SOME ALTERNATIVE TAKES ON WELL-KNOWN GOSPEL VERSES
(Of course I could be wrong!)
(1) “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mk 10:25)
Traditional interpretation: the “eye” refers to a small side gate in the city wall of Jerusalem that was only big enough for a man to pass through, considerably bigger than a needle eye; indeed if a camel was unloaded and got on its knees it might just squeeze through! At least that’s what I was taught in Sunday School!
Actually this aphorism is a wry joke about wealth and reverses the accepted view of the time that wealth was a blessing from god. The verse has received ingenuous “manipulation at the hands of bourgeois conscience-tranquilizing exegetes” (i). The gate idea is designed to rob this class-critical metaphor of its power.(ii). No, I think that what Jesus is saying is that the only way to salvation for the rich is to redistribute their wealth and eradicate class oppression A modern equivalent might be “It is harder for wealthy north americans to enter the kingdom than for Nelson Rockefeller to get through the night deposit slot of the First National City Bank!” (iii) “As an institution the church depends on the generosity of its wealthy contributors, and they find this teaching to be another example of ‘soaking the rich’. Instead of being honest about the Jesus message, that wealth is not a sin but can be spiritually debilitating, exegetical apologists go to work doing creative reinterpretations until they find what they went looking for – something that will pull the teeth of this inconvenient truth.” (iv) “Fabric softeners have been applied . Some …compromisers… have argued that ‘camel’ is a misunderstanding of a similar sounding word meaning ‘rope’. All such softening ploys are uncharacteristic of Jesus and subvert both the style and content of his wisdom.” (v)
(2) ” And Jesus said to them : ‘Become my followers and I’ll have you fishing for people’.” (Mk 1:17)
The traditional interpretation is that Jesus wants them to save souls.
However there are previous references, in the Hebrew testament (Old Testament), that indicate Jesus had something completely different in mind.
According to Myers (vi) “There is no expression more traditionally misunderstood than Jesus’ invitation to these workers to become “fishers of men”. This metaphor despite the grand old tradition of missionary interpretation, does not refer to the “saving of souls”, as if Jesus were conferring upon these men instant evangelist status. Rather the image is carefully chosen from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used as a symbol of Yahweh’s censure of Israel. Elsewhere the “hooking of fish” is a euphemism for judgement upon the rich (Am 4:2) and powerful (Ez 29:4). Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.”
(3) “Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in largs amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins worth only a few pence. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty put in everything – all she had to live on’.” (Mk 12:41-44)
Traditional spin on this episode: he is praising her for her sacrifice.
But why would Jesus praise someone who is below the poverty-line giving her mite to the rich? He was at odds with the Pharisees and the temple throughout his life. Rather the story condemns the way the ideological hegemony of the Jerusalem priestly aristocracy exploited the people’s faith for their own gain – an especially important insight for the church today. (vii)
(4) ” Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.” (Matt 11:28-30)
Traditionally, these well-known and comforting words have been received as balm for weary souls, an invitation to lay down the cares and stresses of the world and let Christ shoulder them instead. (viii)
Sorry guys, this was probably not what Matthew had in mind and his audience would have got a very different message. Some scholars like Warren Carter (ix) argue that words like ‘labour’, carrying heavy burdens’, ‘rest’, and ‘yoke’ are frequently associated with the exercise of power, especially imperial and political rule..”Jesus issues an invitation to those who are oppressed by Roman imperial power to encounter God’s empire now in his ministry in anticipation of the time when God destroys all empires including Rome’s.”
Those who are ‘weary and are carrying a heavy burden’ may well include not just the disciples but all those who struggle to support the wealthy. ‘Those who labour’ may well refer to the 95% of the population that is just trying to survive; the verb ‘labour’ comes from a greek word that is frequently concerned with life under imperial rule. ‘Carrying a heavy burden’ refers to those who ‘labour wearily’ and are systematically oppressed by those who perpetuate unjust social structures. The rich can never get enough of or enjoy the ‘fruit of their toil’, in which they have “crushed and abandoned the poor, they have seized a house that they did not build.” (Job 20:18-19)
In other words this text is challenging Roman oppression. Serious biblical scholarship reveals a consistent message: the gospel is a stunningly political document buried under centuries of sentimental interpretations. (x)
(5)” Now a leper came to him and fell to his knees, asking for help. “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” he said. Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing. Be clean!” The leprosy left him at once, and he was clean. Immediately Jesus sent the man away with a very strong warning. He told him, “See that you do not say anything to anyone, but go, show yourself to a priest, and bring the offering that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” But as the man went out he began to announce it publicly and spread the story widely, so that Jesus was no longer able to enter any town openly but stayed outside in remote places. Still they kept coming to him from everywhere”. (Mk 1:40-45)
Traditionally, this story is taken to be a straightforward healing incident.
But, this is “more than a simple healing story, it is an outright condemnation of the priestly aristocracy’s callous exclusivism.” (xi) “The sickness described … as ‘leprosy’ is simply not leprosy at all from a biomedical perspective. But from the sociocultural perspective -which is what the bible always reports – this condition called leprosy threatens communal integrity and holiness and must be removed from the community.” (xii)
(6) “For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work and gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two gained two more. But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it. After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them. The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more,saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ “ (Mt 25:14-30)
Traditionally, this “parable of the talents” is seen as an endorsement of free enterprise, i.e. of capitalism. In it the master says to the bad servant “You ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and so at my return I would have recovered my own with interest.” (Mt 25:27) and charges his servants with the task of doing business with the money he places in the hands of each. (xiii)
But this is only a parable – a literary device, a comparison, where a real life situation is used to teach a particular lesson. It is in no way trying to imply that Jesus approves of the events he describes, quite the contrary. The bible is consistently against profit-making, whether through commerce, loans with interest, or productive activity (xiv). No, the important lesson Jesus is trying to get across with this parable is simply that we are obliged to use whatever talents we may have for the realization of the Kingdom. Full stop. That’s all.
If you think about some of his other parables he does the same thing. When he compares his second coming with a housebreaker entering in the dead of night is he approving of burglary? Of course not! (Mt 24:43-44) In the parable of the swindling embezzling steward is Jesus approving of such goings on? (Lk 16:1-8)
(7) “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want; but you not always have me.” (Mk 14:7)
Traditionally this is used as an excuse not to help the poor, saying “we really need to be concerned about saving souls not about poverty because Jesus said poverty will always be here.”
But this is bad theology; a better reading of the text would be “We will always be with the poor.” We need to ask: where are the poor? are they here? The verse is a direct quote by Jesus from Deuteronomy 15:11. Verse 4 says “There should be no poor among you.” God gives commandments on how we are to care for the poor, the aliens, and the stranger. The church should be with the poor and the poor should be among us as they were with Jesus. Verse 7 says “do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your poor brother. Rather be open-handed and lend him whatever he needs.”
Jesus is not excusing us from action but calling us to action. Poverty is our responsibility.
c.f. Lk 3:11 and Jas 1:27 (xv)
(8) UPCOMING: “BE SURE YOUR SINS WILL FIND YOU OUT” (NUMBERS)
ROMANS 13 PAUL ON AUTHORITY
THE POOR WILL ALWAYS BE WITH YOU (TAMEZ AND MIRANDA) SEE 7
(i) Miranda, José Porfirio “Communism and the Bible” Maryknoll (1982)
(ii) Myers, Ched “Binding the strong man” Maryknoll (2008) p.96, 275.
(iii) Beuchner, Frederick “Telling the truth. The gospel as tragedy, comedy and fairy tale.” Harper Row (1977)
(iv) Meyers, Robin “Saving Jesus from the church” HarperOne (2009) p.155
(v) Funk, Robert “Honest to Jesus” Harper (1996) in Meyers p. 156
(vi) Myers op. cit. p.132
(vii) Hendricks, Frederick in Myers op. cit. p.xxiii
(viii) Meyers, op.cit. p.146
(ix) Carter, Warren “Matthew and Empire” Trinity Press (2001) quoted in Meyers p. 147
(x) Meyers op.cit. p.148
(xi) Hendricks, Obery in the foreword to “Binding the strongman” by Ched Myers, op. cit. p.xviii
(xii) Pilch, J. (1985) quoted in Myers. op. cit. p.145
(xiii) Miranda, José Porfirio “Communism in the Bible” Wipf and Stock (1982) p. 51
(xiv) Miranda op.cit p.53
(xv) Claiborne, Shane; & Campolo, Tony. “Red Letter Christianity” (2012)