While making a presentation at a conference about teaching English as a second language, an expert in the field remarked that one of the difficulties is that there are many instances in English when a double-negative renders positive meaning and this is confusing for non-English speakers. “It’s fortunate,” she said, “there’s no way in English that a double positive can convey negative meaning.”
From the back of the room a voice spoke up, “Yeah, right.”
Now when that story is written, the sarcasm of that double positive giving negative meaning is hard to indicate; in fact, it is impossible. And yet it will probably be understood by a native speaker. For the non-English speaker, however, discerning the sarcasm and humor is difficult. Inflection and tone of voice can and do drastically alter meaning and understanding.
Kate Moran, a technical writing expert who specializes in internet communications, describes tone of voice as being an intermix for four different alternative pairings: it can be formal or casual, funny or serious, respectful or irreverent, and enthusiastic or matter-of-fact. All tones of voice, whether they convey anger, frustration, disappointment, sarcasm, confidence, affection, indifference, or anything else can be placed somewhere on these four axes.
We can read the Bible as if it were a rulebook, a legal document, a scientific history, or a journalistic report, and many folks do exactly that. For them, Scripture’s tone of voice is universally formal, serious, and respectful, and may be either enthusiastic or matter-of-fact. If, however, we are going to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures, as Anglicans have prayed for 450 years and as we prayed this morning, we must approach it as a living story; we must creatively imagine the authors and the people they describe as using a variety of tones of voice, moving along those four axes and conveying a variety of emotions and communicating several different meanings.
The problem we face when we read the stories in the Gospels or, indeed, any of Scripture is deciding which tones of voice apply to which passages. This is supremely important because psychological research suggests that up to 38% of meaning is conveyed by tone of voice! Across the gulf of centuries, of translation from ancient languages, of changes in English, these nonverbal cues to meaning can be, and certainly have been, lost, so we must find them in our imaginations.
Years ago, long before I was ordained, I was a practicing trial attorney. My specialty was defending medical practitioners in malpractice claims. One of my clients was an endodontist who had allegedly botched a root canal procedure. Early in our relationship, I discovered that he was also an artist by avocation, a sculptor. On one occasion I met with him at his office rather than at mine, and while I was there, he showed me several pieces that he had done. His medium was alabaster and soapstone which he worked using dental tools (ones he didn’t use on patients, he assured me).
One piece was a crucifix showing Jesus as I had never seen him before: the face of the Christ figure on the Cross was contorted in rage.
I asked my client why he had depicted Jesus in that way and he said to me, “You remember in Luke’s gospel when Jesus is nailed to the Cross, he says, ‘Father, forgive them.’ I imagined him at that moment not as forgiving, but as angry, as if he is saying, ‘You forgive them, because I just can’t … Not. Right. Now.’”
In all honesty, I cannot recall the outcome of that case, although I think we settled it for a reasonable sum. I cannot recall my client’s name. I can’t remember the claimant’s name. But I remember that angry Jesus. As I have said, we do not know, in that crucifixion scene, nor in most other biblical episodes, the state of mind or tone of voice of Jesus or any other character. We add that; we draw on our own experiences, on the way we have heard others read the passages aloud, or on the way we have heard our clergy preach them. We supply the tone of voice from our own imaginations; my client had done that in stone. If the research is correct and 38% of meaning is supplied by tone of voice, we as imaginative readers actively and creatively participate in giving meaning to the Bible.
So what does this have to do with today’s readings? Well, I want to suggest to you that in today’s Gospel story especially Jesus’s tone of voice may be the key to understanding.
For quite a long time – at least the last couple of centuries – the dominant stream of American Protestant Christianity has heard this story, and particularly the voice of Jesus as conveyed by the tale, in essentially one tone. To use Kate Moran’s typology, his entire speech in this passage, part of what is sometimes called “the Olivet discourse,” has been heard as formal, serious, respectful, and enthusiastic; it has been heard as an apocalyptic prophecy laying out a time-table for the end of the world. We can thank an Irishman, a former Anglican clergyman, named John Nelson Darby for this. He is often called “the father of dispensationalism,” as this line of thinking is called, and he is without a doubt the originator of the profoundly non-Biblical notion of “the Rapture.” You recognize that term, I’m sure.
It is an idea that has captured the hearts and minds of evangelical Christianity for decades. Back when I was a sophomore in college, an author named Hal Lindsey published a book some of you may remember entitled The Late Great Planet Earth, in which he predicted the end of the world before the end of the 1980s. The book was so popular it has been called “the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s.” Describing it as “nonfiction” when not a single prediction in it was true seems amusingly charitable; nonetheless, it remains a very popular book in the evangelical churches and has sold more than 35 million copies; Lindsey made a bundle of money that he sank into real estate (an odd investment choice, don’t you think, for someone who believed the world was coming to an end?) More honestly fictional but based on the same theology, Pastor Tim LaHaye made another big bundle of cash with sixteen books known as the Left Behind series, which sold 80 million copies and spawned several motion pictures and a video game.
Now, it’s easy to stand here and criticize Mr. Darby and his successors and their dispensationalist notions of Tribulation and Rapture; one need only point the numerous times in which such doomsayers have predicted the end of the world and turned out to be wrong. And we can point out that their dire predictions of worldwide hardships, disasters, famine, war, pain, and suffering, which will wipe out most of all life on the earth hardly seem to fit with God’s promise through the prophet Isaiah of “new heavens and a new earth [wherein we are to] be glad and rejoice forever.” But if we are truly going to “hear …, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures in such a way that we can really answer these prophets of doom, we need to do more than that. We need to use our imaginations and dig much deeper into the text.
One way in which Biblical historians and scholars have done that is to argue that this “text has nothing to do with predictions of the future, and any interpretation which treats it so is fatally flawed from the start.” They point out that this story, which appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, was written after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE; they argue that it was included in the gospels to reassure those First Century Christians who were dealing with that reality.
Luke was not written primarily for 21st-century Christians anxious about the future. It was written for a beleaguered and persecuted minority under the thumb of Rome. How were they to deal with this situation?
“The destruction of the temple may have been a foretelling after the event,” they say. “In other words Luke is theologizing about the temple’s destruction by placing a prediction on the lips of Jesus.”
I don’t want to question their scholarship, and certainly their history is correct: the Gospels were written after the destruction of the Temple. But it seems to me that they come awfully close to suggesting that Jesus didn’t really say what the Bible says he said, and if the evangelist Mark, on whom Luke and Matthew rely, made up this story, then maybe the evangelists made up other stories, and if the gospel writers did, then maybe Paul and the other authors of the epistles did, and if the writers of the New Testament did, then maybe the prophets and the writers of the Jewish histories and the sages of the wisdom literature did, and if we go down that rabbit-hole then the whole of the Christian enterprise becomes a house of cards and if that’s the case, “then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God” . . . and I’m not willing to go there.
I believe those scholars who send us down that rabbit-hole do so because they make sort of the same error the dispensationalists make: Darby and his crowd hear Jesus speaking in a deadly serious tone of voice, while these modern scholars hear the evangelists telling the story in that same formal, serious, respectful, and enthusiastic tone. They come to different conclusions, but they start from the same mistake, from a failure of imagination, a failure to creatively conceive of Jesus (as my dental malpractice client did) speaking in a different tone of voice. And there are some clues that that might actually be the case!
One clue that Luke might have meant us to hear something other than predictive seriousness from Jesus is that Luke, writing in First Century Greek you remember, uses different tenses in this discourse. When Jesus answered those who asked “What will be the sign?” Luke reports his words in something called the “aorist passive subjunctive” tense which, as I understand it, indicates something that started happening in the past that may still be happening now and probably will continue on into the future. Now I’m not a Greek scholar and I don’t suggest that we all have to become Greek scholars to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Gospels. We don’t have to because other people are and we can learn from them … and what they tell us is that this aorist tense suggests “possibility and does not indicate a point of fact.”
Greek scholars also tell us that the aorist tense is sometimes used in Greek literature to indicate irony, sarcasm, and humorous derision! When Jesus responded to his interrogators, he was answering not just them but also the “self-appointed ‘messiahs’ floating around” stirring up the “religious fanaticism” that may have inspired their question. And he wasn’t answering them, “Yes, of course.” He was saying, “Yeah, right!”
“Look,” he seems to be saying, “of course there will be wars and famines and plagues and earthquakes.” “Nations have always been rising up against each other; there have always been earthquakes, famines, and plagues, signs and portents in the heavens.” And there will continue to be.
And then, right in the middle of Jesus talking, Luke the author changes tenses. Jesus’ dialog moves out of the aorist tense and into the future and the future imperative tenses. His tone of voice changes. No longer sarcastic, no longer expressing humorous derision, it’s as if he said, “But seriously, folks … you will be arrested. You will be challenged. You will have the opportunity to testify. But don’t worry!” Even stronger than that, in the immortal words of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he says, “Don’t panic!” As Australian scholar William Loader has written:
The point Luke is making (and before him, Mark, and perhaps originally, Jesus) is that we should not be panicked by such events. The same danger exists today except that the reports come via the media and sometimes packaged by the media for good viewing. The panic whipped up is highly volatile and has the potential to ignite and explode into irrationalities, religious and otherwise. The casualty is usually truth as racist and other generalised claims are made or people drive themselves into doomsday fantasies and their cults.
We can approach Scripture with dead earnestness and gravity, always reading every passage therein with the same formal, serious, and respectful tone of voice, sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes matter-of-fact. If we do, though, I think we run the risk of occasionally missing the point. G.K. Chesterton once wrote in a review of an Oscar Wilde play, “Life is much too important to be taken seriously.” So is the Bible.
We should approach both life and Scripture imaginatively and, with respect to the Bible, creatively use our imaginations to hear the Scriptures in a variety of tones of voice. The English professor was correct: “yeah” and “right,” two positives, put together do not make a negative unless that understanding is found in the 38% of meaning supplied by tone of voice. Was Jesus angry on the Cross? I don’t know, but if like my endodontist client we imagine him as angry perhaps we can learn something about the nature of God’s forgiveness. Was Jesus being sarcastic in the Temple? I don’t know, there seems to be good evidence to entertain that notion, but even if not, if we imagine him as sarcastic perhaps we can learn something about the nature of end-time prophecies.
If we read the Bible imaginatively, we will do a better job of hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the Scriptures. If we read Scripture imaginatively and creatively, we will have no need to panic, we can “trust in [God] and not be afraid,” we will endure and gain our souls, and we will “not [grow] weary in doing what is right.”
This homily will be offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, November 17, 2019, to the people of Christ Episcopal Church, Hudson, Ohio, where Fr. Funston will “supply” as guest clergy.
The lessons scheduled for the service (Proper 28, Track 1, Year C) are Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; and St. Luke 21:5-19. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
 Collect for Proper 28 (Sunday closest to November 16), The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 236
 Albert Mehrabian, Nonverbal Communication (Routledge, Oxon, UK: 2017)
 See Luke 23:34
 Hal Lindsey & Carol Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth (Zondervan, Grand Rapids: 1970)
 Erin A. Smith, “The Late Great Planet Earth” Made the Apocalypse a Popular Concern, Humanities, Winter 2017, Volume 38, Number 1
 Isaiah 65:17-18 (NRSV)
 Collect for Proper 28, op. cit.
 Alyce McKenzie, No Preparation Needed? Reflections on Luke 21:5-19, Patheos: Progressive Christian website, November 10, 2013, citing Michael F. Patella, The New Collegeville Commentary: The Gospel According to Luke (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN:2005), page 135.
 1 Corinthians 15:13-15 (NRSV)
 See Michael Lloyd, The Tragic Aorist, The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 1 (1999), pp. 24-45; see also Annemieke Drummen, Language on Stage: Particles in Ancient Greek Drama, online PDF publication based on doctoral dissertation, University of Heidelberg, 30 May 2017
 Petty, op. cit.
 Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Pan Books, London:1979)
 Isaiah 12:2 (NRSV)
 Luke 21:19 (NRSV)
 2 Thessalonians 3:13 (NRSV)