Look For The Surprise

This is my contribution to Rachel Held Evans’ week-long series: “Submit One To Another: Christ and the Household Codes.”

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When looking at the social-historical context of scripture one of the hermeneutical keys I keep in mind is: Look For The Surprise.

We are all unavoidably shaped by the culture and time-period we live in. It shapes what we think and therefore what we say. When we say something that matches the time and place in which we dwell it should be no surprise to anyone. Liking top-40 radio music from your high school days is pretty much par for the course. Things only get interesting when we express a thought or opinion that seem out-of-sync with our setting. When a listener from our own context would express surprise, then we’ve said something potentially interesting.

The books of the Bible were written by people unavoidably shaped by their culture and time-period no less than we are. It shaped what they thought and therefore what they wrote. When searching for clues for how to interpret scripture I look for the surprise – for something that would have been out-of-sync with its setting; something that would have surprised a listener from that time. The surprise almost always illuminates the whole passage.

Allow me to show you a few examples.

In Romans 1 when Paul describes the gentiles as being filled with shameful lusts, saying women exchanged “natural” relations with men for unnatural ones, and men committed shameful acts with men he is saying exactly what his readers expect him to. They would be nodding their heads, of course same-sex relations are unnatural and of course those Gentiles are sinners like that. The surprise comes in Romans 2 when Paul suddenly flips it on the reader saying that their self-righteous judgment is EVEN WORSE. When we see how surprising this is we change how we understand the passage. Paul laid a rhetorical trap playing on well-known stereotypes so he could make his point about the evil of self-righteousness. How ironic it is that this passage often gets used nowadays to perpetuate those stereotypes and stoke self-righteous judgment against LGBTQ persons.

In the above case the surprise tells us where to put our emphasis. We might choose to see the conventional stuff Paul says in Romans 1 as reflecting his true opinion, or see him as playing Devil’s Advocate there. We might agree or disagree with the negative assessment of same-sex relations, but we’ll also know that it’s of secondary importance.

In Luke 10:25-37 we hear something reiterated which was commonplace for its time: that the summary of the law is “love God and love neighbor”. This is said several times in the New Testament and we associate this teaching with Jesus, but he was simply saying what Hillel and Gamaliel and almost any Pharisee in his time would have said (note that in Luke the summary is put in the mouth the lawyer, not Jesus). Where it gets surprising is in the parable that follows where Jesus uses a Samaritan as the example. In essence Jesus defines neighbor as “the person you hate” or “your enemy”. That would have surprised people in his time and this surprise illuminates the entire New Testament. Christian love means a lot more than “be nice to your neighbor”. It means bless those who persecute you, and be kind to those who are cruel to you. It means be willing to die on a cross rather than return evil for evil.

This surprise is a big deal. It does more than just tell us where the emphasis is it helps us reread other parts of the Bible. Wherever we hear talk of love or neighbors this should be in the front of our mind. When Jesus said love your neighbor he meant love your enemy.

In Ephesians 5:21-6:9 we are treated to one of the so-called Household Codes. The author treats us to some conventional advice for wives to submit to their husbands. It assumes the patriarchal household structure of its time with children and slaves all living under the authority of a single pater familias. The readers would have hardly been surprised by this type of address used throughout the Greek and Roman world. But in truth this passage is full of surprise. It starts with a command for mutual submission. It says the husband is to serve the wife and children like Christ. It speaks directly to children and slaves giving them dignity not found in the Roman versions of Household Codes, and it ends with the bombshell that God shows no favoritism meaning – your slave is your equal in God’s sight.

The best thing about finding the surprise in these passages is that it doesn’t just help us understand the passage in a new light, but the relationship between the conventional parts and the surprising parts provides us a trajectory. To be most faithful to scripture we shouldn’t merely replicate what it says, but replicate how it stood against its time and place. As Paul used the Roman Household codes not to reinforce patriarchy but to radically undermine it we should look to the social structures of our time and insert the same strain of radical wisdom.

It’s crazy for us to be building up modern pater familiases when in comparison to his time Paul was drastically undermining that hierarchical and problematic structure. What if we took the same approach Paul did to CEO’s and investment bankers and politicians?

Employees submit to your employers, and employers, love your employees, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansingher by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.In this same way, CEO’s ought to love their employees as their own bodies. A CEO who loves his employee loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.

It isn’t surprising Paul told women to cover their hair in worship since that was the norm in his time. It’s astounding that Paul called a woman an apostle and assumed women could prophecy and preach and teach. Compared to his time Paul was a radical feminist. This is the trajectory of Paul’s teaching. To be faithful to the scripture we ought to follow that trajectory, the trajectory of surprise.

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Go check out Rachel’s post today. She captures the surprise of some original recipients hearing the Household Codes for the first time pretty well.

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  • Kristen Rosser

    Thank you for this astute and insightful hermeneutical principle!

  • Kagi Soracia

    Brilliant.