Maestro John Sinclair, during a lecture at the 2009 Moravian Music Festival regarding the latest scholarship on 18th century music performance practices, observed that, no matter how carefully we reproduce the instruments and performance styles of earlier periods, the one thing that we cannot reproduce is 18th century listeners. Our 21st century ears, having been exposed to the works of Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, and the like, simply cannot hear as shocking the music of Beethoven and his contemporaries. What once was startlingly innovative now sounds to us quite ordinary.
The same thing is true for stories and sayings in the Bible. A good example of this phenomenon is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Today we use the term Samaritan to mean helper or healer, as in the names of hospitals and counseling centers. But to Jesus’ listeners, the concept of a “good Samaritan” was somewhere between shocking and incomprehensible. The Jews of Bible times regarded Samaritans as apostates, idolaters – a people to be denounced and shunned. Our pastor during my college years maintained that a way to restore the original impact of the parable was to rewrite it as the “good Communist”. With the fall of the
Soviet Union now two decades in the past, we should revise that once again, perhaps as the “good Taliban”. Jesus’ point was that it was a member of a detested group who served as a good neighbor when religious leaders of the injured man’s own community failed to do so.
Another example is the simple statement that “Jesus is Lord.” This and other titles such as “Redeemer” and “Savior of the world” are so common in the Christian scriptures and in our liturgical language today that we take them completely for granted. But as Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan points out, these titles belonged to Caesar Augustus before they were applied to Jesus, the Christ. They were reserved for the powerful ruler of the
Roman Empire. For early Christians to claim them for Jesus was treasonous, and thus immensely dangerous.
In our democratic republic, with shared federal power and no royalty, it is difficult for us to imagine the courage that it took for first century Christians to make their confession of faith that Jesus is Lord and Savior. There really is no title in current use in our country that would bear the same impact. But perhaps we can gain a hint of what those early Christians faced by reflecting on the local controversy that raged some months ago regarding the refusal of the Mennonite owners of Good’s Store to sell the American flag. As the original Sunday News article (Oct. 4, 2009) observed, “Anabaptist beliefs put allegiance to the kingdom of God ahead of allegiance to any human government and assert nonviolence as the Christian way. National flags can be both a symbol of military might and an object of veneration, violating the Ten Commandments' prohibition of idolatry.”
Because they hold to their Anabaptist tradition, the owners of Good’s Store have been subjected to an email smear campaign, calls for boycott, and a startling amount of vitriol expressed in various letters to the editor. In this case, the law of the land protects their right to their beliefs. First century Christians had no such protection; the Roman government itself considered them to be traitors. For them to proclaim that Jesus is Lord was to declare to the full weight of brutal authoritarian empire that they owed allegiance to a higher authority. Many would pay for that declaration with their lives.
The final example I would point out is the way that the network of Jesus’ friends and followers rallied around him to work out the logistics for his actions during Holy Week. Luke gives us a clue in his description of preparations for the final journey. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to
. And he sent messengers ahead of him.” (Luke 9:51-52a) All four gospel writers tell one result of those messengers’ arrangements. A donkey is tied where it will be readily available, just inside the gate of a nearby village. A signal is agreed upon. “The master has need of it,” a disciple declares, and the little burrow becomes Jesus’ mount for his entry into Jerusalem . Jerusalem
Later in the week a safe house is needed for celebration of the Passover meal. Again a signal has been arranged. “Follow the man carrying a jar of water.” The impact that modern readers can miss is the fact that a man carrying a water jar would have been highly unusual. Carrying water was then, and still is in areas of the world where water must be carried long distances, woman’s work. Let us say a prayer of thanksgiving for this unknown follower of Christ who was willing to humble himself and carry a woman’s burden in order to show the way to the house where Jesus’ last Seder was to be eaten.
Restoring the impact of Bible passages requires both study to learn something of the context for the stories and parables and a willingness to engage the imagination. We can’t grow first century ears, but we can try to put ourselves among the crowd listening to Jesus preach, or traveling with him on the dusty roads of Galilee and
Judea. Faith increases as we live into the familiar stories and make them our own.