Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"You All"

For good or for ill, we are on an extended trip through the Sermon on the Mount this year.  Can Epiphany seem uncomfortably long sometimes?  Maybe there is too much light.  Sometimes the light hurts my eyes.

Last week, I got together with my noon Bible study participants.  We ate our lunches and read together:  first Isaiah 58, then Matthew 5, beginning with the wonderful section about being salt and light.  We talked about justice and we talked about potholes (you know, 'restorer of the streets to live in') and how the work of justice is never really done.  (At least in Minnesota, you have to keep filling in the potholes, every year:  you can't do it once and say you are done for all time.  I said I think that is what Jesus means when he says that not one letter, or stroke of a letter will pass from the law...)

One of the Bible study participants turned to me and asked this question about saltiness:  She said, what if I'm supposed to be salt, and somehow I turn away and start going in the wrong direction?  Can I turn around and go back, and change my ways and become salty again?  Because Jesus seems to think that I can't.

(You know how sometimes you have a sudden realization in the middle of a conversation?  That is what was happening while she was speaking.)

I assured her that she absolutely could become salty again, while recognizing that Jesus' words about losing saltiness and being no good for anything except being trampled ---- well, they did sort of imply something else.

But then I said, "I know that betting is wrong, but I will bet you a quarter that when Jesus says to the people, 'You are the salt of the earth,' he doesn't mean, 'You, Diane,' or 'You, Mabel,' he means, 'You all'.  He is speaking to us not primarily as individuals but as a community.  And I think that that changes the meaning of the sentence some."

For one thing, when Jesus says "You ALL are the salt of the earth," it is possible that one of us could go astray, go off track, but the rest of the salty community would be there to draw us back.  And Jesus is not primarily judging the effectiveness, or "saltiness" of individual efforts, but the saltiness of communities. The question is about whether we as a community of faith are providing a distinctive flavor that is good for the places where we live.  If we aren't, what good are we?

The conversation got me thinking about how often when we read the word "You" in the Scripture, our default interpretation is that Jesus is talking about us as individuals, and about our individual actions, our individual trust, our individual relationship with God, our random acts of kindness.  I know that even though I know that the Bible often uses "You plural" that I am inexplicably drawn to stories of individual, rather than community action.  My brain is hard-wired to read the Biblical "You" always as singular.  That is my default interpretation.

It's just that this is not the default interpretation in the Bible.  The Bible does address us as individuals, but not solely, or even primarily.  More often than not, the Bible addresses us as "you all", as members of a community, as people who are inextricably connected to one another, whether they like it or not.

I think of the story of Rosa Parks.  We like to tell the story of her courageous action, when she decided to sit down, and not move to the back of the bus.  We tell the story as an example of individual action, but the truth is that Rosa Parks was a part of an organized network of justice-seekers, the salt of the earth, bringing a distinctive faith and flavor to their community.

So I can't help thinking, as I'm wrestling with the hard texts of the Sermon on the Mount, the ones that hurt my eyes, because they speak of murder and anger, lust and adultery, brokenness that can't easily be healed, and ideals we know are good but that we can't attain  -- what would happen if we really heard them as addressed to us as a community, not a collection of individuals?

What if we heard the Ten Commandments that way too?

Someone just reminded me today:  there is no imperative in the Hebrew language.  The literal translation of a commandment might sound something like this:  "If would be better for you if you did not.....commit adultery/steal/lie?"

And what if the *you* was plural?

That would be just the beginning.

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