From time to time, after the scriptures have been read in church and I am standing in the pulpit, I will say to my congregation: “You have just listened to a few stories from the Bible, and now we are going to consider what those stories might tell us about life and about God. And here’s what I want you to do: even if you believe the stories are true in the sense that they actually, historically happened, I want you now, for the next few minutes, to just pretend it DIDN’T happen…”
Here’s what I’ve discovered: very often, when the scriptures are read, we listen to them as if they are stories from a newspaper, concerned with the hard facts. When we listen in this way we can miss their meaning entirely, or we fail to reach for any significant depth in their meaning. We settle on simplistic and sentimental conclusions that are completely devoid of any consequence for our lives.
Today’s Gospel reading is an excellent example. Scene One is Jesus going up a mountain with three disciples to pray and while there they have a supernatural experience involving Moses and Elijah and the Voice of God. Scene Two is Jesus coming down from the mountain and meeting a man whose only son is possessed by a demon which the other disciples have been unable to exorcise; Jesus does it for them.
Reading this literally brings us to some fairly basic conclusions: Jesus is special; he’s the Son of God, of a different order, and more important, than Moses and Elijah. And Jesus has authority over demons, and knows how to use his power and authority much better than the disciples do their own.
Ho, hum, sermon’s over; can we go home now?
But let’s now assume – just for the sake of argument, if you will – that both stories are allegory. They are not true in the historical sense, but they were crafted to contain hidden messages. When we start to think in this way, our minds are engaged and we are immediately drawn in: Why did the author include this in the Gospel account? Are there any characters, literary devices or vocabulary that point to a veiled message? What was the author trying to “say”? Is there a lesson for our own lives today?
For the sake of brevity, let’s look at the second half of the reading, or Scene Two as I described it above.
Jesus, a recognized Jewish prophet, hears the voice of God on a cloud-filled mountain-top and descends to find confusion and mayhem. Hmmm…. Think about that for a minute, and think about the original Jewish readers of the Gospel accounts. Would they find any natural connections in this story, would it ring any bells? Of course!
Way back in the Jewish book of Exodus we find Moses, the Giver of the Law, having his own mountain-top experience: “Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai…” (Exodus 24). A few chapters later, after having heard God’s voice, and receiving some instructions, Moses heads back down the mountain only to find things have gone a bit haywire in his absence: “Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, ‘Whoever is for the Lord, come to me…’ (Exodus 32).”
The writer of our Gospel reading today is clearly drawing on the Moses story to make a connection to Jesus in order to suggest something deeper to his audience. But there’s more.
The man with the demon-possessed son, what does he say? “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not” (Luke 9).
My son, my only son….the bad spirit is destroying him….your disciples could not drive it out.
What did God say, way back when, to Abraham about Isaac, who fathered Israel? “Take your son, your only son, whom you love….” (Genesis 22). But we know Abraham had other sons. What did the prophet, speaking for God, say about the people of Israel? When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called MY SON… (Hosea 11).
Again, the author of Luke’s Gospel is using an allegory to reference the nation of Israel, through the words of the distraught father regarding his son. Any Jewish reader familiar with the scriptures would see that.
We have moved to a new level of meaning for the text. It goes something like this: Scene One: Jesus, like Moses but greater, is God’s new change agent for the nation. Scene Two: The only child of Abraham, God’s nation son, the people of Israel, are oppressed by a bad spirit which threatens to destroy them. All the other spiritual authorities to whom they’ve turned couldn’t solve the problem, but Jesus can.
That’s a message the early church, the mostly Jewish readers of the early Gospel accounts, would appreciate. It is a message that we can take to the bank too: when we have endured long, when we are tempted to despair, when circumstances threaten to overwhelm us, we can find strength in Christ.
(I won’t go there now, but others have proceeded to another level, where the stories are completely allegorical, not even about Jesus, and yet still produce worthy principles for our spiritual journey. That may be a step too far for some.)
How then are the scriptures any different than Aesop’s Fables or Grimm Fairytales? I hear you. Yes, there are morals and lessons to be found in all of them. But we hold the conviction that the bible texts are Holy Scriptures, set apart for a divine purpose. The Spirit of Wisdom inspired the authors of scripture to record what they did, and that same Spirit can guide us in hearing the message we need today.
Next time you listen to the scripture reading, try to think deeper than the words themselves. It might help you find a lesson if you Just Pretend It Didn’t Happen.
Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church….