Douglas’ Revised Catechism for Skeptics and Seekers
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Ok, usually the sermon title I publish in the Beacon is a good title that leads us right into the heart of my topic. Usually. Today’s title is so far off I will break rule #1 of public speaking by beginning the sermon with an apology. I thought a revised catechism would be interesting. As one who grew up Unitarian Universalist without the experience of catechisms, I though the Question and Answer style of theological exploration would be insightful. However, I have now looked at a few catechisms and detect a major flaw in the plan. A catechism’s purpose is to indoctrinate – to supply the exactly correct answers to pointed questions. That just is not our style. A Unitarian Universalist catechism of questions would have all the same answer: It depends. What is the nature of God? It depends. What is the purpose of humanity? It depends. A UU catechism would be filled with a lot of ‘yes and no,’ and ‘some see it this way, others see it that way.’ So I may someday take up the challenge of using a catechistic sermon style, today is not that day. Although what I will speak on is close enough.
The second and more important reason I am backing away from my title is that this is John Smigelski’s sermon. He was the top bidder at last year’s Dining for Dollars “Sermon Topic and Lunch” item. (The Dining for Dollars auction will be happening again this spring – see the bulletin board for more information or to sign up to offer an item.) So John and I had lunch. He told me about having learned about Jesus and the Bible through the Baltimore Catechism. John told me about how interested he was whenever I preached from the Bible because it tended to be rather different from what he’d been taught by the nuns as a youth. He wanted to learn more about the Bible, specifically about the stuff the nuns had not told him. Without further ado, I now step into what some consider to be a long, proud history of either biblical scholarship or biblical heresy, depending on who you ask.
Part 1: What the nuns probably did not tell you during catechism lessons.
Having grown up without hearing Biblical stories on a regular basis and, more importantly not hearing these stories interpreted for me on a regular basis, I have been curious about them since adulthood. Being more of a skeptic than a believer as a young adult I initially sought out the discrepancies and problematic passages. For example, Adam and Eve have two children initially: Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel and their parents have a third child, Seth. At this point, the total human population is still four. Then Cain and Seth each marry and have children. Where did their wives come from?
There are two accounts of creation. In one God creates humans after having created all the other creatures while in another God creates one man, followed by all the animals, birds and fish, and finally the second half of humanity: a woman. So which order is accurate? There are two versions of Noah loading the animals on the ark. In one there are two of every animal while in the other there are two of every unclean animal and seven of every clean animal (so Noah would have enough to sacrifice when the voyage was completed.) Why are there two different versions of what happened?
The Gospels are even worse in terms of internal consistency. In one Gospel shepherds visit the birth of Jesus while at another there appear wise men. In one version Jesus walks across the water, joining the disciples in the boat. In another version he walks past them and meets them on the shore. In yet a third version Jesus is joined by Peter and both of them walk on water before climbing into the boat. And the fourth gospel makes no mention of this at all. The Bible is full of small discrepancies like this.
Eventually I learned that the Bible was the product of many voices: many authors as well as many editors. The bible is not a single text, it is a compilation of several books written by many people over a quite a span of time. The different perspectives, the discrepancies, the occasional moments of contradiction are the product of bringing the multiplicity into a single unit. What we call the Bible was put together largely in response to the social and political pressures of the times. The Hebrew Scriptures as we know them today, what the Christians call the Old Testament and Jews call the Tanakh, was pulled together as a canon less than two hundred years Before the Common Era (B.C.E.). The New Testament was not finally solidified until sometime in the 300’s C.E.
Jesus and Paul referred to the scriptures, the sacred writings. For them this was the Torah and the Prophets. The version they used would likely have been something called the Septuagint, a famous Greek translation begun during the third century B.C.E. The legend is that a certain king asked 72 Jewish scholars, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, to translate the Hebrew text into Greek for the common people. This was soon after the conquests of Alexander the Great, so Greek was the common language of the people. An additional element to the legend has it that the 72 Jewish scholars took exactly 72 days to complete the translation of the Torah and that all 72 Greek translations were identical! It is more likely that the translation work went on for well over a hundred years before it was declared complete. The word “septuaginta” is Latin for 70. Why a Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures translated by 72 individuals would be known by the Latin word for 70 escapes me – but there it is. When the Gospel writer of Matthew quotes Isaiah, (Mt 1:23) he uses the phrasing from the Septuagint. When Paul invokes the Bible he is referring to the Septuagint.
The name of the first book of Hebrew Scriptures is the Greek word for ‘creation’: genesis. Likewise, exodus is Greek for ‘going out.’ So when Paul mentions ‘sacred writings’ to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:15-16), he isreferring to the Law and the Prophets, not the Gospels because they had not been written yet. Following the death of Jesus, the first things considered to be ‘sacred writings’ by the early Christians would have been the letters of Paul. Within a few decades there were written accounts of Jesus’ life, teachings, and death; dozens of them in fact. And it is only over time that it was narrowed down to four.
And all of the New Testament Gospels, letters and such were written in Greek. And while Jesus and the apostles would have read their Greek translation of the Hebrew scripture, they spoke a Semitic language known as Aramaic. And we now read all of this in English. It has been said that to translate a poem into another language is to write a new poem. The work of translation has been a critical point of concern in Bible studies. Things can go afoul in translation and the scholars have worked hard to catch what they can. As with the King James Version of the English Bible, the Greek word Agape was translated several ways. Do any of you remember ‘faith, hope and charity?’ We now read it as ‘faith, hope and love.’ There is significant scholarship about the translation of a prophecy in Isaiah about a certain ‘virgin’ – or was it a ‘young woman’? One should always wonder about translations.
In a Paris hotel elevator the English sign reads: Please leave your values at the front desk. Outside a Hong Kong tailor shop a sign said: Ladies may have a fit upstairs. On the door of a Moscow hotel room: If this is your first visit to the USSR, you are welcome to it. And the sign in an Acapulco hotel: The manager has personally passed all the water served here.
It can be difficult to translate at times when you have a pair of words like “Now here” and “No where.” If I tell you in Aramaic “the Kingdom of God is now here!” and someone 30 years later writes this message down in Greek, and others copy the text over and over until a few hundred years later they are attempting to translate it into Latin and begin to wonder: did he say ‘nowhere’ or ‘now here’? A simple textual error can lead to significant theological differences.
Knowing about the culture in which the original words were spoken or the earliest text were first used will help clarify a lot. We don’t need a catechism telling us exactly what a scripture passage means. Learning about the original context, the way people understood the world, will help us learn to hear what is offered more clearly.
Part 2: Exploring a particular example.
One scripture passage I have explored several times in the past but have not yet used in a sermon is from Chapter 5 of Mark’s Gospel. (Mark 5:21-43) This is a passage you are not likely to hear from a UU pulpit because it is not about a parable. It is about a healing.
When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue rulers, named Jairus, came there. Seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet and pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” So Jesus went with him.
A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”
“You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’
“But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
While Jesus was still speaking, some men came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher any more?”
Ignoring what they said, Jesus told the synagogue ruler, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue ruler, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him.
After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!” ). Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 5:21-43)
This passage has always fascinated me. Not only for some of the little details that show up, like when the author has Jesus say the magic words “Talitha Koum,” which is simply a transliteration of the Aramaic for “Little Girl, arise.” But the whole event would have transpired in Aramaic and so all the quotes should be like that. Except the author is writing in Greek to Greek-speaking Christians which means the singling out of this phrase in Aramaic is the author’s attempt to add flair. But that is only one of the details that capture my interest, what really fascinates me is the juxtaposition of these two healing stories.
We are meant to connect them; two women seek healings, one who is twelve-years-old another who has a twelve-year hemorrhage. Yet the two are so different. One is an innocent child whose father, a temple leader, presents himself to Jesus in just the proper way asking for a healing for his child. The other is a woman who is ritually unclean, who sneaks up behind Jesus and steals a healing for her own. According to Jewish law a woman having her monthly menstrual flow was considered unclean. It was the height of medical knowledge at that time to know that blood could be contaminated, but there was no distinction beyond that. For example, the man left beaten and bleeding on the Jericho road was avoided by priests and temple leaders because he was bleeding. They didn’t want to catch anything! They were following their sacred laws concerning hygiene. But the Samaritan was good enough to stop and help. Jesus was good enough not to whirl around and say, “Eeww! That unclean woman just defiled me. I must go to the temple and cleanse myself. Meanwhile why don’t you all here stone her to death.” He could have done that. Instead he heals her and blesses her. Or, by some interpretations, she heals herself and he then blesses her. And the first thing he says to her is “daughter.”
Of course the delay costs the innocent daughter her life. But that is part of Jesus’ message, “I come for the sinner, not the saints” (Mark 2:17), the oppressed and dispossessed not the rich and powerful like Jairus and his daughter. But here is what I most love: Jesus does help Jairus’ daughter too. It’s like he is turning even his own rules upside down sometimes. The early Universalists would have found this to be an elegant message of God saving everyone, of Jesus’ love and care extending to both the powerful and the powerless. But without more of the context, the woman with the hemorrhage looks like a powerless peasant rather than a courageous woman who took control of the awful situation her culture dumped on her. When you re-read passages with women in them, keep your eyes open to the insidious interpretative overlay of submissive inferiority that is not really there in the text itself! Knowing the context of the text can free you.
There is a style of Bible study, I learned it as ‘the Wink method’ named after Bible scholar Walter Wink, whereby you look at a text and imagine yourself as one of the characters. Many people can imagine what it is like to be the long-suffering woman who has founded the courage within to tap into a healing power, many can identify with the distraught parent, or even the confused and slightly sarcastic apostles (what do you mean, somebody touched you? Everybody is touching you!) But this little girl who ‘sleeping’ and told to arise; all of us can identify with that. The Buddha wondered if we could wake from sleeping, when awake could we become awaker-still? Can we arise from what Thoreau called our “lives of quiet desperation”?
In leaping toward interpretations such as this, attempting to apply some lesson or perspective to your own life, it is helpful to have explored the original context, to hear old words in a new light. Knowing something about the Greek and the Aramaic context of these words will help. Knowing something about the sociological context of these stories will help. A richer connection to your personal deepening is possible. This is why I use a broad definition of scripture as not simple the official sacred writings of a religious tradition but as anything that offers you life-giving truth. This, I believe, is the power that can be found in any scripture – new understanding of how to live your life well.
In a world without end
May it be so.