By Ellen Sims
Texts: Psalm 19, Nehemiah 8:1-8; Luke 4: 14-21
In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, the priest Ezra gathered all the people to hear the first reading of their sacred scriptures since their captivity in Babylon. After returning to Jerusalem, they’d found the lost Torah scroll. For an entire day the men and women drank in the words their parched souls had missed. They stood in reverence, raised their hands in praise, bowed their heads, said “Amen! Amen!” And because sacred words must not simply be heard but also understood, the Levites moved among the people to interpret the oddly familiar yet, for many, unknown or forgotten commandments and stories and sayings. Amen! Amen!
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus, a descendant of Ezra’s people, had been “brought up” to honor Torah and had begun traveling to synagogues, interpreting scripture there. Everywhere the people praised him. But upon returning home to Nazareth, the people in his boyhood synagogue studied him as intently as they studied the words he read. From the scroll of Isaiah, he spoke words proclaiming release from sickness, prison, poverty, oppression. Then Jesus offered a new interpretation that he would embody. He said he would thereafter interpret the prophet’s healing, freeing, caring words with his very life. His ministry would be the fulfillment of the scripture. He said now is the time the prophet’s words would be fulfilled. Imagine that the way we live our lives is our public interpretation of the Gospel and its fulfillment.
Next Sunday we’ll read further into Luke 4 and learn just how disturbing were the words Jesus not only read, not only interpreted, but also internalized.
But today let’s attend to the layers of interpretation in our Hebrew Bible and Gospel lections. Today we are reading scriptures about people reading scriptures.
Maybe, just maybe, we can be the embodiment of scripture. As the United Church of Christ insists: “God is still speaking”– in revived appreciations of ancient words, in fresh interpretations of sacred scripture, in lives lived faithfully like human pages of holy writ.
So much needs to be said about the perils of misusing scripture and the parameters for interpreting it. But today we emphasize that the Bible is approachable. You and I value good scholarship. Yes. But the Bible is filled with accessible stories. We know how to respond to stories. We are story telling creatures who are strongly affected by story and strongly compelled to find meaning in story. We’ve seen Ezra and Jesus reading from the scrolls. Ezra’s reading powerfully moved and uplifted the people. Jesus’s reading at first seemed to do likewise, but we’ll read next week, a few verses later, that the congregation was angered by his interpretation. Reading the Bible has powerful effects for individuals and communities.
Straight from American history and straight from UCC history comes a story that contains within it a sliver of another story about reading the Bible.
In 1839, a group of captive Africans broke their bonds while being transported on the schooner Amistad. They killed most of the crew to take over the ship to sail back to Africa. But they were captured off the coast of New York and charged with mutiny.
Connecticut Congregationalists (an ancestor denomination of the UCC) formed the Amistad Committee, who secured and paid for the Africans’ legal defense, visited and cared for them in their extended imprisonment, and eventually funded their return to Africa after winning their case before the US Supreme Court.
The Amistad Committee then took on a role for wider advocacy for the abolition of slavery in the United States. In 1846, Lewis Tappan, an Amistad Committee leader, founded the American Missionary Association, the first abolitionist organization with both black and white leadership. After the Civil War, the AMA went on to found schools, churches, libraries and universities (like Tuskegee in AL) for the newly freed African Americans in the South. The chapel on the ground floor of the UCC offices in Cleveland is named the Amistad Chapel, to commemorate that historic event. (This a slightly paraphrased summary of the Amistad history found on the homepage of the Connecticut Conference of the UCC.)
However, the Bible reading story within this story comes, not from the historic record but from a Steven Spielburg movie extrapolated from the story of the Amistad trial. (Here’s a historian’s critique of the film).
I share one brief scene set in the prison as a slave named Yamba tells the leader of the slaves, Cinque, the story of Jesus.
For the third time today we’ll hear a story of someone reading a Bible story. At this point in the Amistad story, none of the Africans speak any English, making it almost impossible for their defense attorney to prepare for trial. So the viewer reads the English translation of the following conversation, spoken in the Mende language, between Yamba and Cinque. Picture two African men, now in Western clothing from that period, in a dark stone prison. Cinque observes Yamba turning the pages of an illustrated Bible given by the Congregationalists:
Cinque: You don’t have to pretend to be interested in that. Nobody’s watching but me.
Yamba: I’m not pretending. I’m beginning to understand it. Their people have suffered more than ours . . . their lives were full of suffering. (Then Yamba turns to an illustration of Jesus as the child in a manger.) Then HE was born and everything changed.
Cinque: (pointing to the halo of light around Jesus’s head) Who is he?
Yamba: I don’t know, but everywhere he goes he is followed by the sun. (Yamba turns to more pages.) Here he is healing people with his hands . . . protecting them . . . being given children.
Cinque: What’s this? (pointing to a picture of Jesus walking on water at night toward the disciples in the fishing boat)
Yamba: He could also walk across the sea. (And the movie audience sees the longing in the Africans’ eyes and imagines what it could mean for them to walk across the sea and return home.) But then something happened. He was captured. Accused of some crime. Here he is with his hands tied.
Cinque: He must have done something.
Yamba: Why? What did we do? Whatever it was, it was serious enough to kill him for it. Do you want to see how they killed him? (And they study their Bible’s depiction of the crucifixion.)
Cinque: This is just a story, Yamba.
Yamba: But look. That’s not the end of it. His people took his body down from this . . . thing . . . (with his index finger he makes a cross in the air).They took him into a cave. They wrapped him in a cloth, like we do. They thought he was dead, but he appeared before his people again. And spoke to them. Then finally he rose to the sky. This is where the soul goes when you die here. This is where we’re going when they kill us. (Then Yamba’s expression deepens with some bit of hope or resignation or yearning.) It doesn’t look so bad.
Many things can happen when we read scripture, when we try to interpret — that is, make meaning from – the Jesus story for our lives. We can misunderstand some facts. Yamba, for instance, describes the illustrations of Jesus with a halo, signifying his holiness, as pictures of the sun following Jesus—at once naïve and poetic. But even the best of biblical scholars have more to learn about Jesus’s first century Ancient Near East culture. Just recently, for instance, one scholar has credibly challenged a word in the traditional translation of Luke’s nativity story to suggest Jesus was not born in a stable. Rethinking that detail might not turn our perspectives on Jesus upside down. But there may be some fresh understandings for us. The point is that we do misread stories.
Fortunately, we still can make connections even when misunderstanding some of the story’s details if we start with compassion. I admire Yamba’s “reading” of the Jesus story for his impulse to empathize with Jesus, to relate his life to the lives the story represents. Jesus’s story arouses Yamba’s sympathy. Then Yamba shares his interpretation with Cinque. The best stories that truly touch us need to be shared, and meaning is often made in community. Yamba mistakenly imposes some of his culture and his situation onto the Jesus story, it’s true. You and I do that, too.
But Yamba rightly intuits this: the Gospel IS on the side of the imprisoned, the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the enslaved—as today’s Gospel lesson states. That’s Jesus’ point in choosing the passage from Isaiah to announce the purpose of his ministry. We are reading with a “Jesus slant” when, like Yamba, we recognize that Jesus would be, in our own culture, on the side of the prisoners, the outcasts, the poor. We are also reading the Bible in empowering ways when God uses it to bring us hope.
There is sad irony in the way Yamba finds hope in the pages of the white man’s story, in the meagerness of hope that what happens after death in the captor’s land might not be “so bad.” But there’s also divine justice in the fact that the imprisoned Africans can re-appropriate the oppressor’s story for their needs and return it to oppressed people, its original audience. When slave holders misapplied and, in effect, shackled the Bible itself in order to control the slaves and justify horrors the enslavers committed, some enslaved people chose to “convert” and release the texts into their original purposes of saving, liberating, and connecting God’s people.
Jesus read holy words from his tradition into a new context of need. His people were oppressed, impoverished, disempowered. Jesus moved 800-year-old words originally intended for Isaiah’s people into his cultural context. And we can, too. Because there are always oppressed people. And the God of Isaiah and Jesus, the God of Yamba and Cinque, continues to care for those whom the powerful ones mistreat. The Bible said then and says still: Oppressed Lives Matter. We misread the Bible if we miss the Bible’s bias for the poor, the sick, the prisoners, the oppressed, the outsiders.
We might miss–or misunderstand–many details in the Bible about the Jesus we meet in its pages. But the Gospel’s unmissable message is this: Jesus incarnated God’s powerful love rather than a love of power. The scandal that was his life and the reason for his death was his way of LIVING OUT his interpretation of scripture. And daring to proclaim that he was fulfilling scripture NOW.
The immediacy in Jesus’s interpretation prevented the hearers from delaying their action: NOW the scripture is being fulfilled, insisted Jesus. Sometimes liberation is frightening. Sometimes we’d like to stop at merely retelling a God-Story and not go all the way to implementing it.
Open Table recently interpreted the Gospel’s call to follow Jesus to mean, for us, that we’d create a support group for LGBTQ teens and friends. Although we might have justified spending years of planning such a challenging offering to our community, we decided to do something NOW. Yesterday NOW happened. Facilitators were ready. The room was ready. The signs were ready. All was ready for our first Free2Be support group session for LGBTQ teens. But no teens arrived.
We believe they will. And when one or ten or twenty teens do show up, next time or the next—facilitators may invite them when the time is right to tell their stories. And those stories will be heard and held as sacred. Maybe the hearers will say in their hearts: Amen. Amen.
The Bible is ripe for misuse. We can read scripture to feel pious. We can interpret scripture to shore up our favorite social and political positions and condemn those with different opinions and then feel superior. Instead, let’s BECOME the interpretation of scripture by enacting God’s compassion and allowing others to read Jesus’s ways in our lives. Let us embody the Word of God. And let us do so NOW.