Scripture Readings: Genesis 18:1-15 and Luke 10:38-42
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The eightenth chapter of the book of Genesis provides us with is a great story of a marvelous genesis! Everytime I hear this story it makes me laugh! I laugh and then I wonder, what are we supposed to do with a story like this? Are we supposed to believe it? Is it true? Is it history or is it myth? Is it an exaggeration or is it a fairytale? If were supposed to believe it, tell me how? I can just about believe that a 99 year old man could impregnate a woman, but I’m not likely to believe that a 90 year old woman could give birth to a child; not in the desert, not in a time when healthy young women died in childbirth; I mean its laughable really. And maybe that’s the whole point!
I’d ask all the women in the congregation who’ve successfully completed menopause to put up their hands, but I’m smarter than that. So, let me just ask the women in the congregation who’ve got all that behind them, what would you do if you overheard a bunch of men who claimed to be God suggesting that you were going to give birth. There’s precious little to do but laugh! I’m nowhere near 90 and I can tell you that I’d laugh so hard I’d be on the floor in hysterics! Hysterics please don’t pardon the pun; the pun is definitely intended; for hysterics comes from exactly the same Greek word that we get hysterectomy from; and there’s about as much chance of me believing that a 90-year-old woman could give birth as there is of me believing that a woman who has had a hysterectomy could give birth. So, obviously I’m not about to suggest that we should take this story literally.
When we reduce the stories of Genesis to the level of literal history, we tend to reduce the story to the ridiculous and we make them all the more unbelievable. Notice I said reduce the stories, because I really do think that we do the stories an injustice when we try to literalize or historicize them.Indeed, not only do we do the stories an injustice, but more importantly we do the story-tellers and injustice. For I am convinced that those ancient story-tellers told these stories they way they told them for very important reasons. I’m willing to conceed that there may indeed be a trace of history in this particular story, but that over the generations the storytellers embellished the history more than just a little. There are a great many biblical scholars who suggest that Abraham and Sarah weren’t really that old. They insist that Sarah was simply past the normal childbearing age. We know that the average childbearing age in the ancient near east began just after a young girl began menstruating at about twelve and ended sometime before the young woman died. The mortality rate for women in the ancient near east was high precisely because of the risks of childbirth, so most women didn’t make it out of their 20’s. A 30 or 40 year old woman was a rare creature indeed, so a 90 year old Sarah was positively miraculous. About as miraculous as a 99 year old Abraham. Men did live longer than women in Ancient times but not that much longer…40 was considered old, 50 was remarkable and 60 was amazing, so 99 would have been a miracle indeed.
So, if this is a case of exaggerating the facts, well then the Hebrew storytellers, were a lot like the Irish storytelling I grew up listening to: full of blarney. Every good exaggerator knows that if you are going to exaggerate, you will only get away with it if you exaggerate a little. Think of all the fishing stories you’ve ever heard, if the fish that got away is this big, your less likely to believe the story than if the fish is this big. This big you can get away with. A forty-year-old woman giving birth would have been something, but a 90-year-old woman giving birth well as they say in the south, that dog just ain’t gonna hunt.
Now if you don’t believe me, you ought to read what Jewish scholars have to say about this story. Jewish scholars are not all that bothered about the historical accuracy of this story. Neither were Christian scholars until quite recently. For generations people were able to read this story without worrying about whether or not it actually happened exactly the way it happened. For generations people were more concerned with what the storytellers were trying to say with this story. Why did they tell it the way they told it?
Well one of the first things you learn when you begin to study the art of ancient storytelling is to pay very close attention to the names the storytellers choose for their characters. Abram, which is the name that Abraham has at the beginning of this story; literally means, “exalted father”. After God promises that Abram’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens, Abram becomes Abraham, which literally means, “exalted father of many” or simply “father of nations”. Both Saria and Sarah mean “princess”. Oh I forgot to tell you that in this story God is referred to as Elohiem. Elohiem is usually translated as Lord. But it literally means, “queens”! I find it laughable that the very same folks who want us to take the bible literally refuse to take literally the various names for God that we find in the bible El is the generic word for god, any god and in the bible there are other god’s besides the one we worship. All god’s are referred to as “el”. “ohiem” is the feminine plural form for majesty! What is the feminine for majesty? It’s either princess or its queen and as princesses are less majestic than queens, you have to translate the feminine plural for majesty as queens when it is attached to “el” especially if it is the el of the Hebrews. But I have yet to find a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that says, “The queens appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. So is it any wonder that right from the very beginning of our reading we miss the joke?
Oh by the way the Oaks of Mamre: literally that phrase should be translated as by the suckling trees; Mamre means breast filled with milk. So, the Queens appeared to the Exalted Father of Nations by the suckling trees as the Exalted Father of Nations sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day, “in the heat of the day” is a really big clue. Ancient Near Eastern storytellers used this phrase to indicate the time of the day when people were drowsy. If you wanted to get away with something or slip something by somebody, you did it in the heat of the day.
So, the drowsy Exalted Father of Nations looks up and where the Queens are standing, he sees three men. This sounds like some sort of farce to me. No wonder Sarah, or I should say, no wonder Princess laughs when the three queens suggest that she is about to become pregnant! I’d laugh wouldn’t you?
Look there’s a perfectly good reason that they make pastors study ancient Hebrew and Greek; its so we can get the jokes! The trouble is that for generations the only people studying Hebrew and Greek just happened to be male and so they translated everything from a male perspective. How else could Elohiem be translated as Lord? How else could El Shaddai which literally means “she who has breasts” be translated as “God Almighty”. How else could the Holy Spirit that which in both Hebrew and Greek is femininine ever be referred to as “he”? How else could basselia which in greek is feminine be translated as “kingdom” rather than “queendom”?
It’s only since women began to be admitted to the academy that the literal meaning of the words in the scriptures have been opened to us. We’ve missed a lot of jokes in the translation! No wonder religious types are caricatured as humourless! But, the one known as Princess, she laughs. Elohiem hears her laughter and the Exaulted Father of Nations named the child Isaac. Isaac which means……..you guessed it! Laughter! Or literally: “God laughs!” Despite the fact that Princess tried to deny her laughter; laughter is born! Laughter cannot be denied!
Laughter cannot be denied! I believe that the ancient storytellers were trying to tell us something and they weren’t very subtle about it either. This is the story of the birth of laughter! The trouble is that most religious types have lost touch with their humorous side. We have tried to deny our laughter, but laughter must be born. We simply don’t take laughter seriously enough! But the ancients did. Laughter was the object of serious inquiry. For centuries the wise guys and I do mean guys, have been trying to figure out why we laugh and so theologians asked: “What is the meaning of Sarah’s laugh?”
Or, for that matter, what makes any of us laugh? What constitutes humour? This may come as a surprise to you, but philosophers of the stature of Aristotle, Bergson, and Schopenhauer have debated this question and written books detailing their answers. Even the great Sigmund Freud, who was described by Stienbeck as
“humorless as a chicken,” wrote an essay entitled: “Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious.” A side-splitter it ain’t!
I’ve been reading the wise guys on the subject of humour and as near as I can figure there are to elements that always seem to be present in what makes something funny: incongruity and surprise. Incongruity is the juxtaposition of two or three apparently contradictory or unrelated ideas or situations. Surprise comes from the introduction of something into a scheme or story—an idea, an event, a person-that is totally unexpected unanticipated. Now before you nod off, let me just tell you that the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once preached a brilliant sermon on humour and faith.He describe humor as a “prelude to faith”. He insisted that it is our sense of the incongruous that can lead us to trust God. What these wise guys took volumes to say, can be summed up in an old wives tale: laughter is good for the soul!
Sarah laughed! God made Sarah laugh! Sarah laughed and the Exalted Father of Nations that is Abraham himself, called his son Isaac, God laughs! So, in the spirit of good humour, let’s take a look at our gospel story.
The story of Jesus encounter with Mary and Martha appears only in the Gospel according to Luke which was written some 70 to 90 years after Jesus life, death and resurrection. Over the centuries this particular story has been used and abused by all sorts of folks to keep women in their place. To this very day people use this text to argue both for the subjugation of women and the emancipation of women. But it’s a beautiful sunny Sunday and all this talk of laughter and humour makes me reluctant to get into all the ins and outs of the history of the church’s abuse of women.
I just want to remind you of two very important facts about this particular story. The first fact is that both Mary and Martha were disciples of Jesus.The second fact is that no where in the biblical text does it ever say that Martha was busy in the kitchen.
“Martha was distracted by many things,” some translations read: “Martha was distracted by too much serving.” The actual word that has been translated as serving, is the Greek word diaconia. It is the same greek word that we get our word deacon from. In the fist century the word diaconia was used to describe leadership in church. By the time this story was written, the Greek word diaconia was a technical term for presiding at the eucharist in the early church. Martha was distracted by her ministry responsiblities.
Those interpreters of the text who down through the ages have chastized Martha for being distracted by unimportant stuff in the kitchen, would do well to study their Greek a little more closely. That includes Martin Luther who insisted, “Martha, your work must be punished and counted as nought..” should take a long hard look in the mirror to see their own distractions. Those commentaters who point to Mary as the example that women should follow, ought to notice that Mary sits at Jesus feet and never speaks; hardly a pose this woman wants to adopt. For if I ever had the opportunity to sit at Jesus feet, I’d have more than one or two questions to ask.
The problem with this particular text is that on the surface Jesus comes off as a bit of a schrew. I mean if you show up at my house with a bunch of your friends and you’ve been travelling all day, both Carol and I are going to have to go into the kitchen to rustle up some grub. We might even ask you to help us get things ready. Now it’s true you might find that I sneak out of the kitchen a little early to join in the conversation, Carol might have to ask someone to send me back into the kitchen to help her. But don’t you dare tell my wife Carol that she’s in the wrong.
Now on the surface of this, the story makes little sense. That’s because the story probably isn’t a retelling of an actual event. The story is an allegory. Way back at the turn of the second century there was a Church Father by the name of Origen, who was famous for interpreting these stories. Origen did his best work long before the church decided which gospels would make it into the bible. Origen insisted that each of the stories needs to be understood as having many meanings and the most important meaning for Origen was the allegorical meaning. The idea that a text should be taken literally is a relatively recent phenomenon. Indeed for generations, it was believed that the literal meaning was simply for beginners, novices and the simple minded. The depth of meaning, the meaning discovered by those who were serious about their faith and had aquired a deeper level of maturity was the allagorical meaning.
An allagory is a literary device in which characters or events represent or symbolize ideas and concepts. About a hunderd years after this story was written, Origen pointed to the allagorical meaning of this text and insisted that Martha and Mary represent two sides of who we are. We all have an active life in the world and we all have a contemplative life. Sometimes our active life distracts us from our contemplative life. This story is a reminder that even our religious dutiesand responsiblities can sometimes distract us from the contemplative life. Sometimes we are distracted by many things, and in this story we are reminded that Mary has chosen a good thing.
Our translation says Mary has chosen “the better part” but the Greek simply says, Mary has chosen a good thing. Contemplation isn’t better than action. Both things are necessary. But it is good to pay attention to our need for study and contemplation. I used to think that these two readings were put together in the lectionary because they were both about hospitality. Abraham is busy making sure his guests are taken care of and Martha is busy taking care of her guests. But after much contemplation, I have come to realize that these two stories are about paying attention and noticing what’s actually going on around you. Abraham and Sarah, and Mary and Martha, could have become so distracted by their duties and responsiblities and they might have missed the fact that God was in their midst.
These stories at the depth of their meaning encourage us to pay attention, to take the time to see who it is that is in our midst, lest our duties and resposiblities cause us to miss an encounter with the Divine. So, lighten up. Laugh more. Take some time to contemplate life. Pay attention to what is going on around you. You have absolutely no idea how or when or indeed in whom Divinity will be revealed to you. Life is full of surprises. It would be such a same to miss even one of them. Pay attention.