Revised Common Lectionary Page for 5 September 2010 (15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C)
As I’ve mentioned before, I have preached in my lifetime somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred sermons over a span of about fifteen years. That’s not to say that I’m any good at it, but I have spent my hours writing sermons, about thirty of them between the years 2000 and 2002 and the rest before and after that span. I won’t claim to be a good preacher, but I will say that preaching has, more than anything else that I’ve done or read, affected the way that I interpret the Bible. I did not take any preaching courses in college or seminary (and I kick myself for that omission whenever I have to prepare a sermon), but in Bible classes and in round-table discussions and in books about preaching (I’ve read a dozen or so of those) I become convinced fairly early in that process that preaching a paragraph of the Bible rather than a shotgun-scatter array of proof-texts is more faithful to the Bible than so-called “topical” sermons.
I note those things because, over fifteen years of preaching paragraphs of Scripture, I’ve become more and more convinced that what Walter Brueggemann calls the “theological datum” is what makes preaching such an interesting enterprise. The theological datum presupposes a theology that puts the text of the Bible at the unchallenged center of the theological enterprise, and it refers to those moments in the Scriptures which cause disruptions in a system, be that system Deuteronomic curse-and-blessing historigraphy, the sapiential cause-and-effect of Proverbs, or (in the case of these texts from Deuteronomy and Jeremiah) accounts of divine providence that assume an entirely unilateral scheme of history, God pronouncing on Jacob and Esau arbitrarily and then pronouncing on everybody else with the same sort of arbitrary favor and disfavor. To take this Jeremiah text seriously, to take it as a theological datum, means to allow that, at one moment at least in Israel’s journey as worshipers of YHWH, they took YHWH to be offering them genuine agency in their rise and fall.
The theological datum, of course, is not the only option that an interpreter of Scripture has in the face of such texts. Certainly theologians, faced with this sort of passage, have shown themselves more than willing to let a hermeneutical trick govern the reading and keep the most obvious sense of the grammar and vocabulary to have any force. Perhaps this allowance of agency is a mere anthropomorphism, or perhaps YHWH sets this possibility before Israel not in earnest but knowing all along (and in most such accounts foreordaining) that they should take another path and face destruction. In such accounts, strangely enough, such theologians will usually blame Israel for taking the path that they could not but take.
I put my favorite figure of the Continental Reformations on this post because, in my view, his humble reading of such passages continues to be the most compelling. To paraphrase Erasmus, if an imperative occurs in the text of the Bible, unless there’s a very good reason nearby in the text to suppose otherwise, one should read it as an imperative, a command that assumes the possibility that the hearer of the command might in fact carry the command out. And in cases of conditional constructions, one should assume that YHWH actually means to point to genuinely possible conditions. Alas, when Erasmus articulated this reading in a dispute with Martin Luther, most Church historians give the match to Luther. I can only assume that his innovative hermeneutics, theatrics, verbal abuse, and sheer copiousness of words win the bout, because his approach to such texts is to assume that every such conditional or imperative construction in the Bible is a sort of trick on God’s part, a trick whose aim is to render even one’s understanding of the text of the Bible suspect, a move God makes in turn for the sake of rendering despair in the reader. (When the Bible supports Luther’s point, he’s far more confident of its clarity, but that’s for another discussion.)
But the text as it stands, taken to mean what it seems to mean on a first reading, presents a certain compelling beauty that such a trickster-hermeneutic lacks, a vision of YHWH extending forgiveness and the dignity of grasping that forgiveness to Israel. Certainly nobody reading this passage could maintain with any seriousness that turning from Israel’s evil will make God like Israel more–one does not offer such reinstatement to those not already beloved–but nonetheless Israel remains a genuine character in the story, no mere parable or plot device, and this English teacher and occasional preacher and Erasmean just prefers to read things that way.
May we continue to press each other’s theological systems, always open to hear our own pressed, and may God bless and forgive our efforts to proclaim God’s gospel.