Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I Wonder

in light of the much publicized sermon (see herehere, and here), delivered by our Presiding Bishop last month in Curacao, how last Sunday's Gospel passage would be interpreted following the same hermeneutical  (interpretive) principles.  I expect that consistency in interpreting similar texts is to be desired.

Since the texts are indeed similar, I think we should compare them.  First the text from Acts 16:16-34 on which the Presiding Bishop's sermon in Curacao was based:
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God. (Emphasis added)
In the aforementioned sermon's take on this passage, Paul is the unenlightened one for having the temerity to cast out a demon, in the name of Jesus Christ, from a demon possessed slave girl.  Paul's error, under this interpretation (which is without precedent in the tradition of interpretion), is that he did not recognize "her gift of spiritual awareness" and thus cast out what he could not understand, quod est interpretatum not adequately embracing diversity.  This latter is apparently the actual hermeneutical principle at play in the preparation of the homily delivered.

So using the prior sermon as a guide, or as a principal for interpretation, I wonder how this reading from Sunday's service (Luke 8:26-39) could be preached:

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. (Emphasis added)
I believe it would be fair to say that, according to the new interpretive tradition, the slave girl was only saying what Paul was saying in referencing God, and here the demon also only states the truth about Jesus.  Why did Jesus not embrace the spiritual understanding of the Gerasene?  The Geresene "demoniac" did not ask Jesus to cast out the demon, and in fact under the control of the demon specifically asked Jesus not to torment him.

So, is Jesus to be accused of not embracing the divine and spiritual self-understanding of the Gerasene?  Is Jesus intolerant of what he could not understand?  Does Jesus stand accused of a failure to embrace diversity here?  Would this not make Jesus a sinner, like Paul was above, and in need of God's corrective? I am not saying that the Presiding Bishop would preach this, but it is the logical conclusion to the hermeneutic embraced in the first passage, and we would be incredibly dismissive if we argued that the laity would never put these two together.

Please note that Luke, the author of this Gospel and Acts, has the demon possessed utter almost the same exact title for God.  Also note that the result of the exorcism, in both cases, is a move to have the "troublemaker(s)" removed from the area. This is not accidental, and frankly should guide our exegesis by using scripture to interpret scripture.  This, it seems to me, would be in line with the tradition.

Do you see the danger of using an idiosyncratic hermeneutic to develop a one time homily?  In the tradition this idiosyncratic hermeneutic is also known as eisegesis, or reading into the text what we want to say/see, and it is a temptation for all of us who are called to deliver homilies.  I am certain that I have fallen prey to this temptation more than once, and wish I could have those homilies back, but it is a temptation that we who preach must strive to conquer.  One of the tools at our disposal, particularly as Anglicans, is our emphasis on Tradition as a guide for interpreting the Scripture.  When we are out on a creative limb, we must constantly ask whether we are supported by the tradition, and whether the branch will bear our interpretive weight.  If we choose to go forward, without support, on a thin limb, we should not be surprised if we fall.  We clergy are under authority, and do not have the right to "make it up as we go along".

This is not a critique of the Presiding Bishop, per se, but a call to solid preparatory work for all who are called to deliver the Word of the Lord.  It is a tremendous responsibility, and we need reminding, as  Dr. Alan Ross, a former instructor of mine, says: "God has promised to bless his word, not yours".

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