That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Unpacking Scripture’s Cultural Baggage: Sermon for RCL Proper 7, Track 2, Year C (23 June 2019)

This is a special Sunday for me. Friday marked the 28th anniversary of my ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. It was on Sunday, June 23, 1991, that I celebrated my first mass. So I am grateful to you and to Fr. George for the privilege of an altar at which to celebrate the Holy Mysteries and a pulpit from which to preach the gospel on this, my anniversary Sunday.

Now that I am retired, I am filling part of my time studying Irish. In the world of Irish studies, I am what is known as a foghlaimeoir, which is to say “an Irish learner.” The truth is that I have been a foghlaimeoir for over eleven years, but I have not yet progressed to the level of Gaeilgeoir, that is, “an Irish speaker.” Studying Irish is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done; it is both fascinating and maddening, and I think that among the reasons for that are the cultural assumptions which underly the language.

For example, I recently was slowly making my way through an Irish short story about an opera performance.  At one point in the story, an audience member following a particularly beautiful aria shouts out, “Chugam aniar tú! Chugam aniar tú!” Now I know enough Irish to know that “chugam” is a prepositional contraction meaning “toward me,” that “aniar” means “from the west,” and that “” is the second-person personal pronoun “you.” So the best I could make of this phrase is something like “You come to me from the west.” Looking through my pile of dictionaries and phrase books, I finally figured out that “Chugam aniar tú!” is the Irish way of saying, “Bravo!

This makes sense only if you know that about Tir na nÓg, the land of eternal youth. This is the otherworld, the place where the Fairies live and heroes visit, a place just outside the realm of human experience, where there is no illness, no death, no passage of time, but only happiness and beauty. In Irish mythology, it lies somewhere to the west. So to say to someone, “You come to me from the west” is to say that you have brought me something from the place of eternal beauty, loveliness, happiness, and all good things; essentially, in our Christian framework, “You have given me a piece of Heaven.”

Now, the reality is that this is true of all languages. Beyond the simplest meaning of the most basic of terms – yes, no, black, white, left, right – every word (and even such apparently basic, simple words) carries a cargo of cultural context, presumptive baggage which is unpacked in the hearer’s or reader’s mind when the word is encountered. When we translate from one language to another, we often leave that inferential freight sitting on the dock; the meaning initially packed into a word is spilled out and we are left with an empty vessel into which we pour our own (often mistaken) cultural content . . . and this is especially true when we translate the ancient languages of the Holy Scriptures into modern English.

We have two shining examples of this in today’s readings from the gospel and from the epistles of St. Paul. Our gospel story, for example, seems at first blush to be a pretty standard healing story, this time involving mental illness (understood, we tell ourselves, by those ignorant First Century folks to be demonic possession). The sick person confronts Jesus; Jesus does his thing; people are astounded and acknowledge Jesus’ power and authority as (at the least) a messenger of God. Great! Nice simple story. Except . . . among the things we should note (and which the First Century author and his First Century audience would have known) are that this event takes place not in Jewish Israel or Judea but in Gentile Syria, that the sick man and his neighbors are not Aramaic- or Hebrew-speaking Jews but Greek-speaking Gentiles, and that the demon’s name is neither Hebrew nor Greek, but Latin! The cultural context fairly screams at us now to be understood; this is clearly more than a simple healing story.

Judith Jones, an Episcopal priest who taught biblical studies at Wartburg College in Iowa for several years, writes about this familiar story:

[T]he story sounds like a simple healing miracle. For people in the ancient Roman world, however, “Legion” had only one literal meaning: a unit of approximately six thousand Roman soldiers, the occupying army.1 Suddenly an exorcism takes on social and political significance, and Luke’s word choices throughout the story invite a closer look. When the man confronts Jesus, Luke uses a verb that he employs elsewhere of armies meeting in battle (Luke 14:31). When the demon “seizes” the man? That’s a verb used elsewhere when Christians are arrested and brought to trial (Acts 6:12; 19:29).  The words for the hand and foot chains, for binding and guarding, are the same ones that Luke uses in Acts when the disciples are imprisoned. In short, the language of the whole episode evokes the experience of living under a brutal occupying power.

Furthermore, the region of Gerasene is the setting of a horrifying historical event. According to Josephus, during the late 60s CE, toward the end of the Jewish revolt, the Roman general Vespasian sent soldiers to retake Gerasa (Jewish War, IV,ix,1). The Romans killed a thousand young men, imprisoned their families, burned the city, and then attacked villages throughout the region. Many of those buried in Gerasene tombs had been slaughtered by Roman legions.[1]

When we restore the cultural and historical context to the story and its language, it becomes much more than a straight-forward tale of healing from demonic possession or mental illness; although it remains that, it is also an allegory of release from a brutal and oppressive political system, a metaphor for the reign of Heaven into which Jesus invites all people.

This question or issue of cultural and historical context is also presented by the lesson from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Let me share with you three different English translations of the first three verses of our reading and ask you to note how one word in particular differs from rendering to rendering:

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.[2] (This is the reading as we heard it this morning, from the New Revised Standard Version begun in 1974, completed and published in 1989, and currently undergoing a planned 30-year review and revision scheduled for release this year.)

But before faith came, we were kept in ward under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. So that the law is become our tutor [to bring us] unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith is come, we are no longer under a tutor.[3] (This is from the American Standard Version begun in 1885 and completed and published in 1901.)

But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.[4] (This is from the Authorized or King James Version begun in 1604 and completed and published in 1611.)

Paul is drawing an analogy between the Torah, the Law of Judaism, and something variously interpreted in these differing versions as “disciplinarian,” or “schoolmaster,” or “tutor.” The something is that peculiar institution of Greek (and then of Roman) society, the paidagogos, an older male companion of a growing boy whose rôle was to educate his charge in public and private morality. In other translations, I have seen such alternatives as “guardian” and “custodian,” and in some scholarly work I’ve seen suggestions of “governess,” “nanny,” and “nursemaid,” although I think those unnecessarily feminize what was truly a masculine institution and the latter two unfortunately infantilize it. The paidagogos was a trusted slave who accompanied an upper-class boy at all times until he reached his maturity.

Plato describes the paidagogoi as “men who by age and experience are qualified to serve as both leaders and custodians of children.”[5] The pedagogue escorted the boy to and from school lessons, and to and from the gymnasium for instruction in sport and the arts of war. He oversaw his meals and supervised his social engagements. He accompanied his charge in virtually every activity of life until, as I said, he became an adult.

In drawing this analogy, Paul is building on his famous distinction between Law and Gospel, between salvation by works of righteousness and justification by grace through faith. It is a distinction on which the Reformers, particularly Martin Luther and John Calvin, built their Protestant theology, but which (lacking their scholarship and nuance) later generations in the church have used to draw an unfortunate division between Judaism and Christianity. Noting that the office of a pedagogue was essentially temporary, I have heard Christians argue that what Paul is doing is showing that the Law no longer has authority for us, the Christian church. But I think that’s the sort of “yes, no, black, white, left, right” binary thinking that does more than merely ignore cultural context and historical nuance; it wipes it out entirely!

That is an awfully difficult argument to make in light of Jesus’ statement that “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”[6] To teach otherwise, to suggest that the Gospel wipes out the Law, is simply wrong and such thinking, taken to its extreme, can lead to the notion that Christians have replaced the Jews as God’s People, which is a heresy called “supersessionism” and roundly condemned by the church.

As I thought about this image, this metaphor of the Law as paidagogos, I thought about the way we all learn to write, by first learning to letter (or “print” as some people call it). I’m sure we all started in the same way, with those workbooks with very wide ruled lines, maybe 1/2 inch? And there were dashed lines over which we traced with our pencils. We started with the straight-line letters . . . I . . . then added a crossbar at the top . . . T . . . or a bar at the bottom . . . L . . . then two bars . . . F . . . and so on. Eventually, when we had mastered the straight lines, we learned to make diagonals . . . X . . . and . . . Z . . . and then . . . Y And after that came the curved letters . . . O . . . then . . . C . . . then . . . S. And I remember that . . . Q . . . was last because it had that little squiggly addition.

What was the point of that? Were we learning to trace dashed lines? Not really. The rule was to trace the dashed line, but what we were learning was lettering, writing, and really not even that . . . what we were learning was a means of communication! The point was not to trace dashed lines; the point was to communicate.

As I thought about that further, I remembered my grandfather Funston, who had been a school teacher, and who was a certified Palmer method penmanship instructor. My cousins and I spent our summers with our Funston grandparents, so one of the “fun” things we got to do during our summer vacations was learn to write in cursive. Does anybody do that anymore? Write what we used to call “long-hand”? Email begat texting and texting begat tweeting and it seems no one writes notes or letters in beautiful flowing script anymore. But my grandfather made sure that my cousins and I learned to write that way!

There was one sentence that we practiced over and over. Later, in high school when I learned to type, I encountered that sentence again. And when my mother and I bought my first typewriter for college, we used that sentence to test the key action — and still to this day when I test computer keyboards I type out that same sentence. It’s one that I am sure is familiar to many of you: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy white dog.” An English sentence containing every letter of the Latin alphabet.

Writing that sentence again and again, typing it over and over, was I learning about brown foxes or white dogs? No! The rule was to write or type the sentence, but the goal was to learn yet another means of written communication. The dashed lines in the workbook, the constant repetition of that sentence were training us in an underlying principle. In Paul’s words, they served as a paidagogos, a tutor, a schoolmaster, a disciplinarian until we had internalized the lessons. The Law of Moses, all the rules of the Torah, serve as a paidagogos until humankind learns their lessons to love God, obey God, and be faithful, until by the grace of God we mature (as Paul writes in another place) “to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”[7]

Paul, in drawing this analogy, did not abolish the Law. Jesus did not abolish the Law. It’s still there, still with us, still teaching its lessons. Jesus, however, did summarize the Law. Asked which was the greatest commandment, he replied:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[8]

In summarizing the Law in that way, Jesus was not being at all revolutionary or outside the mainstream of Judaism; he was not in any way suggesting a break with the Hebrew religion. There is a story about a rabbi contemporary to Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, the leader of one of the influential schools of Judaism at the time. A story related in the Jewish Talmud says that a gentile who was curious about Judaism came to Hillel. He challenged the rabbi to explain Jewish law while he (the gentile) stood on one foot. Accepting the challenge, Hillel said: “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.”[9]

My friends, that is my message for you today: Go study. One of the reasons I became a priest and one of the joys of my ministry has been to study Scripture with people, to encourage them to read the holy texts.  So I encourage you – Read the Bible, but when you do don’t read it unaware. Don’t read just one English translation; read two or three. See how the interpreters have struggled with some words, like paidagogos. Become aware of the cultural and historical baggage the text carries, like the name of the demon in today’s gospel lesson. Use a good bible commentary and a bible dictionary. If you drill down into Scripture like that, I promise you that you will enrich your lives.

And if I hear that you are studying the holy texts in that way, I will shout, “Chugam aniar tú!” Bravo! You are coming to me from the west. You are giving me a little piece of Heaven. You are letting me know that these 28 years of priesthood have been worth it. Thank you and Amen.

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This homily will be offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 23, 2019, to the people of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Massillon, Ohio, where Fr. Funston will “supply” as guest clergy.

The lessons scheduled for the service (Proper 7, Track 2, Year C) are Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:18-27, Galatians 3:23-29, and St. Luke 8:26-39. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.

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Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Judith Jones, Commentary on Luke 8:26-39, Working Preacher (23 June 2019), online

[2] Gal. 3:23-25 (NRSV)

[3] Gal. 3:23-25 (ASV)

[4] Gal. 3:23-25 (KJV)

[5] Richard N. Longenecker, The Pedagogical Nature of the Law in Galatians 3:19-4:7, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (March 1982), p. 53

[6] Matthew 5:18 (NRSV)

[7] Ephesians 4:13 (NRSV)

[8] Matthew 22:37-40 (NRSV)

[9] Tractate Shabbat 31a, online

1 Comment

  1. Susan Haseltine

    June 20, 2019 at 11:56 pm

    Agreed, I believed that the Torah Law is not to be cast aside but is the foundation of faith and practice. Well done.

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