Where You Sit When You Read The Bible

Sermon preached at KPUMC on Sunday, July 1, 2018. Text: Luke 10:25-37. Audio not available.

Rev. Dr. Wes Magruder
Luke 10:25-37

I saw a lot of surprised faces when Nic Climer began reading the Scripture. People looked around, thinking, “Where is that voice coming from?”

I asked Nic to read the Scripture from the back of the sanctuary on purpose. I asked him to do it to make a simple point:

Where you read the Bible makes a difference.

It makes a difference in how you read it, how you understand it, how you hear it.

I wasn’t originally planning to continue this series on the Bible today, but I felt like I had a few more things to say. Remember this all started when the Attorney General of the United States used Romans 13 as justification for the administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents.

Ever since, I have been asking, “How do we reclaim a Bible that has been hijacked?”

My solution has been, in part, to learn to read it better. We must keep reading the Bible, and learn to read it better.

One of the major contributions of postmodernism is the idea that the reader’s identity and position is a major factor in the reader’s interpretation of a text. This is called one’s “social location.”

I am convinced that social location largely determines how we read Scripture. This is not a bad thing — it’s inevitable, really. We always start with what we know. We always approach the Bible with our personal experience, assumptions, and background.

I would like to point out some important examples of social location that influence our reading of Scripture, using the parable of the Good Samaritan as our case study.

First, let’s begin with gender. It matters whether you read the Bible as male, female, or transgender. This is a primary place from which each of us reads the Bible. This first became apparent to me when someone pointed out in Scripture God is usually referred to with male pronouns. I had never noticed it until someone mentioned it to me. But women notice.

I should also point out that all of Scripture was written by men. Modern scholarship has never been able to verify that women wrote any part of the Bible. This means that Scripture comes from a male point of view; we must take this into consideration when we read and interpret it.

Sexual orientation is another social location that determines our reading of Scripture. What difference does it make if you read the Bible as a gay or lesbian? Let me suggest that the parable of the Good Samaritan takes on a different tone if you consider the violence done to gay people on a regular basis in our country. Recently, there has been a rash of beatings and muggings in Oak Lawn, in which gays have been deliberately targeted. Does it change the story of the Good Samaritan if you read it as a gay person, as someone who lives in perpetual fear of being beaten like the victim in the story?

Race and ethnicity is another important social location. In fact, it is one of the most important factors in the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus told the story to a Jewish audience, each of whom viewed Samaritans as an inferior ethnicity. The fact that the Samaritan is the hero of this parable is part of the point that Jesus was trying to make. In a white church setting, the equivalent would be making the “Good Samaritan” a black or brown character.

Class and status are also important factors of social location. Your economic class determines much about how you view those who have more or less wealth, and about the nature of work. Your social standing impacts how you view characters who are higher or lower than yourself.
How does the parable of the Good Samaritan read if you are poor? if you are wealthy? if you are a government official in charge of public safety? if you are a priest, bishop, or scribe?

When we read the Bible, we need to take notice where we are sitting. What biases and assumptions do we bring to the text?

One of the benefits of being in a place of privilege and dominance is not to have to think much about social location. People who are in a position of power don’t often think about how their class, wealthy, race, ethnicity, or gender benefits them, and thus they don’t often take it into consideration.

But this is a crucial element in reading the Bible. We must be aware of our social location.

We don’t need to disavow our social location. We don’t need to try to set it aside as if it didn’t matter. That’s impossible anyway.

You can’t discard your social location; and why would you?

That’s the beauty of the Incarnation. God came into the world at a particular period of history, in a particular person who had a body and spoke a specific language. God is always incarnate in time and space.

We all have our social location, and each one of us is unique, and God relates to each of us in our particularity.

It is only a lack of awareness of our social location that is the problem. That is how the Bible gets hijacked.

The Bible is hijacked when we think we are interpreting the Bible the only correct way, the only way it can possibly be interpreted. This attitude leads to arrogance, as well as practices that dominate and exclude.

When we don’t read with awareness of our social location, here are three potential errors that threaten our reading of Scripture:

First, we are likely to fall into a reading which emphasizes heroism. This is the tendency to look for heroes in the Bible, and hold them as characters to emulate.

This is a common children’s Sunday School strategy. We tend to take a story in the Bible, identify the protagonist, and say to children, “Be like that person.” The only problem is that there are very few characters in the Bible who are meant to be moral exemplars.

Shall we really encourage our kids to “be like David” or “be like Samson”? David and Samson were kinda terrible people at times.

The Bible doesn’t whitewash its characters; they are mostly flawed and confused, like all of us!
In fact, the only person in the Bible who is meant to be an exemplar is Jesus.

Second, when we fail to account for social location, we are also prone to fall into a moralistic reading of the Bible. In this view, Scripture is simply a Book of Rules, a set of instructions which will keep us obedient to a God who requires strict observance of commandments and regulations.
However Jesus said, “I came for the sick, not for those who are well. I came for sinners, not for the righteous.”

Thus, if we read the book as those who are well/righteous, the book becomes justification for our righteousness. The parable of the Good Samaritan becomes a tongue wag; it is reduced to the simple moralism, “Help those who are less fortunate than you.”

And third, when we read without awareness of our social location, we tend to spiritualize the text. We reason that, since we cannot fully understand what was happening in the original context, we can only simply apply what we read to our inner, spiritual lives.

This leads to us making broad, sweeping, generalizations about the text which are merely sentimental platitudes about faith. We ignore the concrete realities of material life.

This is the hardest thing for us, perhaps, because we live in such a different world than the one described in the pages of the Bible. It’s difficult to take the stories of the Israelites in the Old Testament and understand them in the original context.

Since we don’t experience real suffering, it’s much easier to read the story of the Exodus, which is about bodily suffering, oppression, slavery, and torture, and apply it to our spiritual lives. We read the Exodus as a metaphor or allegory for our own conversion or inner life, rather than the story of a God who sides with the poor and oppressed.
The key to avoiding these pitfalls of heroism, moralism, and spiritualizing the Scripture is to simply remind yourself of your own social location and recognize that you read from a particular perspective.

Something else can be helpful in avoiding these pitfalls. You can read the Bible with people who are in a different social location, or at least read the commentaries and interpretations of those in a different location.

One of the first and best ways to do this is by reading The Gospel in Solentiname by Ernesto Cardenal, who read the gospels on a weekly basis for years with Nicaraguan peasants, and transcribed the studies for reading.

At the time of the studies, Nicaragua was ruled by the Somozan dictatorship, in cahoots with the Roman Catholic Church. In reaction, some peasants had joined a Communist revolution. But the common peasants were mostly victims of both sides of the conflict.

When Father Cardenal read the story of the Good Samaritan with these Nicaraguan peasants, it was clear to them, from their social location, what the story was all about.

According to a farmer named Laureano, “The people are the wounded man who's bleeding to death on the highway. The religious people who are not impressed by the people’s problems are those two that were going to the temple to pray. The atheists who are revolutionaries are the good Samaritan of the parable, the good companion, the good comrade.

“And while religion went along that road without looking at the wounded man, communism, which didn't believe in God, has been the good companion that took up the wounded man and took him to a shelter where he could have food and a roof and clothing and medicine, all free.”

That’s a different way of understanding the parable, isn’t it? Because of their social location, these peasants read the story and identified most with the victim in the road.

When I read the story, or hear it read in most American churches, I tend to identify with the passersby, whether the priest or the Samaritan. For most of us, the story is about how to treat the victim; but the story takes on a different import, a different urgency if you view yourself as the victim.

But let me leave you with this: the Bible is primarily a book written ABOUT — and FOR — outcasts, victims, the marginalized, the oppressed, the underdog.

The whole point of Scripture is that God cares for outcasts, victims, marginalized, oppressed people.

But guess what?

When I look around this room, I don’t see a bunch of people who are outcasts, victims, marginalized and oppressed people.

We read from a comfortable seat.

And that means the Bible ought to be a real challenge to us, it ought to be difficult reading, it ought to scare us, make us angry, provoke and confront us.

If it’s not, then maybe we’re still not reading it right.