Violence and Destruction: on hard lessons

Oof. I don’t know whether you noticed, but last Sunday’s readings were tough.

First, Jeremiah 20:7-13:

Oh Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed;
You have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and a derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,”
Then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot….

And so on.

(The Lectionary informs me that we had the option of reading Genesis 21:8-21 instead. You know, the one where Abraham abandons his child and the mother of his child to die in the wilderness.)

And for the Gospel, we got Matthew 10:24-39, which lays out the cost of discipleship in bleak and uncompromising terms:

…Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

As always, it’s not all harshness and despair:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

And Jeremiah ends, however reluctantly, with praise and hope:

Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.

For me, there’s always the temptation to skip right to these lines of consolation, passing by the swords and enmity, the fire and reproach. And I’m an avowed devotee of the hard pieces of the Bible. (I took a survey recently that asked me what three books of the Bible were the most meaningful for me. I listed Ecclesiastes, Esther, and 1 Corinthians.) But these passages are just so raw. Jeremiah spits and flails: at God, who forces him to speak words that sound like insanity, words of condemnation against the city and people he loves; at his “close friends,” who are the very ones watching and waiting for him to stumble; even at his own life. “Why did I come forth from the womb,” he cries at the close of this chapter, “to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” For me, these are hauntingly personal words, echoing times too numerous to bear remembering when Jeremiah’s words could have been mine. They rip through the tranquil air of the sanctuary. They smell of hospitals and sting like wounds.

I happened to be the lector for that reading from Jeremiah yesterday. Listening to the words come out of my mouth, and minutes later listening to the words from Matthew rolling out from the priest, I found myself thinking about the lectionary–and about the place of scripture in the liturgy–in a new way. It actually struck me as being quite like the experience of talk therapy, in which part of the point is to provide a safe place to tell the impossibly hard stories. Let me explain.

Here we were, listening to Jeremiah tell me that being a prophet was like being raped by God, and to Jesus telling me that the cost of speaking God’s love would be slander, exile from my family, and violent death. But we heard these words, as always, within the context of safety that liturgy gives us: We come together in a place that we have deemed to be holy, in a time that we have set apart as sacred. We sing, bear candles, wear vestments, enfold ourselves in prayer. We have a time and a place appointed for the passages that trouble us as well as the passages that set us at ease. Within the safety of this ritual, the words are not made easy. We don’t get to skip ahead to the happy ending. But somehow, we are able to bear them.

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Sin, Pollution, and Samaritans

So here’s something that blew my little Sunday-school-trained mind* as an undergrad. Take the Good Samaritan story, Luke 10:25-37. The priest and the Levite see the man dying in a ditch and pass by on the other side; the Samaritan takes care of him. Who is the neighbor? The one who takes care of him. Great.

Fact number one: I didn’t know who the Samaritans were until I was 14 or 15.

Fact number two: I didn’t know who the Levites were until I was in college.

It’s not as though there was no explanation at all. I had some vague idea that the Samaritans were usually crooks and scoundrels. I’m pretty sure I thought that, since the priests were obviously the people in charge of the temple/religion, the Levites must be the people in charge of the government. (I mean, it makes sense, right?) At some point along the line I learned that the Samaritans were a competing religious group descended from the people who were left behind in Israel during the Babylonian Exile, whose center of worship was not Jerusalem but Mount Gerizim to the north, and that the Levites were (by this time) temple officiants and assistants to the priests. So that was some progress.

Then I hit the lecture on ritual purity and the difference between pollution and sin in my undergraduate Israelite Religion course. And, as I said, my mind was blown

There are lots of ways to become impure in ancient Israel. Some of them you can avoid; some of them you can’t. You can probably, for example, avoid picking up a dead lizard. If you’re lucky, you’ll avoid having mold grow in patches on the walls of your house—but that’s not really under your control. If you’re a woman, you can’t avoid menstruating. If you’re married, you can’t really avoid having sex. Some things you’re required to do: bury your parents, for example. Any of these things will make you unclean. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re sinful or wicked, or that it’s a bad thing to be a woman or to have just had sex or just moved that cow that died in your backyard—they just put you in a position where it’s dangerous to approach God, and so you have to perform the appropriate rituals before you can come to the temple. The priests and the Levites, who are closer to the divine presence in the temple and mediate between God and the people, must live up to accordingly more stringent standards while they’re doing their jobs. Some aspects of the sacrificial system have to do with ethical considerations, but some don’t, and it isn’t always clear on which is which. (It doesn’t help that prophets use the language of impurity as a metaphor to talk about the moral defilement of Israel.)

So, tearing ourselves with reluctance away from Leviticus and getting back to the New Testament: The point isn’t that the priest and the Levite were terrible, cold-hearted people who saw a dying man and said, “So long, sucker.” The man was on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, no? Meaning—as I understand it—that they were probably on their way back to Jerusalem and back to service in the temple, and here’s this dead or dying guy on the road. If they help him, they’ll become impure—and then they’ll have to wait, and sacrifice, and so forth, and they decide that their role in the Temple is more important than their duty toward their fellows. The story’s still about helping people who need it, but it’s really a much more subtle thing. In prizing care for those in trouble over adherence to ritual norms, Luke’s Jesus is putting himself in the role of an Israelite prophet, and situating himself within a dialogue on the role of ritual and sacrifice in Israel’s relationship with God that goes back to some of the earliest Biblical texts.

*I’m not denigrating Sunday school as such. Much.