In the Gospel according to Luke, there is a story of Jesus healing ten lepers (17:11-19). He is travelling towards Jerusalem from the Galilee, going near Samaria; outside a village, he encounters the lepers and they ask for his mercy. In response, he sends them off to show themselves to a priest–what is necessary for them to be declared clean according to Torah. While they are going, they discover that they are healed of their disease. One of the ten turns around, going back to Jesus to thank him. Jesus notes that it is a Samaritan who has done this, and wonders where the others are before sending the man on his way.
Recently, I heard an interpretation of this passage that focused on the wonderful openness of the Samaritan to God. What about the nine who did not go back to Jesus? Well, according to this interpretation, they most surely continued on to get the rubber-stamping of a priest’s confirmation of their healing, and then offered the requisite sacrifices of thanksgiving. In reflecting upon this, the preacher posited that only the Samaritan had sought God directly; the nine had been too caught up in ritual, in the priestly gatekeeping between the pure and the impure, and in the desire to return to their normal life to see the mighty deed of God right in front of them. Basically, the following of what is written in the Torah–the rituals–was likened to all the things of modern life that distract us from God.
At first, the exegesis involved made me angry. Apparently, all the emphasis of the priest’s work lay on maintaining the community and its bounds through legalism. All the worship by people of another faith was misdirected (as was any praying in a ‘ritual’ fashion). Then it made me sad, broken-hearted even. Because I am pretty sure the minister was not intending to denigrate other religions, just to emphasise the grace of God in Christ. Because it is endemic in (Protestant) Christian theology to buttress the claim that true Christianity focuses on the free gift of inclusive love by declaring its opposite to be legalistic enslavement to the Law, the burden of having to be good by following so many commandments even when you know you cannot possibly succeed. Because some things never change.
But mostly I felt heartbroken because I could not think of any way to change things for the better.
How do you change ideas that have been imbibed since people were children in Sunday School? How do you excise harmful oversimplification and misunderstanding which many even of the most thoughtful church attenders fail to see as problematic or stereotypical? How can you do anything when you are too afraid to try?
Did I walk out in the middle of the sermon? No. Did I confront the interpretation head on? No. Did I say anything witty to the preacher to register my disapproval and point to another possibility? No.
Would any of these things have worked? Would anyone listen to a disgruntled worshipper? I do not know. I never tried anything. Instead I just hung my head in shame that the faith that I love can so easily turn those who are different into the misguided, clueless and unspiritual other.
Some might say that I am taking this too personally, or, rather, that I am only concerned about this for personal reasons. This is true, in a way. Having a partner who is Jewish has sensitised me to the myriad tiny and not so tiny ways that Judaism is presented as suspect by certain formulations of Christian theology. Kosher rules have been called ‘quaint’ and ‘outdated’. Pharisaic desire to spell out how to keep God’s commandments has been labelled oppressively legalistic, with the idea that the Jewish authorities of the time of Jesus were so busy marking out what you had to do to be ritually pure that they were not interested in actual justice; by extension this has been applied to all those who seek to follow Torah, if mostly by implication. The emphasis on the way that Christ frees his followers from the shackles of the Law not so subtly implies that those who relate to Law in a different way remain shackled in observance and ritual. Jesus has been seen as the true heir of the prophets of Hebrew scriptures as his critique of the status quo is played up, suggesting between the lines that other interpretations stick to outmoded and static ways of relating to God. Then there are those theologies whose emphasis on the risen, ascended body of Christ push away the Jewishness of Jesus.
All of this usually comes from people who would condemn anti-Semitism as despicably evil. So what’s happening here?
I’ve been trying to figure this out for a long time, and coming to Jerusalem has just intensified my interest. There are books written on this; scholarship has existed for a long time that shows that the classic division between law and grace does not hold. Yet this is ignored, and most theologians and other Christian exegetes see no problem at all. Anti-Semitism is seen as a manifestation of racism, so that religious undertones do not matter. Liberal Christianity focuses on, well, liberation brought by Jesus–meaning that people have to be liberated from something. Because homiletics works so often on an analogical basis, liberation that Christ works today must be related to liberation Jesus proclaimed in his own day. Since there was little evidence of political liberation, religious liberation becomes the simplest process to note, the simplest effect to claim. After all, it is argued, Jesus freed spiritual people from all those silly purity obligations to focus on more important obligations like loving people.
Religious difference has become the last line for us progressive Christians (and I mean ‘us’ here, because I count myself part of the main-line, social-justice, liberal, progressive theological outlook–this does not even begin to address some of the conservative Christian opinions out there). Everyone is welcome at our church, we say, making grand gestures towards hospitality to proclaim our openness to people of every skin colour, sexual orientation, social background, gender, age, culture, etc. But the one difference that remains unspoken is that of creed. The more I think about it, the more the dangerous side of hospitality shows up–you are welcome to join us, we will not discriminate against you because of who you are if you want to join us, but if we were to join you…well, we would lose our identity. We offer hospitality in a way that allows us to remain the host, to stay in charge, to think of Christianity as above every difference.
All of this is a tragedy of Christian exegesis because it creates a background in which the acceptance of other people is constantly undermined by the denigration of their spiritual praxis. It is a tragedy because it is so ingrained in so many theologies and liturgies that it escapes the condemnation of more obviously prejudicial texts.
It is a tragedy because there seems no simple way to undo it. No way but heartbreak for someone.
But I’m open to suggestions….