What If?.2*

Luke 17:5-10 – The 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, October 6, 2013

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Luke 17:5)

Call me a daydreamer. A curse? A blessing? I’ll pass a person, overhear a snatch of conversation, or read a few verses in the Bible and imagination will be triggered. I am afflicted with the “what ifs.”

This happened when I opened the Bible to Luke 17:5-10. I know why . . . because when I read and contemplated and prayed about Luke 17:5-10, it frustrated the heaven out of me. What a muddled collection of verses. I’ll sum up these six dreary verses so that you can happily agree or strongly disagree:

a. Jesus and his disciples were together.
b. The disciples requested, “Increase our faith!”
c. If they possessed even mustard seed-sized faith, Jesus said, they could toss a mulberry tree into the sea.
d. And then Jesus talked about how a good slave acted.

There ya go: today’s Bible lesson. Six dumb verses. Well, actually verse 5 (or “b” in the above list) kept pestering me, but more on that later. However, perhaps you’re a brilliant, scholarly type (likely Presbyterian or Lutheran) that comprehends the life-changing truth of this whole and holy passage. Good for you. Go forth and save the world.

But on I daydream.

Suddenly, I was back in a seminary classroom . . .
Suddenly, I was back in a seminary classroom . . .

What if I’m dragged, kicking and of course screaming, back to the seminary where I received enough degrees to prove I could follow directions and study the Bible? What if I’m hauled into a first year class on hermeneutics (which, when I looked it up in the dictionary to make sure I spelled the old Greek word properly, appeared above Hermes, the Greek god of invention . . . of what if!)? Let’s say that in that pretend class, I’m shoved into a chair with a seatbelt strapped around me so I can wiggle but can’t escape.

Some students glance nervously in my direction. Most ignore me (seemingly unfazed by my inexplicable appearance). Then, the professor steps toward me and demands, “Tell the truth, you who we once sent forth to proclaim the Good News, do you interpret the Bible exegetically or eisegetically?”

Please no, don’t ask that!

The learned professor waits, eyes narrowing. The seminary students mutter and fret, sensing I am the future they must avoid. I squirm.

Exegesis and eisegesis . . . such fancy, creaky, geeky Greek words. Do I interpret the Bible’s words by openly seeking to discern where or how a passage speaks to me, how God’s spirit moves me? (Three cheers for exegesis!) Or do I force my manipulative ideas into a verse and then convey my narrow-minded perspective onto an unsuspecting, gullible congregation? (Boos and groans for eisegesis.)

I wiggle, squirm and fidget. Yes, fine. The professor I’ve imagined has caught me. Eisegesis tempts me. I am Hermes, the preacher of invention. The professor tsk-tsks. All of the students look away, embarrassed to be in the same room with me.

How could I have abandoned what I once revered? Because of inane passages like Luke 17:5-10! That’s how I lost my way!

Read the verses north of Luke 17:5. Jesus’ words were potent as he spoke about forgiveness. Keep reading south, past verse 17:10, to the healing of the lepers. Such a sublime passage. I could exegete either of those all day long. I could create sermons or teach classes that would make magi weep, shepherds sing and Pharisees plead for my autograph.

But what about Biblical snippets that seem to promote slavery? What if long-ago Christians used Luke 17:10 (We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.) to justify the ownership of slaves? I fear it did and does happen. How easily the Bible can be selectively quoted to support or undermine nearly any claim. And so, what of these odd, uninspiring six verses? Don’t teach them? Don’t preach them? Toss them out with that floating mulberry tree?

Here’s what I pretend, since I’m still trapped in the class with the disappointed professor and the dreading-their-future students: what if I unbuckle the belt and stand tall? I’ll confess I’ve committed my share of eisegetical sins. I’ll confess the sacred word of my tradition sometimes befuddles me. I’ll confess I’m too often less a humble disciple and more a brash pretender.

And yet, I still try, honestly and humbly, to “increase my faith.” If there’s nothing else I discern from these mulberryish verses, it’s the opening plea. The opening hope. Increase my faith. I am a pretender. I am my own god of invention and delusion. My mind wanders. I know so little.

What if the professor hints at a smile? What if a couple of students nod and agree with me? We are all, the best of us, tempted by eisegesis. We look at the world through our rose-colored or rust-encrusted eyes. We are too optimistic or mired in cynicism. But still, enough of the time, once in a while, often enough to humor God, we live exegetically . . . and we stay open to how faith and God’s spirit of forgiveness might continue to transform us.


*I revised this essay from a post in 2010. Hey, I was busy marrying my niece in Oklahoma. (And what do you remember from 2010, anyway?!

Image from here.

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  1. I love your writing! And the “old and yets” are new to me!
    So feel free to reprint them for those of us who are “new” to them!

  2. I agree with Maggie. Your revisions are always new to us, because each time we read them we are at a different stage of life……a new and maybe stranger, maybe brighter, maybe dimmer chapter of our life here on earth. I think God wants us to be revised and renewed….. In every day and in every way.

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