Second Sunday After Pentecost
Is Scripture the whip of the oppressor or the hope of the oppressed?
At my church, Holy Family, we talk a lot about the difference between taking Scripture literally versus taking it seriously. Sometimes to take Scripture seriously, we must read it literally. And sometimes, reading Scripture literally is a failure on our part to take it seriously.
In the lectionary text for this week, we find both Jesus and the Pharisees quoting and interpreting Scripture literally. The Pharisees are angered by the disciples’ law-breaking behavior, and they ask Jesus why they are ignoring the Sabbath laws. Jesus responds by reminding them of David, a hero of the faith, who also engages in law-breaking behavior.
No one in the story seems to doubt the veracity or literal truth of the Scriptures involved – Jesus doesn’t tell them that their interpretation is wrong or merely a misunderstanding of the clear truth of the passages they are indirectly referencing. Nor do the Pharisees respond to Jesus by claiming that in David’s story there is some kind of hidden loop-hole that only knowledgeable scholars can ascertain, which thereby makes David’s illegitimate behavior somehow legitimate.
The Pharisees, however, have failed to take Scripture seriously. In their practice here and elsewhere in the Gospels, we see the Pharisees using Scripture like a whip – a weapon which maintains their own power and coerces the obedience of all who cannot wield it. Jesus points to this when he says, “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was not made to be a whip, but was instead given as a gift.
The tragedy of using Scripture like a whip goes two-ways – a whip enslaves the one who whips as well as the one who is whipped. An old adage comes to mind – to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When Scripture is a whip, everyone else is subject to a whipping. This is not a metaphor – when we view Scripture as a whip, it literally changes how we see the world. When we see behavior that goes against the law of Scripture, we lash out. When we see people who don’t look holy, we lash out. We lash out.
Later in the text we find Jesus confronted by the Pharisees in the synagogue. Once again, they are enforcing the literal truth of Scripture, wielding the power of their position and authority and righteousness and rightness like a whip. Jesus asks a simple question, “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” The Pharisees refuse to respond.
It would be an undeniable miracle for the man’s withered hand to be healed – a magnificent working of God’s power in front of their very eyes. It seems unquestionably good and right that he should be healed. Even ignoring the man, the answer to Jesus’s question is blatant and undeniable. The Pharisees, however, are caught in a trap. If they answer correctly, they lose their power. If they answer correctly, then they must admit that in order to take Scripture seriously, sometimes it must be allowed room to bend and breathe and live.
Conversely, if they answer negatively – if they say that it is better to do evil and to kill – then it becomes clear to everyone in the room that the power of the Pharisees rests not on Scripture, but on something else. No matter how they answer, their source of power is challenged and revealed to be false. And so they remain silent.
Jesus cannot remain silent. In the light of true power, which only comes from God, all forms of false power and oppression flee. Jesus turns to the man with the withered hand – the person in this story who is most oppressed by the false power of the Pharisees. He is prevented from flourishing because the means of his flourishing would be a challenge to the very structure of the Pharisee’s power. Jesus turns to this man and invites him to stretch out his hand.
When I imagine this scene, this is the moment where everyone in the room sucks in their breath and watches with anticipation. Will the man stretch out his hand? Will the man crumble before the power and social influence of the Pharisees? Will he risk challenging the Sabbath law in order to be made whole? Will he submit to his fear and accept the status quo?
He stretches out his hand, and in so doing he joins with Jesus and together they tear down the false power of the Pharisees.
“Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”
The Pharisees, bereft of their power, run away and begin to plot murder. Their whip has lost its sting, and their desire for power demands that they take more extreme action.
So how do we know? If we take Scripture seriously, how do we know when to read it literally and when to let it bend and breathe and live a little? Answering that question is far beyond the scope of a blog post. However, I think this week’s readings give us a signpost: If our reading and interpretation of Scripture props up a system of power that makes life comfortable for us and ignores or even requires the suffering of others, then we might want to step back and reconsider.