Saturday, August 27, 2005

Who you gonna believe? Me, or your lyin' eyes?

The problem with being a pastor without a church (and one of the values of religious community), is that you can easily decide that what is interesting to you, is also important. And if you have no regular daily reason to read Scripture other than as a scholar (which I am not), or as a layperson, you can fall into the trap I fall into, and treat Scripture as just another book you really ought to get around to.

It is very difficult to find reasons to read Scripture as it is meant to be read, outside a religious community, and a place in that commnity. The "place" where I learned finally to find value in Scripture, was as a teacher of it, an interpreter of it, a leader in the community. But while I don't have that position....

Still, this morning, an idle conversation at Eschaton set me to thinking about the rich man and the "eye of the needle." As NTodd finally pointed out, the idea that the "eye of the needle" was a gate in Jerusalem goes back to at least the 9th century (per Wikipedia); something I didn't know. I had, frankly, assumed it was more American and middle class than that; but then, the parable itself teaches that the more things change, the more they remain the same. So I'm sure the idea goes back at least that far. The problem remains, however: it's simply wrong.

The phrase is found in all three synoptics, which means it traces back to Mark, according to the "Q" theory of composition. Mark 10:25 says: "It's easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle's eye, than for a wealthy person to get into God's domain!" Matthew 19:24 and Luke 18:25 are similar enough to show that they relied on Mark for their language. And all use the same Greek word for "needle:" rhaphis. Which Bauer, the standard Greek-English lexicon for koine Greek, translates as: "needle, esp. one used for sewing."

Jesus, in other words, meant just what he said: it's easier for something physically impossible to happen, than for a rich person to enter God's domain. Because he meant to curse the rich? Well, some scholars might think so. But I think it's a shade simpler than that; but only a shade, mind you.

In Mark, Jesus goes on to answer the crowds, all of whom wonder: "Well, then how can anyone be saved?" Then, as now, wealth meant blessing from God, and a blessing from God meant salvation. Jesus explains to them: "For mortal's it's impossible, but not for God; after all, everything's possible for God."

Which is really the point of the story. Who are you going to rely on? Humankind? Or God? And how do you determine the difference? But how interesting that we don't like that answer; and that we spend so much interpretive (scholars like to call it "exegetical") effort redefining the terms to make them more comfortable for us. We spend, in other words, so much energy relying on humankind, whom we know to be fallible. So we don't really rely on humankind, we rely on what satisfies, what makes us most comfortable. We rely on wealth, and tell ourselves that wealthiness is truly next to godliness. Even though there is little warrant for that belief in the Scriptures. It is Israel that demands God stay on the mountain, and speak only to Moses. it is Israel that demands God give them a king. It is David who wants to build God a Temple.

It is human to want to secure our future, to hedge our bets against our own mortality. But this is a recognized proclivity of human nature; and it is not limited to matters religious. It is when all bets are off, that sometimes we begin to see someone like Cindy Sheehan. It is when something other than our own comfort is invoked, that we begin to see other possibilities. It's a matter of boundaries, and where we draw them.

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