Monday, July 4, 2016

Surely Not!

I have long held onto the hermeneutical principle that sarcasm isn't a good lens for understanding the bible. Like an e-mail or a text or a Facebook post, it's too easy to misunderstand. I assume that the biblical authors who shaped a text over centuries molded it until it said what it really said. Sure, there's irony--lots of irony--in the bible, and the authors were well aware of that. But sarcasm? In general, I don't think we're supposed to read a passage in the bible and conclude that it means exactly what it doesn't say.

But this week, as I encounter the RCL Track 2 pairing of Deuteronomy 30 with Luke 10, I begin to wonder whether it's fair to add a shade of a sarcastic tone to the voices of Moses and Jesus as they tell their audiences that keeping the law isn't really that hard.

In his last speech to the people of Israel, Moses exhorts them to enter their new life in the Promised Land as a faithful, obedient people of God: "The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings...when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees...because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul." It's clear. It's uncomplicated. It's simple...right? Moses continues, "Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you!" What could be so difficult about loving God with all your heart and soul? That won't be a problem for God's people, right?

As I mentioned above, the biblical text is heavy with irony. By the time Deuteronomy 30 was written in the form that we have received, the people of Israel had entered Palestine, forgotten how to be faithful, appointed wicked kings, made unholy alliances, perverted their religious practices, followed false gods, and experienced exile. It's written as if it's about to unfold, but the people who shaped this text already knew the answer to Moses' implied question: "Will that be too hard for you?" Yes. Yes it will.

When the lawyer (poor lawyers!) approaches Jesus to ask him what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus and the lawyer and everyone standing around are all familiar with Deuteronomy 30. When the lawyer rehearses for Jesus the well-worn answer of loving God and loving neighbor, everyone knew to ask, "Well, how easy is that?" I'll write more about justification and the man's motives later in the week. For now, though, suffice it to say that the parable of the Good Samaritan wasn't only told to shame this lawyer into confronting his own misplaced self-confidence but also to show all of us that it's never easy to love God and our neighbor as God intends for us to do.

I still don't think that Moses was speaking sarcastically, but I'm willing to let a sarcastic reading of the text inform Jesus' conversation with the lawyer and with us. That isn't to suggest that the New Testament corrects or replaces the Old. But I do think that the editing internal to the Old Testament includes that sense of self-correction. Even without the New Testament, one cannot read Deuteronomy 30 with an awareness of the foibles that the successive centuries brought and not appreciate the dialogical tension between "how hard" and "it's impossible" that is buried in that text. And that's why preaching on this parable is so much fun.

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