Having Interpretative Imagination!

Lessons for the Day: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; and, Luke 9:51-62.

A little girl once asked her mother if the story of Elijah flying to heaven on a chariot of fire was pretend of real. How would you have answered the question? 

One might try to explain that sometimes a make-believe story can inform better, tell more truth, and expose more reality than a factual one, as Jesus’ parables so aptly demonstrate. One might explain that a factual, “real” story is often embellished with make-believe elements, as the legends that abound in our and every society are. Or, one might respond with the same wisdom and grace as the little girl’s mother did, “That’s a great question! You know that some stories are real, and some stories are pretend. But some of the best stories are a mix of both real and make-believe in order to reveal something really important. What do you think about the Elijah story?”

Notice the mother’s answer! First of all, she doesn’t dismiss the girl’s question. An honest question deserves an honest answer! Moreover, the mother doesn’t just tell the girl what to think. Instead, the girl is invited to think, as a genuine member of the interpreting community. 

We are all that little girl, because as we engage our sacred narrative, the stories of our Bible, we too become members of the interpreting community. I know, it’s an awesome responsibility! It’s even more awesome as we recall how the narrative and stories have been used in history – both for great good and great harm. Bearing on that great responsibility, interpreting the narrative and stories requires our attention and work. 

Let me start by saying that I believe that good interpretation begins with three elements: Science, Art, and Spirit. (* This is just the briefest of explanations. I will follow up on each in the coming weeks) First, we need to enlist science, and trust it. It is vital that interpreters of scripture engage with critical and discerning research into history, language, anthropology, and sociology, among other fields, to wisely interpret the bible. It’s the “reason” of Richard Hooker’s three-legged stool. Science should not be feared or brushed aside; but, rather, it should be enjoined as a divine gift and tool for understanding our journey and story. Second, since the Bible is a literary collection, it is also an artistic collection; and, as such, we ought to engage the narrative and stories with an eye and an ear towards that very art. Indeed, having an artist’s sense (even if we are not artist’s ourselves) will enable us to understand the author’s craft, use of literary form, and employment of metaphor and symbol, as well as the   we need an artist’s eye and ear to wisely draw meaning from an ancient story. Third, at every step through the reading and the hearing, in the science and art, we are invited to be guided by a humble, teachable heart that listens for the voice of the spirit.

In the light of the interpreting community, this part of the Elijah cycle provides a compelling question: What happens when a great leader dies? 

In the typical ancient (and perhaps modern) story, a great leader’s departure tends to be accompanied by a blaze of glory – some magnificent display that portends grandeur or importance. In the Elijah narrative, the “blaze of glory” is symbolized by a fiery chariot and horses flying to the heavens. What also seems typical of the great leader’s departure is that, after the leader is gone, the actual life and message of the leader is forgotten, obscured by the very same blaze of fame and glory. In the immediate aftermath, people become fans of the leader’s reputation; but, they do not become followers of the leader’s example

This is why Elijah, the mentor, puts Elisha, the young apprentice, through so many trials, and warns him about the spectacle surrounding his coming departure. Elijah, it seems, wants Elisha to be aware that the fireworks are not the point. The “blaze of glory” can be a distraction, a temptation to be overcome. And, if the apprentice resists the distraction, remaining resolutely centered on the mentor himself, then a double portion of the mentor’s spirit will rest upon him. 

Something similar happens in the story and anticipation of Jesus’ departure. Will Jesus’ followers look up at the sky, and speculate about his departure with their heads in the clouds. WIll they be fans of Jesus instead of followers of Jesus? Or, will they get down to work, and stay focused on living and sharing Jesus’ way of life, empowered with his Spirit.

It is perhaps easy to miss the point of ancient stories. Those stories didn’t merely aim, like a modern textbook, to pass on factual information. Istead, the stories were remembered and passed on because they sought to form people by engaging them interpretive imagination. Jesus would encounter such interpretation in his day from the many in Israel who were still expecting the militant Messiah to swoop in some day and fix everything. A new golden age would be ushered in by the Messiah, a warrior king who would raise a revolutionary army to overthrow their oppressors. The Messiah would restore religious order and covenant law. In Jesus’ day, there were those who so anticipated the warrior king’s arrival that they were already sharpening daggers and swords. 

Jesus, though, lived by a different interpretive imagination. Jesus refused to conform to their interpretation of the old stories, to their expectations. He refused to arm his followers with swords and spears, chariots and war horses! Instead, Jesus armed his followers with faith, hope, and love, with forgiveness, service, and peace. When Jesus healed people, Jesus didn’t proclaim, “I will save you! My faith will heal you!” Note, rather, that in all of the healing accounts, it is: “Your faith has saved you!” (Luke 7:50; see also Mt 8:13; 9:22, 29; 15:28; Mk 5:34 10:52; Lk 7:50; 8:48; 17:19; 18:42). Jesus works from a fresh interpretation of the past, freeing himself and his followers from both passive complacency and violent action. Jesus’ fresh interpretative imagination empowers his followers and us for something better: Faithful, peaceful action

In facing the kinds of challenges that we face today, I believe that “faithful, peaceful action” is just the kind of empowerment we need. How do we deal with political and economic systems that are destroying the planet and privileging the super elite? How do we deal with war-mongering leaders and a military industrial complex that churns out weapons of unprecedented destruction and unprecedented rates? How will we grapple with migrants and refugees fleeing violence in their home countries, often of our own making, only to be caged as criminals in ours? How will we deal with religious systems full of satisfied hypocrites, violent extremists, and pious complacency? How will contend with complex forces that destroy community and tear down the self, leaving those we have placed at the margins at great risk?

How will we face our personal demons? How will we handle greed, lust, and anger, anxiety, depression, and addiction, particularly when corporations and the people running them spend billions to stimulate those demons so we will buy more stuff. I’m not making this stuff up! There are real problems and to find solutions, we need to have a wise interpretive imagination.

Theologian Richard Rohr has provided this insight,

“Jesus clearly taught the twelve disciples about surrender, the necessity of suffering, humility, servant leadership, and nonviolence. They resisted him every time, and so he finally had to make the journey himself and tell them, “Follow me!” But Christians have preferred to hear something Jesus never said: “Worship me.” Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything.”

Richard Rohr, “Jesus invitation: Follow Me,” 10/18/16

Rohr tells us about this shift from following to worshipping,

“We worshipped Jesus instead of following him on his same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of “belonging and believing” instead of a religion of transformation.” ()

Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditations,” 7/29/14

A religion of belonging and believing is concerned about who’s in and who’s out and about how they support the institution called the church. A religion of transformation focuses on change, changing ourselves into more and more of whom God is calling each of us to be, and changing the world around us into a more hospitable place for all of God’s creatures.

The point of the Christian life is not to distinguish oneself from the ungodly, but to stand in radical solidarity with everyone and everything else. This is the intended effect of the Incarnation—symbolized by the cross, God’s great act of solidarity instead of judgment. Without a doubt, Jesus perfectly exemplified this seeing and thus passed it on to the rest of history. This is how we are to imitate Jesus, the good Jewish man who saw and called forth the divine in Gentiles like the Syro-Phoenician woman and the Roman centurions; in Jewish tax collectors who collaborated with the Empire; in zealots who opposed it; in sinners of all stripes; in eunuchs, astrologers, and all those “outside the law.” Jesus had no trouble whatsoever with otherness. In fact, these “lost sheep” found out they were not lost to him at all and tended to become his best followers.

Richard Rohr, “Seeing Christ Everywhere,” 2/13/19

What Richard Rohr is suggesting is hard work – following is much harder than worshipping. What Jesus calls us to do is hard work. We could just worship and wait around for the whirlwind to pull us into heaven, and we can hope for divine power to part the waters before us. Or, we can settle down and do the work given to us: share love, spread joy, wage peace, foster patience, nurture kindness, exhibit generosity, seek faithfulness, cultivate gentleness, and banish hate.

Pray for the Spirit of Elijah and pray for the Spirit of Jesus to be on us and in us, filling us so that we can show up with strength to a desperate world.

Based on readings: Luke 9:51-62; 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1,13-25

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