Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Curious Omission

When I was an early adolescent, I read the Book of Revelation. The beast and whore and seals and trumpets kept my attention. One bit that worried me, though, was Revelation 22:18-19: "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book." By "book" I understood that to mean the Bible, and I knew I was in big trouble. Following the example of both of my parents, I had underlined specific passages and scribbled notes in the margins. I was guilty of adding to the words of the prophecy of the book. God was going to add the plagues described in the book to me. I was terrified.

Eventually, of course, after being assured and reassured by my parents and my Sunday school teachers, I accepted that my initial interpretation had missed the mark. Adding to and cutting from the Bible isn't about the notes we write in the margins but our willingness to accept the complete text, in this case of Revelation, without skipping the parts we don't like or changing them by writing a happier ending. Yet that seems to be exactly what the church is doing on Sunday when we read from Revelation.

On Sunday, the lectionary appoints Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21 as the second reading. Notice that we're skipping verse 15 and verses 18-19. We've already read verses 18-19. They're the part about not cutting from or adding to the text. But what about verse 15? What does verse 15 say? "Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood." Why might we be skipping that verse?

The lectionary often skips isolated verses that distract from the overall meaning of the passage. For example, on Ash Wednesday we skip Matthew 6:7-15 so that the surrounding text about fasting and praying in secret can retain its focus instead of providing the potential sidetrack of Jesus' invitation to saying the "Our Father." There are lots of moments where one or more verses refers to or reflects a part of the larger chapter or passage that isn't being read, and, as such, would cause more confusion. This one, though, feels different.

As I wrote last week, the promised salvation contained in Revelation is God's promised triumph over those who oppress God's people--namely, the Roman Empire. The glorious victory for God's saints is deliberately contrasted with the terrible punishment of the representatives of evil embodied by the beast and the whore. This week's lesson, however, seems to have been cut short not in order to omit a side-tracking verse but to reshape the passage so as to avoid negative-sounding prophecy. The lectionary seems to expunge the part about the dogs, sorcerers, fornicators. murderers, and idolaters because we don't like to remember the part of tradition that is exclusionary. We'd rather hear the invitation "let everyone who is thirsty come" without thinking about those whom the Bible says are left out.

Maybe there aren't any people left out. Maybe we're all murderous dogs and idolatrous fornicators. But the theology of Revelation and the hope it was giving to the faithful Christians who were enduring separation from their homes and families, as well as torment and execution, is one of the faithful one come into the holy city while the evil ones are shut out. I don't feel the need to shut anyone out because I myself haven't ever been shut out. That's part of the privilege I was born into. But what about those who weren't?

It's complicated, of course, but it seems unfair to cut out verses we don't like. Maybe the lectionary authors hoped that, by cutting out the part about not omitting any parts of the prophecy, we wouldn't notice.

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