Sunday, October 30, is “Reformation Sunday.” The Protestant churches in the Christian family celebrate this occasion as the anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his famous 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, sparking a debate about what it meant to be Christian, what it meant to be the church, what it meant to have faith in Christ and to be “saved,” that are still meaningful to us today. This year is the 499th anniversary of that event, as a matter of fact – so we can just imagine what next year’s celebration will be like!
I don’t just mention this because it is timely, although it is, but because the Protestants have me thinking in a particular way about this story – this amazing story, let’s be honest – from the book of Chronicles. It was Martin Luther who insisted on some principles of Biblical interpretation that have been staples of the Protestant tradition since the earliest days of the Reformation. We need to pay close attention to the “plain text” of scripture, said Martin Luther. He was reacting against a tradition that relied on highly-developed allegorical, analogical and anagogical methods – that is, methods that would see in the scriptural account allegories or stories about something else; analogs to spiritual things, so that a story about water might “really” be a story about holiness, or the story of Sara and Hagar might be a story about slavery and freedom – I got that one from Galatians, as a matter of fact. An anagogical reading is a mystical or spiritual reading in which the text is “really” pointing forward to the life to come, so that “Jordan” is really the river of death, and the Promised Land is the afterlife, for instance. Martin Luther thought that some of this interpretation was wandering off into fantasy land, and wanted to see Christians disciplined by the plain text of scripture: if the Bible said “tree,” it was talking about a tree; if it told a story about prisoners of war being rescued, it was plainly talking about the kind of people you and I are, and it was talking about the kind of rescue we would experience if someone got our flesh-and-blood captors to release us and send us home to our physical towns and homes.
And it was another reformer, John Calvin, who said that nearly all the knowledge we possess, that is, real and true knowledge, is the knowledge of God and of ourselves. That conviction informs another principle of Biblical interpretation, which is that reading the Bible ought to widen and deepen this real and true knowledge. It ought to tell us more about God, and it ought to tell us more about who human beings are.
So a Reformed approach to reading this story of the 200,000 enslaved southerners who, after having been force-marched the 40-something miles from Jerusalem to Samaria by the invading northern kingdom army, are almost miraculously freed by their captors as an answer to the protests of a prophet and a handful of determined political leaders faces a few constraints. Martin Luther recommends taking the story on its face value: read it as a plain story about people and places and events, a story about time and space, a story about history and human experience. John Calvin recommends looking in that story for a word about God, and a word about human beings – us. Maybe, in effect, they are saying: don’t push the meaning of the text off into the remote future or another world, think of it as a word for real people like us, in a real world like ours.
Which immediately makes me think of … wanting to go have a cup of coffee and do something else. Because while I was thinking of 200,000 as such a big number a minute ago, when I am required to think of this story as having something to say about “the real world,” I’m reminded of the more than 300,000 civilians who have died in Aleppo in the course of the siege on that city, or the over 1 million immigrants, mostly refugees, mostly fleeing the warfare in Syria, who entered Europe in 2015; the UN estimates that’s 3 or 4 times more than entered in the preceding year. I’m reminded of the 300 girls kidnapped from a school in Nigeria and enslaved by the extremist group Boko Haram, and of the 21 to 45 million people today, depending on whose estimates we accept, who are living in conditions of slavery – which is illegal everywhere in the world, but still going on. We are constantly reminded that the Bible is a text from a different place and time than ours, but when it comes to war and enslavement, the ancient world and the contemporary world aren’t as far apart as we might like to think.
And because – I think people will agree with me here – this is a story about … abuse, and intervention in and rescue from abuse, I’m reminded of something a teacher of mine said about preaching about the topic of abuse: that we need to remember that any audience contains three kinds of relationship to abuse. People can be the victims of abuse; people can be the perpetrators of abuse; and people can be bystanders.
In this story from 2nd Chronicles, it’s the action of the bystanders that makes all the difference.
The resistance of the prophet Oded, and of the leaders of the Ephraimites, turns the story from a footnote in the long, sad history of the northern and southern kingdoms into a striking example of “as you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me” – well, we might read it that way, having the benefit of that story Jesus tells in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats and the nations and the king who was hungry and the good ones fed him and was thirsty and the good ones gave him something to drink and so on … that story. Because in this story from Chronicles, the Ephraimites definitely feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty and clothe the naked and nurse the sick and actually go beyond visiting the ones who are in prison – well, captured – so they have all the categories covered. Granted, they are not “the nations,” they are part of Israel, which is supposed to be a light to “the nations” – that is, all the peoples who are not Israel. But then … that’s exactly what they are doing in this story, illustrating the way people are meant to treat their kin who are the victims of war.
And they accomplish this by recognizing the situation – that the people involved are their kin, on one hand being enslaved, on the other, enslaving – and because this is a situation that involves kin, it’s a situation that involves them all. As the leaders of Ephraim say, “you propose to bring on us guilt.” Seeing their own involvement, they take the appropriate action to intervene: calling out the situation for what it is, and insisting that the perpetrators need to see what they’re doing and stop it. Then, they address the pressing physical needs of the victims, and accompany them back to a place where they can pick up the threads of their lives again.
It’s the action of the bystanders that makes the difference in the story, but we readers of the story might be able to imagine ourselves in either of the other positions as well. We can – although I admit, I don’t enjoy doing this – imagine ourselves in the position of the captured southerners. I can imagine how desperate and frantic, or perhaps hopeless and resigned, I would feel under the circumstances; what I might be saying to my children; what I might be fearing for and hoping for and how I might be trying to cope with the situation, trying to make the best of it, trying to think of it as an exercise in character-building, and still praying and hoping against hope for some miracle, doing all the stuff we do when everything goes against us and we don’t see a way out. We can – and I admit, I don’t enjoy doing this, either – also imagine ourselves in the position of the victors. Because if I imagine myself in their place, I imagine myself just doing what everybody always does when there’s a war on, just trying to take care of myself and get home in one piece and take advantage of whatever opportunities come my way and hopefully get ahead … it’s good to be one of the winners, it’s good not be one of the losers, and the winners always get to take the losers’ lunch money and tell them what to do, heck, it’s just what people do in these circumstances – “these circumstances” being the ones of having all the power on their side this time, of being the bigger stronger ones, of being able to do what they want, to the ones on the other side.
Except that the ones on the other side are kin. That’s what the bystanders in this story see, and remind everyone of. “They” are “us”. Doing this to your mom, your sister, your brother, your uncle, your next door neighbor, would be wrong. But … you might as well be doing this to your mom, your sister, your brother, your uncle, your next door neighbor. These people are just as much kin, and this is just as wrong. Let’s do the right thing here, for a change … This is the message of the bystanders in the story, the message of the prophet Oded, and the message of the leaders of Ephraim. This is the message that makes all the difference.
That does seem to be the message of Jesus, too, in that story about the nations and the sheep and the goats and the feeding the hungry and all that. “They” are “me,” and “you,” and “us.” We are all in this together. Getting involved, standing up for compassionate action, being the agents of that action, calling your kin back from doing their worst and rescuing your kin from the worst, all of that is what we are made to be doing for one another. That does seem to be the message of Jesus’ … story, for that matter, the one about Jesus’ birth, and life, and ministry, and death and resurrection. It’s certainly what he told his listeners and followers to think and to do.
This reading would shed some light on “God and ourselves.” It would suggest that the category of “kin” is important, when we think about God, and when we think about ourselves and one another. It would suggest that we ought to be thinking about that category as a lot more universal than we do, and would remind us that it’s easy for us to get caught up in situations in which we forget, or ignore, our kinship to “the others” and get carried away because of that. It would suggest we need to be reminded of that relationship over and over again, and when we’re the ones who notice it, we need to be the ones doing the reminding. And I’m all for all of that. Except that I’m afraid that the knowledge this gives me about myself in the “plain text” world, the real one I really live in, is that I ought to be doing more than I am; I ought to be finding my way to the city gates and standing with the prophets and the folks trying to make a difference in the story our lives are making into history, instead of “minding my own business” inside the city walls, paying as little attention as possible and trying “not to get involved,” ignoring the fact that I already am involved. Because of us being kin.