I find it happening a lot when Andy and I read the Psalms as part of morning prayer. I am reading aloud beautiful, inspiring verses when all of a sudden there is a verse that jars. I don’t want to read, “Happy is the one who seizes infants and dashes them against the rocks” (137:9). I call these unpalatable passages. They remind me again of how carefully and non-literally scripture needs to be handled.
It happened with the lectionary today — not once but twice!
The first time was in the Old Testament (Exodus 20:1-17). It was the story of the giving of the ten commandments. Of course, the concepts contained within the ten commandments are largely good. It was the beginning of trying to move society towards a better way of being. Today, most of the rule of law and popular notions of right and wrong affirm that it is not okay to steal, murder or perjure oneself plus adultery and idolatry are frowned upon.
So, what jarred? It was that, once again, females were invisible. It stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. These verses were addressed to men — and not even all men, just privileged men. They were told not to covet their neighbour’s wife, no mention of a women not coveting a neighbour’s husband. They were told not to covet male or female slaves. This verse (17) is a perfect example of what Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza terms kyriarchy. which is a joining of two Greek words kryrios (lords or masters) and archo (to lead, govern or rule). The Exodus passage offers justification for slavery and patriarchy.
I know it was a different time and culture, but coupled with the rule of law, was the idea of male supremacy, or at least, supremacy for certain privileged males. This idea has prevailed unto present day. One only has to look at history or take a glance at the pictures depicting all the presidents and all the vice-presidents of the USA to see that this was not just something that happened in the Old Testament. Male supremacy continues — if I’m honest, I’m not sure why females have continued to be so demeaned and invisible.
At this point, I have to say that I am so grateful to see Kamala Harris changing history as she stands on the shoulders of many brave women who worked so hard to change a nation’s mindset. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see photographs of 46 women following the pictures of 46 men thus moving the nation towards equality?
As I continued through the lectionary passages, I came to the gospel reading which also jarred. It is the story of Jesus overturning tables in the temple (John 2:13-22).
Why did this jar?
I think it was because most of what I read about Jesus was that he came to show a different way. One that involved enemy love, turning the other cheek, healing and feeding those in need. Here an angry Jesus is depicted. And if I am quite honest one who did not handle that anger well. Anger turned to violence is rarely good.
I have worked with traumatized children, who easily get angry. As I read this text, I could not help but get a picture in my head about the classroom and an angry child. The tables and desks are always the first to go! The child gets angry, jumps up and the desk and contents scatter around the classroom. Later, when calmness is restored, the anger, and reason for it, are acknowledged and validated, the ensuing conversation focuses around finding a better way to handle that anger.
Jesus faced a situation where it seems great injustice was being done. He walked into the temple and saw the people selling animals for sacrifice. This was a necessary service to enable those who had come a distance to purchase an animal. (I’m not even going to touch the cruelty to the animals!) Apparently, the practice had become corrupt. In the synoptic gospels Jesus is documented as calling the place a “den of thieves”. People were being swindled in the changing of their money. The “money changers” were getting rich. In modern terms, they had no competition and they were charging what the market would bear. We see this all the time. Recently, I purchased some flowers to send to my mother for her 94thbirthday — her birthday is just after Valentine’s Day, so the prices were hugely inflated. Big business!
Jesus was angry and probably rightly so. Religion was being used to exploit people. Yet, I still have an unease at the violent means used to express this anger. There must be many better ways to bring about change than violence. It really jars that Jesus was portrayed out of character here.
So, what do I do with these unpalatable passages. Do I ignore them? It would be fairly easy to do so, I could just choose a different text to blog on. Yet I have made a commitment, to myself, to treat all the readings honestly, or as honestly as I can. I don’t want to avoid the hard readings. I don’t want to sweep the things that are unpalatable under the carpet!
I try to follow Trible’s advice — I know I have talked about this, many times — to shake a passage until it yields a blessing.
Sometimes, that can be really hard. Sometimes, however hard I shake a text, it is difficult to find a blessing other than to be thankful that times are changing.
In the gospel passage, I can find a blessing in that it allows the reader to see Jesus’ anger at injustices especially those done in the name of religion. It gives me permission to be angry at the injustices I see —injustices to women, children, people of colour, animals, LBGTQ+ friends, the poor, etc., etc. These, too, are often done in the name of religion, So, this text gives me a mandate to be angry and to try to bring about change. I am still not recommending “making a whip of cords” to drive these things out of our society. Nevertheless, it is a blessing to know I can be angry at injustices so I can work for a better society.