Horizons Bible Study 2016-2017
Who is Jesus? What a Difference a Lens Makes
Lesson 9: Jesus According to Contemporary Cultural Interpretations
Thomas Troeger is a preaching professor, poet and hymn-writer. In a class, Troeger emphasized the need for us to understand our upbringing and the personal stories of others as we interpret Scripture. To illustrate his point, Troeger related a personal story of his tutoring children in a poor neighborhood through a church-related program. Troeger was teaching the children the Lord’s Prayer and noticed that one child could not get past the first line, “Our Father who is in heaven.” Troeger got to know the boy and found out that he could not say the word “father,” because his biological father had taken a two-by-four board and beaten him. Troeger asked the boy, “Is there anyone who loves you?” The boy thought and said quietly, “I have an auntie who loves me.” Troeger said, “Well, why don’t you pray, ‘Our Auntie who is in heaven’ because God is someone who loves you very much”?
Some might argue that Troeger violated Scripture when he taught the boy to pray, “Our Auntie who is in heaven.” Others might say that Troeger sought to listen to the boy’s need for a loving God and made God accessible for the child.
Our lesson in “Who Is Jesus?” asks us to try to read the familiar story of Mary and Martha through the lens of how we were raised and what we were taught about the role of women. I would add another question: What were we taught about God? I was taught that God is love and was raised in the former “Southern” Presbyterian Church. It did not ordain women to any office until 1965. At age 14, I experienced God’s pull on me to be a pastor. Growing up, I never saw a woman elected as a deacon, a ruling elder or a pastor until I was in my early 20s. When I graduated from seminary, few churches would even contemplate calling a woman as pastor.
So I came to the biblical story of Mary and Martha as someone who was marginalized by the church. Imagine my astonishment and gladness when I read a footnote in my Bible about Mary and Martha. It says that Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet “is depicted as a disciple” (Luke 10:39). There were female disciples of Jesus, not just men! What a revelation this was to me, because I had long identified with Mary listening to Jesus. Mary, depicted like any other disciple, validated what society did not: Jesus blessed women as religious leaders. Later when I studied Acts and Romans, I read that women were teachers, leaders of house churches, an apostle and deacons.
In classes that I have led, most people identify with Martha doing all the work while her sister is not carrying her fair share of the load. We understand Martha’s resentment and understand viscerally about being “distracted by her many tasks” (Luke 10:40). Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” How might Jesus’ words to Martha have been a blessing to her?
Another footnote in my Bible says that the literal meaning in the Greek of Martha’s “many things” is “much service.” The footnote then refers us to Luke 22:24-27, where Jesus defines himself as one who serves. How might Martha’s service correlate to Jesus’ service? Was Martha juggling children while providing meals to Jesus and his entourage? Was she running a ministry for the widows and orphans who had no means of support?
Our lesson asks us to think through many interesting questions about Mary and Martha. Among the suggestions I like is this: “What questions would you like to ask the characters in the story?” I want to know what Jesus said to Mary and what impact Jesus had on Mary’s life. Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus were friends of Jesus. How did they come to be close friends?
Understanding how our lives affect our reading of the text enriches our experience of God in Jesus. What happens if we go a step further and imagine people very different from ourselves reading the same Scripture, like the boy who could not say the word “father”? What insights might those excluded from many opportunities because of race bring to our understanding of Scripture? It is difficult for me to imagine. But I believe that at this time in our country, when we are so divided, seeking to understand the views and needs of those with whom we differ will enlarge our image of the living and loving God.
Rosalind Banbury is associate pastor for adult ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia.