Wednesday, October 27, 2010

An Interpretive Field Day...or Obstacle Course.

Wow, wow, wow to our readings this week. SO many interpretive choices that we must wrestle with as we read them, things that can both trouble us deeply and lead us to laugh out loud (which I actually did when I learned something new about the Luke reading this week!).

Our readings this week are Psalm 32, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 and Luke 19:1-10. Read them here...though you may want to go to this site and look up Psalm 32 in its entirety (since we'll be dealing with the whole prayer in worship on Sunday) and look up 2 Thess 1:1-12 in its entirety including the verses the lectionary omits since we'll be addressing that interpretive choice below.

I'll briefly address issues around the 2 Thessalonians reading (though we likely won't be spending much time on this text on Sunday) since a curious tension in these verses was pointed out at Bible Study this past Saturday as something people would like probed a little more fully. In a classic move by those who assembled the Revised Common Lectionary that we (and churches around the world) use to outline our scripture readings each week, the middle portion of the opening greeting and thanksgiving of 2 Thessalonians is cut out of our suggested reading this week. When one looks up these verses, it is no wonder: 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 includes some of the most vitriolic language in the New Testament--language that sounds much more like the Old Testament God of vengeance than the New Testament God of grace. How do we deal with this omitted text that's at the heart of our passage?

I did some reading, and it seems there are several interpretive approaches we could take to these verses. One interpretation suggests that linking Jesus to such a final and fiery judgment was a way for the writer to help establish Jesus' full divinity--linking Jesus in the Thessalonians' minds to the images they had of God as final arbiter and judge of humanity and giving Jesus full power and authority over all things. Another suggests that this is in line with an ancient letter writing technique of gaining affinity with your audience by identifying with them in their situation--by going off against those who had been the root of the Thessalonians' suffering, the author could find solidarity with them in the midst of their struggle. Another way to encounter these words is to put them in context of the wider book--a book that addressed the fact that many in Thessalonica believed that the last days were already here and were now just sitting around on their rear ends, convinced the end was at any moment. Here the writer is from the beginning setting up the fact that redemption is still to come--and hence the Thessalonians need to keep living toward that not-yet future with faithfulness and expectation. Finally, it's possible that the writer is just furious about what the Thessalonians have had to go through and is letting some of that rage run unchecked before finally reeling it back in and returning to a more "proper" voice of thanksgiving in verses 11-12.

Are those enough interpretive choices for you? Phew. And I'm sure there are tons others I have not even thought of or encountered. For those of you interested in wrestling with this more, I'd recommend reading 2 Thessalonians all the way through (it's a short book)...I think context here is really important, as always--but perhaps even moreso than usual!

There are some really interesting interpretive choices to be made in Psalm 32 and especially in the Luke passage as well...but looking at how long this blog already is, those will have to wait for Sunday or some other time. Here's a teaser, though: who would have believed that there would be something new to learn about the Zacchaeus story after a whole lifetime of doing the story in Vacation Bible School EVERY YEAR that startled me so much I laughed out loud? don't usually read the text in the Greek for Bible School, do you?
Stay tuned on Sunday as we continue this adventure of working to interpret scripture together! In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments on the 2 Thessalonians passage...or any of the others, for that matter! Comment away!

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