Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Neither ... nor

Ever wonder why the church is just as politically bifurcated as the body politic? I suspect there may be many reasons, but surely one contributing factor must be the fact that among all biblical texts that caution against turning "either to the right or to the left," not one of them (!) is included in the Revised Common Lectionary.

Below is what I think is a comprehensive list. I am not counting the phrase as uttered by Abraham's servant (Gen 24:29), since there is no moral or political implication attached to it, or as it used of Asahel's pursuit of Abner (2Sam 2:19), the angel blocking Balaam's path (Num 22:26), or the milk cows returning with the ark from Gaza (1Sam 6:12), since these are purely non-evaluative descriptions. But only the Genesis passage occurs in RCL, anyway.

Certainly Moses hopes the Kings of Edom and Heshbon will view in a positive light his promise that Israel will pass through their land by a straight, unswerving course (Num 20:17; Deut 2:26-27), though in each case his request is rejected. 

The direct admonition to "turn neither to the right nor the left" first crops up in Deuteronomy and Joshua. Here's the list, identified in the NRSV, keying in on the phrase "to the right." [NB: A search of "to the left" yields no additional results.]

Deut. 5:32
You must therefore be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn to the right or to the left. 

Deut. 17:11
You must carry out fully the law that they interpret for you or the ruling that they announce to you; do not turn aside from the decision that they announce to you, either to the right or to the left. 

Deut. 17:19
It (a copy of the law) shall remain with him (the future king) and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes,  20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel. 

Deut. 28:13
The LORD will make you the head, and not the tail; you shall be only at the top, and not at the bottom—if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I am commanding you today, by diligently observing them,  14 and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I am commanding you today, either to the right or to the left, following other gods to serve them. 

Josh. 1:7
Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go. 

Josh. 23:6
Therefore be very steadfast to observe and do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right nor to the left,  7 so that you may not be mixed with these nations left here among you, or make mention of the names of their gods, or swear by them, or serve them, or bow yourselves down to them,  8 but hold fast to the LORD your God, as you have done to this day. 

2Kings 22:2
He (Josiah) did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. 

2Chr. 34:2
He (Josiah, again) did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the ways of his ancestor David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. 

The latter prophets tend to use right and left in a similarly ambidextrous way, urging not partiality, but obedience ...

Is. 30:21
And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” 
Ezek. 21:16
Attack to the right! 
Engage to the left! 
Wherever your edge is directed.

... while promising both victory and expansion in both directions:

Zech. 12:6
On that day I will make the clans of Judah like a blazing pot on a pile of wood, like a flaming torch among sheaves; and they shall devour to the right and to the left all the surrounding peoples, while Jerusalem shall again be inhabited in its place, in Jerusalem. 

Is. 54:3
For you will spread out to the right and to the left, 
and your descendants will possess the nations 
and will settle the desolate towns.

Perhaps the wisdom literature is most interesting. There we find in Proverbs the classic, unbiased admonition that is intended to keep the wise and faithful on the straight and narrow:

Prov. 4:27
Do not swerve to the right or to the left; 
turn your foot away from evil.
... along with Job's lament that he cannot find God in either direction: 

Job 23:8-9
“If I go forward, he is not there; 
or backward, I cannot perceive him; 
  on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; 
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. 

But lest you think scripture is always and absolutely perfectly "fair and balanced," Ecclesiastes offers up this startling text that exemplifies what the late James E. Loder would call an "asymmetrical bipolar relation," with the emphasis in this case on the asymmetry.

Eccl. 10:2
The heart of the wise inclines to the right, 
but the heart of a fool to the left
[I will resist the temptation to draw any firm asymmetrical conclusions from the fact that the risen Jesus directs the disciples to cast their nets to the right, with marvelous results (John 21:6). If someone wants to make that case exegetically, I'm open to it, but it seems rather too allegorical to my mind.] 

As far as the church goes, I think the oddity of Ecclesiastes can best be understood by bearing in mind two things: (1) the church as the body of Christ is a bi-ped, and we should not aspire to try and force it to be anything but that (see 1Cor 12); and (2) the body of Christ, though a bi-ped, is not perfectly ambidextrous or balanced; to employ a baseball analogy, though the church may well be a switch-hitter, and a good one at that, her batting average is marginally better on the right.

Whether or not you agree with this conclusion regarding this asymmetrical characteristic, I say, let the emphasis fall on unswerving obedience. Let the church exchange her political biases for — no, not a middle-of-the-road lukewarmness (Rev. 3:16) or "third way" theologies, as if Jesus were not "the Way" — but to single-minded obedience to "the Way" of Jesus Christ and wholehearted adherence to the straight and narrow. Such obedience, of course, takes equal parts truth and love (2Jn 3). 

As I've mentioned before in both Groans of the Spirit and Year D, the exclusion of Jesus' sayings regarding the narrow gate from the RCL are inexplicable and ultimately perilous. Now, as we see the pattern whereby the RCL also excludes all warnings (!) against veering either to the right or to the left (but especially to the left), perhaps we can come to recognize the sense in which the political biases of the church have been exacerbated as a result of this exclusion, and come to a new point of resolution as well, namely, to show the world what true discipleship — following Jesus with the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5; 16:26) — actually looks like. Turn off the talking heads, all of them, and fix your eyes upon Jesus.

And, where your preaching program is concerned, perhaps it would be a good idea to reclaim the texts mentioned above (not just those mentioned in Year D) and make them the focus of sermons, weave them into your intertextual references, craft them into your function statements, incorporate them in the liturgy and the language of the church. 

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