Another Wednesday morning conversation with local pastors on the lectionary. I really enjoy this time to meet with my colleagues and talk about how to translate the gospel into plain language and a word that our congregation can make a part of their lives. The scriptures are tricky. They are written in ancient languages, in ancient contexts, and they use ideas and concepts that really just don’t translate to our world today.
This morning in particular, we talked about the first healing in the gospel of Mark. I hadn’t thought about this before, but there isn’t a whole lot of demonic activity in the Old Testament. And there isn’t a whole lot of demonic activity after Jesus either. At least not in the same sense that we see in these scriptures. As I talked with a friend about it today, we talked about how the “powers” might work in our world today.
In all honesty he said, if evil works through manipulation – then in people who are superstitious and believe in spirits – then working through evil spirits and demons makes sense. But in our modern scientific culture, we don’t buy the whole “spirits” thing. What if the devil is simply working through other means – through means by which we can be manipulated – reason, science, false theology, etc.
I hadn’t ever thought of that before – and it really made sense. I think that throughout history God reaches out to us in different ways – so why not the evil powers of the world as well?
After that, i headed to the church for our weekly bible study. This group basically reads through a book or section of the bible and we try to understand it, but mostly, it is to get a feel for the whole story. Right now we are in Numbers, and I found myself stopping the group after every paragraph to explain a few important pieces. We were reading in particular the section where it talks about what a man should do if he is jealous and suspects his wife of cheating. There is all of this talk of bitter water and the priest and fallen thighs and it made no sense. So I translated. “If a guy is jealous, he takes his wife to the priest, who then administers this bitter water solution… if she is pregnant (presumably by another man) it will cause a miscarriage. If she is not pregnant, either she has not been cheating and is cleared, or doesn’t get caught… but it’s likely that she won’t do it again. All guys are in the clear and won’t get in trouble for their actions.”
Comments ranged from “that’s not fair” to “why would they do that?” I explained that one reason is that women were viewed much differently – as property, as the belonging of the husband in this time. But also, that the law actually provided a way for a woman to prove her innocence – so in that sense, it was protective.
We also talked about the vow of the Nazarite. And I noticed in particular a different understanding of what sin might be within these passages. The Nazarite is not allowed to touch a corpse, but if someone dies right next to that person, and so they are unwillfully put in contact with the corpse, they have still sinned. There is a process for cleansing and setting things right in relationship to God and their vows.
We think about sin and law as an act that ‘I’ have done that breaks a law. It carries a sense of guilt and punishment. But when we think about law as order, as a process, as a way of being – then sin is simply when that order gets out of balance. What is required is not punishment, but restoration.
I have found that my congregation really tends to think of the law as this harsh thing that condemns and convicts – the law needs to be laid down – God is always telling us how we are supposed to act and we are faithful if we follow all those laws to a “T”. I’m really trying to get them to have a more graceful understanding of the law. God’s Word should rule our lives, and God’s grace is what saves us and the law is still a good thing that helps us to live more in line with God’s will. But it is also in many places used to describe a way of being that is not in line with our culture, and we have to use God’s grace to interpret the laws we read in Numbers.