Monday, May 12, 2014

Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear (Luke 17)

I couldn't remember why I had taken such a long break from writing these entries other than the fact that I'd been a bit more busy lately. Then I looked at Luke 17, and remembered: Luke really is turning out to be tough book, far tougher than I'd imagined it to be!

So there are two things that had been general problems that I'll try to address generally through the first two notes in the SAB. First, statements like "If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you." There was an interesting concept that a friend of mine brought up on Facebook the other day (there was probably an article attached, but I'm not going to hunt it down), that being that it's common in Jewish literature to use hyperbole. Jesus may indeed be literally saying that a person with faith can boss around trees, but it's also quite likely that he's saying more generally that if you have faith, you can do amazing things with that faith to bolster you. Admitting the prevalence of hyperbole and its presence in the Bible opens up a can of worms that may be immediately obvious to some: How can you be sure what to take seriously and literally as opposed to hyperbolically in Jesus' teachings? As I've pointed out before, I don't believe that when Jesus says to cut off your hand to save yourself from sin, nor when he says you have to hate your family to follow him, that he really means that. But what other things might I be taking at face value that are not meant that way? It's a big question worth discussing, but I'm not going to take up the whole post with it.

So the second thing that had been a problem in Luke, and really the New Testament as a whole, is the whole slavery thing. While I feel I've given some possibly good insights into Old Testament slavery, in Jesus' time we're dealing with slavery as defined by the Roman Empire, and I know next to nothing about it. So I decided to read the Wikipedia entry on slavery in ancient Rome, and honestly, I still don't know much. It seems in general that slaves who had rich owners (which were most of them) generally lived better lives than peasants. Roman slaves had the right to own property and make money, and they could use that to be able to buy their freedom. Freedmen had the right to vote, but couldn't run for office and were considered second-class citizens; their children would be full freeborn citizens. Throughout most of Roman history, it seems that slaves could complain in court if their masters treated them with cruelty. All that being said, there are certain aspects of Roman slavery that were not so nice as all that. Slaves that had to work in mines lived under harsh conditions, had little hope for freedom, and tended to die young. Slaves that tried to escape were often branded, and slaves that attempted revolt were often crucified. Also, some slaves were forced into fighting gladiator matches, which was sort of a mixed bag since it was dangerous work, but if you were successful, you learned a skill that might lead to you becoming a freed soldier. So once again, while neither God nor Jesus ever spoke out against slavery in particular, even Roman slavery was not much like 19th century American slavery that most people associate the word with.

Anyway, I think this chapter may have some of Steve Wells' best writing; at least I enjoyed reading the notes here. Jesus says, "The kingdom of God is within you." to which the SAB responds, "That has a nice sound to it, but I don't know what it means." Well, yes, it is a bit of a mystery, isn't it? Jesus is clearly talking about something very spiritual, and I think the meaning is that "the kingdom of God" is not a physical place so much as it is a state of mind to be found in people who believe.

In verse 24, Jesus compares his return to lightning, to which the SAB comments "Like the Wicked Witch of the West writing 'Surrender Dorothy' in the sky. Like that." Cute. Like that indeed.

In the next few verses, Jesus talks about Noah's ark and the destruction of Sodom. The SAB (like many Christians!) takes this talking to imply that Jesus believed that these were real, historical events. I personally have an issue with this interpretation; it's entirely possible that Jesus simply used these two stories as ones that he knew his audience would be familiar with. The point that Jesus is trying to make here may be entirely separate from whether these stories are factual, which does mean that some of the points that the SAB brings up about this passage concerning injustice and cruelty still need to be addressed, as clearly Jesus is saying when he returns, he's going to bring some sort of massive punishment akin to what was told of in those two stories. In the case of injustice, I think it's clear that in all of the cases mentioned, the people being punished were wicked people and had it coming; cruelty is a harder issue to deal with because there is quite a bit of difference in opinion on what makes something cruel, but suffice it to say that in all instances, we're talking about near-instant death. Make of it what you will.

Finally, taking verse 34 to be about homosexuality has got to be a joke, right? If it isn't, I really don't know what to say.

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