versions.)

I don't expect scripture to be without contradictions, for it is the complicated story of our experience of God's divine mystery in our history, and it includes the interpretation of many faithful witnesses.  My intuition tells me that everything is far more wonderful than I could possibly imagine anyway.  I tend to let my interpretation follow Jesus' tendencies, to hope and imagine more than the literal word might imply.  God brings resurrection and new life in ways I cannot presume to comprehend, and in ways that may be greater than our best interpretation of scripture might assume. 

It is more than our conservative Sadducees might imagine, or today's literalists as well.  More that our liberal interpreters might hope for.  God is God.  Rest in the mystery.  Do your best, and count on God to surprise and inspire.  Oh.  And don't harden your heart.  But even if you do (or someone else who bothers you does), God still can use our worst to create the best.



Audio podcast:  Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week.  Click the following link:
Morning Reflection Podcasts

About Morning Reflections
"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at -- Click for online Daily Office
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location -- --  Click for Divine Hours

Discussion Blog:  To comment on today's reflection or readings, go to, or click here for Lowell's blog find today's reading, click "comment" at the bottom of the reading, and post your thoughts.

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

See our Web site at

Our Rule of Life: 
We aspire to...
    worship weekly
    pray daily
    learn constantly
    serve joyfully 
    live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


At 8:34 AM, Anonymous janet said...

Hi Lowell,

Your "literalist shadow" made me smile!

As I prayed the morning office this morning I had to stop when I read that line you quoted, and say Dear God, what do you want me to do with that! I wish I had Karen Armstrong's answer in front of me about reading scripture. She talks about four levels of language, and if I remember correctly the Hebrew people were masters at the nuances of language. Language is rich and symbolic in and of itself, so there is really little that can be taken literally.

Pesky shadows! We learn so much from them, though.

Thanks again for your honesty in confronting contradiction.


At 8:19 AM, Blogger Lowell said...


Karen Armstrong mentions that for centuries, until the early modern period, "nobody though of focusing solely on [the Bible's] literal meaning. Instead, Christians in Europe were taught to expound every sentence of the Bible in four ways: literally, morally, allegorically, and mystically." (p. 57 of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life)



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