If the church’s path to equality for women is boulder-strewn and mountain-steep, that’s due in part to the sheer audacity of Adventism.
What will happen on the last Saturday night of the General Conference Session in San Antonio? Some 60,000 Adventists, astonished once again, will watch the Parade of Nations while costumed representatives of every nation, kindred, tongue and people file by as though marching straight to the Sea of Glass. For turning the then of final unity and joy, just what John imagines in Revelation, into the now of jubilant anticipation, perhaps no religious experience involving any religious community anywhere in the world can top this. Not for pageantry or ethnic reach and not even, perhaps, for aspiration.
Do I exaggerate? No doubt. And if you imagine a multitude without distinctions of status on the Sea of Glass, we will not yet have fully aspired to such a thing. But the spectacle will still amaze. And it will still symbolize a beautiful ideal: that despite differences of language and nationality, culture and tribe, income and education, those who make up the body of Christ must share a common life, a fundamental unity of spirit.
Must? This is what the body of Christ gets to do this. But how? Some of us, after all, have graduate degrees, some little or no formal education. Some of us have lived long in Adventism, some are new and hardly know the church’s long conversation. Some of us feel the disturbing weight of secularization; some bear less of this burden and do not understand those who bear more. In addition, resentments, acknowledged or not, may color what we think and how we feel.
On one reading, at least, three famous parables of Jesus address the urgency and strain of forging a common life, and also the joys of success, partial or otherwise. Amy-Jill Levine’s premise in her new book, "Short Stories by Jesus," is the agreement of scholars that each of the Gospels has its own point of view, its own argument. Her book invites reflection on how Jewish audiences might have heard Jesus’ parables before they were embedded in a particular Gospel writer’s argument. What might “the original provocation” have been? That first provocation could, if we listened for it, correct mistaken readings (such as negative stereotyping of Judaism) and supplement the helpful readings we have inherited by surprising us into fresh perspective.
So consider Luke 15 with its three parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Lost Son (or better, perhaps, Two Lost Sons). For Luke all three are about repentance and forgiveness. But in Matthew 18 the Parable of the Lost Sheep (the two others appear only in Luke) concerns the church’s responsibility to care for members who may have been, as the Greek verb suggests, led astray by false doctrine. Such uses of the stories by Gospel writers stimulate Levine’s interest in what she calls the original provocation, in how, that is, the stories might have come across to those who heard them directly from Jesus.
Levine is suspicious of too-easy leaps into allegorization. With respect to the third parable, for example, it is usual think of the father as God, the younger son as the repentant Christian, and the elder son as unrepentant, works-obsessed Israel. But the father is flawed, and the sons don’t have all the traits that would befit their roles in such a reading. Levine surmises instead that in the original telling Jesus was simply addressing the difficulty and joy associated with reconciliation. If the wholeness of a family or community breaks down—some part of it is lost—the finding, even the noticing, of the problem may require great effort. But success, Jesus emphasized, evokes great joy.
The parable of the Lost Son elaborates on the difficulty by drawing attention to the relationship a father and his two sons have with one another. To Jesus’ first hearers this would be familiar territory—think of Adam and his sons, or Abraham and his. For Jesus’ audiences, one surprise would be that here neither son is, so to speak, the star. The younger is self-absorbed and possibly conniving. The elder allows his resentment over being left out to crush any joy he might have felt at his brother’s homecoming. The father falls short as well: he is compassionate in the way Jewish sources say a father is meant to be, but he indulges his younger son’s rash wishes and later overlooks, at least to begin, inviting his elder son to the party. In this parable reconciliation proves difficult: as is not the case for sheep and coins, memories and resentments get in the way. Jesus doesn’t say, indeed, whether the elder son ever joins the party, or whether the younger does or does not continue to take advantage of his father’s love.
The question remains—this, Levine suggests, is the original provocation—of how the listener might respond to breakdowns in his or her own relationships or communities. Can we deal with our resentments, or adjust our desires, in such a way as to restore wholeness? Can we make peace with the seeming endlessness of the reconciliation process? These questions apply to personal life and to public and church life as well. Just think, for example, of Adventism’s long journey toward equality for women, and of the inventive if still disruptive compromise that will be considered in San Antonio. For the sake of wholeness—of reconciliation—can the world church give “division executive committees” leeway to decide for themselves about ordination of women? Other examples, equally trenchant concerning challenges associated with reconciliation, come easily to mind.
With respect to the vote in San Antonio, what do you think? With all we hold in common, we remain, as it must sometimes feel, unmanageably diverse; no argument about equality for women has, so far, won over the entire church. But if in different ways we feel hurt by this reality, we still love our church’s international character: it seems so like the New Testament vision. Who could want any part of our community to be lost? If we hear Jesus the way his original audiences might have heard him, we treasure wholeness even as we face the difficulty, and seeming endlessness, of the reconciliation process. In this light, the question delegates in San Antonio will consider seems ingenious. For the sake of wholeness—of reconciliation—shall we, or shall we not, find our way to middle ground? On a matter that escapes our consensus, yet elicits great passion, shall we, or shall we not, trust “division executive committees” to do what seems best to them? Delegates who vote Yes may have to master a resentment or adjust a desire, but surely their Yes will reflect the spirit of Jesus when it comes to the value—the audacity—of shared existence under Christ.
But wait. Won’t key texts continue to careen like bullets into Adventism’s wounded body? I suppose so. But delegates can rise above this, and at every opportunity between now and San Antonio our leaders need to say so.
Charles Scriven is chair of the Adventist Forum Board of Directors.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6818