Speaking in the Shadows
In her book, Holy Envy, Barbara Brown Taylor remembers a letter she received from a Jewish psychiatrist after some ten years in pastoral ministry. The psychiatrist had been reading some of Taylor’s published sermons. While he appreciated much in those messages, he noted that Taylor was still using what he called “the language of contempt.”
Taylor was puzzled by this phrase and asked for clarification. The man noted that she used phrases such as “the burden of the law” or “the righteousness of the Pharisees.” While Taylor used these expressions with good intentions, she noted that she had not “the slightest idea how they sounded to Jewish ears.”
Taylor’s dialogue partner noted that the phrases were imprecise and venomous, regardless of the intention. “In short,” Taylor writes, “he showed me how casually I appropriated the language of the New Testament without thinking about how the past twenty centuries affect its hearing today” (page 88). While I spent a previous post pointing out some of the ways in which we can read our text while straining out the venom, I felt a need to go back and audit this week’s work to see where else I have fallen short.
When I read the gospel accounts, and especially the Markan composition, I have to remind myself and my conversation partners that most of the fights in the Christian scriptures are no longer my fights. That’s true in the simple, historical sense that those fights have been settled (or at least they’re over). It’s also true in the complex, historical sense that I live in a far different time and place than did the first Jesus followers.
Taylor notes in her book that at least some of us Christians want to think and live as if there have not been twenty-one centuries between Jesus’ earthly ministry and our daily lives. Some of us want to think and act as if we can go directly from the text of Christians scriptures to interpretation and application in this moment. For those of us who live after pogroms and the Holocaust and the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue, that arrogant assumption is both wrong and deadly (for Jews, at least).
There’s the real danger that we will make those first-century fights into allegories of and proxies for our contemporary fights. I think Martin Luther did some of that when he made Jewish law the proxy for “The Law” in his theology. I think he did more of that when he made “the Jews” into proxies for the medieval papacy and the penitential system. The problem with that facile exchange is that real Jews paid the real price instead of the papacy.
We should be clear as preachers, and I should be clear as a commentator, that the scribes in the Markan composition do not represent a minority opinion among first-century Jews on the marks of the Messiah. As Taylor notes, Jesus “simply did not do what Jewish scripture said a messiah would do. He did not restore Jerusalem. He did not rebuild the Jerusalem temple. He did not usher in the age of peace on earth, so that wolves and lambs lay down together and no one learned war anymore” (page 84).
Most of us Christians, Taylor observes, expect Jesus to do these things when he returns, “but that is where Jews and Christians part ways. When Jesus’ followers began to worship him,” she concludes, “those who confessed faith in the one God waved good-bye to the those who saw God as three” (page 84). And, I remind myself, it wasn’t just the scribes who thought Jesus was off the track. That’s the majority position of the Twelve until after the crucifixion and resurrection.
What I am asking of myself is to be precise and specific whenever the potential for anti-Jewish “language of contempt” is a temptation (which is most Sundays in Christian preaching). The problem with the scribes in our text is not being “Jewish.” The problem is that some of them were greedy and as a result were violating the standards of their own teaching.
But, “Jew” and “greedy” have been combined a million times in the last two millennia. The image of the rich, greedy Jew has been used to underwrite horrific acts, policies, and regimes. We should note that this image never disappears. It goes underground for a while, only to re-emerge when useful to those who want to be the next incarnation of institutional Anti-Semitism. A brief survey of current right wing political literature and pronouncements in this country and around the world will demonstrate that the “greedy Jew” has returned as a trope to legitimate persecution and violence.
Thus, this is fraught territory for preaching and commenting. Clarity, specificity, and lots of caveats should be the order of the day. For example, when it comes to the marks of the Messiah, Jesus is the one skating on thin theological ice here. No one could have expected in advance that the Messiah would look like Jesus, crucified and raised.
While Jesus was on the margins of messianic interpretation, he was in many ways more conservative than his dialogue partners. Think about the number of times Jesus returns to an earlier and deeper level of the tradition to make his points. He’s not creating new categories or systems. He is going back to the meaning and intent behind the texts. The way that Jesus is “radical” is that he goes to the “root” (Latin = radix) of the issues in the text.
For example, the care for widows, orphans, and sojourners is a central tenet of the Tanakh (the “Old Testament” for us Gentiles). This is not a new invention. Jesus is not breaking new theological ground here.
In addition, whatever the Temple system was, that’s not my fight. My fight is with oppressive, extractive, and exploitative systems in the here and now. It’s a lot more comfortable to focus on “the Temple,” because I don’t have a dog in that fight. If I focus on the here and now systems, there’s a problem. In those systems I’m much more a scribe than a widow.
We do business at a local bank. My spouse works for another large banking corporation. My ELCA retirement plan dollars are invested in the stock market and depend on that market for income. I have a daily vested interest in the success of those institutions. Then I read a paper on how private banks and the private banking system have continued to practice discrimination against a variety of minority groups because diversity, equity, and inclusion are seen as conflicting with their real bottom lines (See Packin and Nippani article). Well, that’s a problem — for me.
Even the language of the scribes as “villains,” which works so well in performance criticism terms, is loaded language in our preaching. Sigh. Perhaps it’s too much to ask for people to see the textual “villains” without transferring those feelings to the descendants of the “villains.” I probably need to leave that imagery on the sidelines.
Does the Markan account itself argue here that the Temple “deserved” destruction? Perhaps it does. If so, that is an after the fact argument, since the Temple was dust and ashes by the time the Markan account is put into writing. Perhaps this is simply hindsight bias (“you see, we knew it all along!”). The problem is that this argument slides far too easily into one that says Jews deserve destruction because of their “resistance” to Jesus. We get that already in Matthew 27 – “his blood be upon us and upon our children.”
The writer of Matthew’s gospel has much for which to answer on that count. But no one was required to put that into practice or to read it as blanket permission to kill Jews. That blood is upon us Christians and upon our ancestors. We can pray and preach in such ways that it might not be upon our children and grandchildren as well.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes these dangerous descriptions as “the shadow language in the New Testament.” I went to public worship recently for the first time in eighteen months. It was Reformation Sunday, and my ears were tuned to this shadow language. The images of Jewish ignorance, Christian triumph, and ecclesiastical success raked my ears like fingernails on the proverbial chalkboard. How many times have I done that to my listeners? Dozens. Hundreds. I don’t know.
Taylor notes that “the language of contempt is not the only shadow language in the New Testament. There is also the one that uses the rhetoric of men first,” she continues, “followed by silenced women and obedient slaves. There is another that divides reality into opposed pairs, pitting church against world, spirit against flesh, light against dark. There is even one,” she notes, “that glorifies suffering for suffering’s sake, leading some Christians to hurt themselves – or others—for reasons that have nothing to do with the gospel” (pages 104-105).
I write this blog mostly for the benefit of some dedicated lay preachers who are doing their best to be faithful in their proclamation. I’m glad the rest of you come along for the read. I’d like to make that task simpler, but then I would fail them. “The purpose of staying on the lookout for languages like these,” Taylor concludes, “is to prevent them from becoming uncontested parts of the Christian worldview” (page 105).
There is no harder work than looking at how I see, listening to how I hear, and auditing how I speak. It’s not really something I can do for myself with anything approaching reliability. That’s one of the reasons why preaching is a communal activity at its best, not a solo effort. Trusting Jesus, as Taylor reminds us, does not lead to owning God. Let’s help one another refrain from making that property claim.
Now, there’s a word for our time…
References and Resources
Beavis, Mary Ann. “Women as Models of Faith in Mark,” https://www.academia.edu/13080771/Women_as_Models_of_Faith_in_Mark.
Dewey, Joanna. “Women in the Gospel of Mark.” https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/26-1_mark/26-1_dewey.pdf.
FLEDDERMANN, HARRY. “A Warning about the Scribes (Mark 12:37b-40).” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 52–67, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43716182.
MALBON, ELIZABETH STRUTHERS. “The Poor Widow in Mark and Her Poor Rich Readers.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, Catholic Biblical Association, 1991, pp. 589–604, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43718348.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. HarperOne, 2019.
WRIGHT, ADDISON G. “The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament?—A Matter of Context.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 256–65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43709756.