An Evolving Understanding
An Evolving Understanding
August 19, 2018
So, the Bible is the collected history and stories and poetry of centuries of faithful people. In this book, people reflect with incredible honesty on all sorts of human issues: temptation and sibling rivalry and adultery and power and despair and triumph and tragedy. You name it. If it is part of the human experience, it is part of the Bible.
Now, it seems like an obvious truth to me to say that one would at least hope that part of what we would see over several thousand years of reflection would be some kind of advancement in how human beings think about those human issues. In some cases, we do see positive change. For example when the Bible talks about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” this actually was a step in a better direction from the most primitive notion of justice in which no matter what you did, my revenge would be a thousand times worse. The notion of proportional justice mattered. Then, again, another step is taken when Jesus challenges that notion, saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Jesus takes people to the next step of taking a defiant, resistant step rather than seeking revenge, at all. Real power, Jesus says, rests in not giving your attacker the power to define who you will be.
So, the human understanding of human life changes over time—sometimes. Let’s remind ourselves how often the Bible is used to keep things stuck, too. The Bible has been used to support slavery, to support any number of terrible political regimes, to keep the poor in their place, and certainly to oppress women—among other things. The same Bible that inspired Martin Luther King’s dream is also the Bible which gave rise to the pronouncement of AIDS as God’s judgement on gay men. Like every other powerful thing in this life, the Bible can be abused.
How human beings understand what it means to be a human being changes over time (sometimes). At the same time, how human beings understand God changes, too (again, sometimes). So, there are some very primitive understandings of God in the Bible. Consider, for example, the Noah story. God has had it with what a mess the world has become. What does God decide to do? God decides to destroy nearly the whole creation. We gloss this over and make cute nursery murals of the animals all walking together by twos but the bottom line is that this is, in fact, the story of an incredibly vengeful God. In fact, this is the kind of God that a notion of disproportionate justice produces: a God who has the power to just trash the whole thing. However, the step forward in the Noah story is that in the end, God promises to never do that again. It’s not that God has changed, though. What has changed is the human understanding of the nature of God. God becomes proportionate at roughly the same time that the human notion of justice becomes proportional.
I mention both the changes in how human beings understand themselves and how they understand God because our work for the last few weeks has put us right in one of the pivotal moments of our evolving understanding on both fronts. Let me explain…
A few weeks ago, we did a quick overview of the story in Mark’s Gospel of the feeding of the five thousand. What I suggested was that this telling of the miracle would have been full of very familiar images which would have provoked the cherished memories of the Jewish people’s earliest days. Central to that collective memory was the experience of being led by a former shepherd (Moses) out of slavery into the wilderness and being fed by God. What they would hear in Mark’s retelling of this moment in Jesus’ life was that he recognized that the people were like a sheep without a shepherd so he leads them and feeds them. He even has the disciples separate the crowd into smaller groups when they are about to be fed. (Do you remember how important the tribes were in the life of those ancient ancestors? People steeped in Jewish tradition would have remembered that!) The people don’t have much but with God’s help what they have is enough. For a Jewish audience, this would have been the incredibly comforting moment of thinking, “Oh, my gosh…It’s happening again!”
At the heart of this remembering would have been the experience of being special, of being God’s chosen people. Now, anyone who went back to the first experience of the people’s sense of being chosen would have noted not that they were chosen because they somehow were better than anyone else but that they were chosen because they had been treated so terribly. Having been slaves for centuries, considered by most people to be the bottom of the barrel when it comes to human beings, God makes the most unlikely of choices and acts to liberate them. From he start, the God who is at work is a God of mercy and love and kindness.
Maybe some of us here got picked that way in gym class when the captains had been chosen or got befriended by someone this way or even had someone fall in love with us this way. For reasons that we couldn’t fathom, against all the odds, someone looked at us and said, I want you on my team or I want you to be my friend or I love you. And we thought to ourselves, “Oh, my gosh, I must be the luckiest person on this earth…either that or they must be crazy!”
However, precisely because we are human beings, at some point, we forgot that grace and kindness and sheer, unexplainable luck and instead started to think that we got picked because we deserved it. We took that place on the team or that friendship or that love for granted. We focused on other things instead of thanking our lucky stars on a daily basis. In fact, we even had days when we talked ourselves into thinking that maybe we were owed more. I believe that there is not one of us who has not done this.
Therefore, there is not a one of us who cannot understand the predicament of the ancient Jewish people. They went from being the people whom God liberated from slavery to the people who were convinced that God’s love could never end to the people who were totally shocked when everything fell apart. Because they thought they were special, the community fell apart. Because they thought they were special, their faith fell apart. Because they thought they were special, they didn’t have a clue what to make of the fact that they were dragged off into exile. How could God let this happen?
(Again, nothing about this is particularly a point about Judaism. It’s a point about all of us human beings. Once we think we’ve got it made and we are special, the clock is ticking. And what that clock is measuring is how long anything of value in this life can remain in place when we live a life which doesn’t value that relationship or that job or that faith was that had once given us meaning. When we take things for granted, they die.)
So, here we have a people whose world has fallen apart (for very human reasons.) They have a vision that reminds them of how things used to be. And they get excited, because, in a very human way, they think, “It’s going to be that way again! Hooray! We get to go back to the good old days!” Who hasn’t gotten excited about that, right? Except that’s not what happens…
Instead, Mark invites them to come the next step. He tells them about a foreign woman—a hybrid of all the people that they hate—who breaks all the rules and asks for Jesus’ help. And what does Jesus do? He makes a half-hearted attempt to argue with her, gets bedazzled by her words and heals the woman’s daughter and praises the woman. What? Marks tells us about a group of faithful (gulp!) foreigners who bring a deaf and mute man to Jesus. And what does Jesus do? He touches the man and mixes spit with the man and heals him.
At this point, I have to believe that Mark’s audience would have been queasy, in exactly the way when we get queasy when we realize that our understanding that we are “special” is being challenged: “Hold it, you mean they are going to be on the team, too? Why is my friend working on making another friend and how is that going to not leave me with less of a friend? What do you mean that the person who loves me can love other people, too?” When we realize that we might not be as special as we think and that we might have to share, we get jealous and we get worried that there might not be enough to go around.
Which is what makes the second feeding so telling. This time, it is Jesus who recognizes the needs of the crowd. After three days (no accident) of listening to him, he is moved to help this foreign crowd. He tells the disciples to share everything they have with the people. They do. This time, though, there is not tribal arrangement. The disciples just begin sharing with everyone. Like the first feeding, God responds to the needs of human beings. Like the first feeding, there is enough for everyone. Like the first feeding, there are leftovers. However, unmistakably this time. the emphasis is on God caring for everyone. (Interestingly, the feeding of the five thousand counts only men. This feeding talks simply about 4000 people. Apparently, women and children and the foreigners and the sick and the disabled all count now, too!)
Human understanding evolves, our understanding of ourselves and our understanding of God. We will take the next step forward when we regard every human being as special, especially those least like us. We will take the next step forward when we understand that God cares for and loves every human being.