Right up until the end, writing is a solitary art.
While I write with the help of what the ancients called a muse and with what we, in the Christian tradition, call the Holy Spirit – that mysterious and sometimes frustrating friend who sits with me at the keyboard – there is no other human being who joins me at my desk. Unlike a collaborative artist, such as a choreographer, who receives regular feedback on her work, I’m never sure how the listener/reader will experience my writing until it is complete. Thus, I am often startled by what catches people’s attention in my work – by what a given article, or story, or homily is “about” for them. On the whole, I am glad to be startled: I wrote about the subject at hand because I wanted to encounter it more deeply, and I am thankful to have the insight that comes in an unexpected response. I hope, therefore, never to be the writer who hears a reader’s interpretation of her work and declares that the reader is wrong. I hope, instead, to follow the example given in the (likely apocryphal) story about Samuel Beckett: it is said that, when asked what Waiting for Godot was about, Beckett would ask the reader what she thought it was about. Beckett would listen carefully before declaring, “How extraordinary! That is exactly what it is about!”
All of which is a long way of saying that the reaction to this homily surprised me. And that I was grateful to be surprised.
I gave this homily on February 13, 2011, at All Souls. The readings for the day were:
Generally, I don’t post my notes: the homily is an essentially oral medium. However, a number of people have asked for this text, so I’ll make an exception. Here it is.
In the evenings of my childhood, after my teeth were brushed and I was tucked in amongst the great cloth mountains of my teddy bears, there were certain stories that I asked my father to tell me over and over. A few of the stories were taken from books – I made him read and reread Treasure Island until both of us could all but recite Stevenson’s ode to pirates and to the high seas from memory. But, more often, the stories were drawn from his great canvas of my father’s mind. Some of these tales had been told to him by his father. Some of them were taken from his own experience, from that time in the impossibly distant past, when he, too, had been young. Stories of bicycle trips into the countryside to buy strawberries, of errands run for his mother through the twisting streets of his hometown, of train trips into the mountains, of war. These stories were not written down anywhere. They existed only in the fleeting space between my father’s lips and my ears.
What I loved about those stories was not so much what happened in them but how they were told. My father’s tales introduced me to the wonderful world of the oral tradition. A world defined by paradox, by hyperbole, by unexpected personification, and by the deliberate defiance of the rules of physics, grammar, anatomy, and manners.
In this world of the spoken word, I found mountains which were built out of molehills, tails which wagged dogs, stitches in time which saved nine, and people who walked on air. In addition to those inveterate and magic phrases, I heard a few from Dad which I’ve never heard anyone else employ before or since. He would describe, for instance, someone who was stubborn as “the sort of man who puts his hat on with a hammer.” I laughed at Dad’s curious sayings, at his amazing stories of farce, of comeuppance, of surprise, of the reversal of fortune. But I also learned from them. About what life, and love, and loss is all about. About what is important. The winding path of Dad’s words passed through the woods of the absurd. But they still led to the truth.
This Sunday, we are halfway through a journey with another keeper of the oral tradition. Another man whose words only exist in that liminal space between his mouth and our ears. Beginning two weeks ago, and ending in a further two weeks, we have been sitting at Jesus’ feet as he delivers what just may be the oddest and most awesome speech in history, what Leonard Cohen dubbed “the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount; which I don’t pretend to understand at all.”
So. Here is Jesus standing in a natural amphitheatre, the sloping rock behind him achieving what a state of the art PA system could not, so that even 200 yards away, it sounds like Jesus is speaking right beside you. Up until this occasion, Jesus has told more or less traditional stories. Even if they didn’t always make sense, even if they felt like a riddle, they still had a beginning, a middle, and an end. You could follow them.
But as this speech starts, it is quickly clear that Jesus is telling a story of another kind. A series of sayings, of idioms, of moral instructions, most not more than a sentence or two long. Some of them are contradictory, some of them are brilliant, and some of them are just plain strange.
Jesus begins with the beatitudes, that series of couplets which, for many believers, stand as his mission statement. They crash like the surf on the beach: Blessed, blessed, blessed. From there, Jesus moves on to salt and to light. In the coming week we will hear him offer his famous instruction to turn the other cheek, to give up your cloak. And then, in one week more, the curtain will fall on this awesome and strange speech with his penultimate words, “don’t worry about tomorrow.” And just when we think that we are off the hook, that the show is over and we may safely return to our homes, he will come back for a curtain call and adds a few words more, “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.”
Those closing words won’t happen for a while, however. Today, we are at the halfway mark of the sermon. And Jesus is on a roll. The words are coming fast, too fast to digest all of them. No sooner has one statement dropped in your lap, like a loaf of bread at one of Jesus’ wild banquets, than another follows it, and then another. The rolling structure of the beatitudes is gone, replaced by a new rhythm: you have heard it said: but I say to you.
What you have heard said is to be found in the Jewish Bible: in Exodus, in Deuteronomy, in the book of Numbers. This reference back to earlier wisdom is what Biblical scholars call intertextuality, and what rap artists call sampling. This is Jesus taking the wisdom of those who came before him and remixing it, reshaping it, renewing it, making it his own.
Which of Jesus’ rapid and reshaped words caught his audiences’ attention on that ancient hill? Maybe different sayings reverberated in the ears of different people, so that one person wondered about her calling to reconcile with her brother or sister, while another wondered about a vow that she had made. And maybe that is also true today, here at All Souls, so that some of us were struck by one part of the passage that Mary just read to us, while others stopped at another. If you’re like me, however, two sayings have particularly stuck in your mind. They are startling to a modern ear. And, conveniently, they are placed one right after the other.
First, if any of you have looked at a woman with lust, you have already committed adultery in your heart. And, if that’s not good enough for you, right after comes the second saying, that ode to self-mutilation, that final test as to whether or not you’re really a biblical literalist. If your right eye makes you sin – or, in the incomparable language of the King James Bible, if thy right eye offend thee – well, pluck it out and throw it from you. If your right hand makes you sin, cut it off! It is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
What did the people listening to Jesus think when they heard those words? I’m going to venture that it was something quite different than you or I hear today.
Three assumptions hold us back from hearing Jesus’ words with fresh ears.
The first is an assumption about the text itself, and it’s a simple one: because we have read Jesus’ teachings so many times, we forget that the written word is not his natural medium. With the exception of that enigmatic occasion when he writes in the dust with his finger, there is no suggestion in scripture that Jesus wrote anything down. His medium is the voice. To commit something from the oral tradition to the written page is to preserve it (and we are grateful for the preservation of Jesus’ words), but it is also to constrain it, to keep it from roaming free. If you have ever seen an urban legend written down, you will know what I mean. It is both surprising and a little disappointing when you read that the alligator which your friend assured you was found in the sewers of Oakland is suddenly biting innocent city workers in Pittsburgh or Berlin. The oral tradition, left in its natural element, flows and changes, evolving to meet its listeners’ ears. Jesus intended his words to be heard – not read – by a particular group of people in a particular context. Were he to deliver the sermon on the mount outside of the Berkeley BART station, the message would be the same, be the words would be thoroughly different: they would reflect the idiom, the slang, the experience of the people gathered in the bustle that square. This is not to say that scripture’s record of Jesus’ words does not contain eternal truths. It is to say that they those truths are clearest in their original cultural context.
The second assumption that clouds our understanding of Jesus turns around interpretation: whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we are aware of them or not, we assume that the previous interpreters of scripture were more or less right. Thus, we read Jesus through the lens of Augustine, and Calvin, and Jimmy Swaggart. These interpreters, with their pathological relationship with the physical body, with their fear of and fascination with sex, have given us the standard reading of Jesus’ meditation on lust: if you’re holy enough, if you’re good enough, if you’re really trying for the kind of perfection that Jesus had, you won’t have those wicked, lustful thoughts.
Finally, our understanding of Jesus’ words is clouded by an assumption about who we are and about who our ancestors were. We live after the enlightenment, many of us have university educations, and we figure that we are smart enough to understand metaphor and indirect meaning but that the ancients, somehow, were too thick to get that sort of thing. The irony is that this assumption that it puts at risk of doing the very thing we accuse our ancestors of – of reading Jesus’ words superficially, of figuring that must only have a single, literal meaning. As one scholar quipped, we think that we are wise enough to understand scripture figuratively while the ancients were so foolish as to understand it literally but, in fact, the opposite is true: we are so foolish as to understand scripture literally, while our ancestors got the joke.
I’d like to see if we can hear Jesus with fresh ears. To see if we can set aside these three assumptions – or at least become aware of them – and, use that vital tool for faith, the imagination, to wonder together for a while about what his words might have actually meant.
To begin with the first passage which caught our attention, if you have looked at a woman – or, in the interests of inclusivity, if you have looked at another person – with lust, you have already committed adultery. This is where the second assumption – the assumption that the historical interpreters have it right – really comes into play. Jesus statement contains the implied question, “Have you ever looked at another person with lust?” Augustine, and Calvin, and Swaggart tell us that our answer ought to be no. But I’d like to suggest that they get this one completely backwards; that Jesus, being fully human, knew that the real answer to this question was of course. Sexual attraction is universal, it is something that every human being experiences, it is a biological reality. We all have looked at another person with lust. And, wait for it, that makes all of us adulterers. What do you think about that? Suddenly, this saying is not a contradiction but a compliment to the story of the woman caught in adultery: let you who is without sin cast the first stone. For crying out loud, Jesus is saying, stop spending so much time agonising and trying to make rules about other people’s sex lives! Spend your energy on something that actually matters. Could there be a lesson here for contemporary society? Could there be a lesson for the contemporary church?
And here is the second saying, the plucking of eyes, the severing of hands. Here, our third assumption – that the ancients couldn’t possibly fathom irony – holds us back. Let’s give our ancestors a little credit. Let’s recognise that even the most faithful among Jesus’ audience were capable of listening to these words without starting to look for hacksaws. In any context but scripture, we would immediately recognise this saying for what it is: wild hyperbole. Like the meditation on adultery, my guess is that this statement implies a question: what is it that you have you have mistaken for your eye or your hand? What do you think is essential in your life, in this world, that really is not? This saying makes me think of contemporary expressions, such as “right hand man,” and people who speak of cigarettes and iPhones and say, “it’s like it’s part of my body.” What is pushing you into hell, into that state where you are alienated from your true purpose, from your true love, from your community, from God? What have you told yourself that you can’t live without? What have you mistaken for your eye or your hand? How free might you be if you let go of that thing?
I’m tempted to speculate as to what the answer to Jesus’ question might be. What the answer might have been for our ancestors. And what it might be for us, now. But Jesus is wise enough to leave the question hanging, and I will do the same.
Here is Jesus, the greatest storyteller, the greatest keeper of the oral tradition. Here is Jesus, standing on that ancient hill, and drawing from the same wondrous bag of tricks that my father would employ in the warm darkness of my bedroom all those years later: hyperbole, parable, irony. The wild tools of faith and of imagination, all of which tell us the truth.
Jesus tells us stories. Stories which invite questions. Jesus has begun the story. And, in the fleeting space between his lips and our ears, he invites us to continue it.