Scripture scholars are often more interested in the history of the community which produced the sacred text than in the history the text describes. They presume God works in sacred communities long before God works in sacred authors.

When students of Scripture hear Sunday’s three readings, they instinctively want to know what community event prompted the Joshua author, Paul and John to compose their works as we have them.

The first reading (Joshua 24: 1-2, 15-18) depicts an important event: the covenant ceremony which took place when the Israelites arrives in the Promised Land. About 500 years after the actual ceremony, the sacred author looked around his community and realized many people had reneged on their commitment to Yahweh. They not only forgot the role God played in their nation’s formation, but also were beginning to include other (fertility) gods in their worship.

It’s for such an unfaithful community that the author repeats the words, "Far be it from us to forsake Yahweh for the service of other gods. For it was Yahweh, our God, who brought us and our ancestors up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery."

Husbands and wives

Likewise, had Ephesian husbands not been running roughshod over their wives, we’d never hear Paul’s frequently discussed statement, "Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord" (Eph 5: 21-32).

A general rule of Scriptural exegesis is that the issue getting the most verses is the issue which is most problematic. Wives’ subordination barely receives a mention, but Paul spends line after line talking about husbands’ subordination. His key command is the first: "Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ."

The rest of the reading simply tells us how husbands and wives are to work out this mutual subordination. (Ironically, the new lectionary permits the reader to omit Paul’s words to the wives but forces them to include those to the husbands. Does that tell us something about 21st century Christian husband/wife problems?) Once we know the problem, we know how to interpret the text.

Likewise, we’re so accustomed to hearing and using Peter’s rhetorical Gospel question, "Master, to whom shall we go"? That we forget to ask why John includes it in his Eucharistic feeding narrative (Jn 6: 60-69).

New insights

Theology — even biblical theology — is constantly evolving. People of faith always get new insights into how God works in their lives, always uncover new dimensions of things they already believe. As we’ve seen over the past weeks, John takes a quantum theological leap forward, expounding things about the Lord’s Supper that no one had ever thought of.

Hearing his beliefs for the first time at the end of the first century, many Christians said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?"

Against this background, we hear the sad statement, "Many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him." Their former way of life appears to be their old theology; the Jesus they refuse to accompany seems to be the "new" Jesus who teaches John’s new theology.

John’s quite rigid about accepting his unique theology, yet he clearly states his reason for developing it. "You [Jesus] have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God."

"Holy" simply means "other." If we truly believe the risen Jesus is totally other, then, at no given point of our lives, can we know everything about Him. Perhaps the major problem in our communities today is that many of us think we already know everything about Him.

(8/21/03)