Sixth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21
Psalm 16
Galatians 5:1,13-25
Luke 9:51-62

 

 

Former Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, has been lampooned at some length for the 2002 press conference during which he spoke of “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.” But while Rumsfeld may have expressed himself in a somewhat goofy or awkward fashion, the idea that he was getting at is actually an important one. These three categories of knowledge really do exist, and becoming aware of them – especially the final one – is enormously helpful in understanding ourselves, understanding the world around us, and understanding scripture.

Known knowns are perhaps what we think of most often when we speak of knowledge. This is the stuff that we are aware of, that we have access to, that we can use. Rudimentary arithmetic fits into this category for most of us, as does speaking and reading our native language, as does riding a bicycle or driving a car or operating a telephone. We probably spend less time thinking about known unknowns, although there are contexts in which they are inescapable: the couple of times I have travelled in Europe, I was highly aware that English is my only language, and every time I get on an ice rink, I am reminded that, even though I grew up in Canada, I really don’t know how to skate.

Unknown unknowns are what really fascinate me. Here are the instances in which we don’t even realise our own ignorance. Rumsfeld was speaking of a geopolitical or military context, but we don’t need to go that big to encounter this phenomenon. I suspect all of us have had the experience of immediately and effortlessly noticing something about another person that they don’t notice about themselves – and even more alarmingly, the experience of someone immediately and effortlessly noticing something about us of which we were entirely unaware. I have spent my whole life, for instance, being surprised when people describe me as “quiet” – it is only lately that I have come to accept that “quiet” must genuinely be how I read to most folks. And my friend Lauren – as generous and accepting and loving a person as I know – tells the story of more than one classmate coming out to her in college, of saying, “Lauren, I need to tell you something: I’m gay.” Lauren had to make herself say: “That’s wonderful, thank you for telling me. Do you have a boyfriend?” Instead of what she was thinking, which was, “I’ve known that for years.”

To read scripture is to encounter unknown unknowns constantly. Most of us, without realising it, bring a suitcase-full of unexamined assumptions to this holy book. Some of these assumptions are kind of comical or charming. Every Christmas and Epiphany, for instance, we hear Matthew tell us the story of the Wise Men coming to visit the baby Jesus, and we automatically picture three of these men on top of their camels. Except that the text is entirely silent on the question of how many Wise Men there are: there could very well be fifteen Wise Men gathered around the manger. (I’ve mentioned this to folks in the past and actually seen people open their Bibles to double check. “Three” is so firmly planted in our heads that its absence from the text is almost startling.) Similarly, Luke tells us the story of Zacchaeus, who “was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.” As Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to see better, we assume that it is Zacchaeus who is short. But actually, Luke’s grammar works just as well if it is Jesus who is short.

Some of our other assumptions or blind spots about scripture are less funny and more problematic. And I want to suggest that, in a lot of these instances, our unknown unknowns about the Bible heavily overlap with our unknown unknowns about ourselves.

So. Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. He sends messengers ahead of him, they enter a village full of Samaritans to make ready for Jesus. But they don’t receive Jesus. John and James – two brothers, the sons of Zebedee – ask if they should call down fire from heaven and kill everyone in the village. And Jesus rebukes them.

That’s an intense story and a brief story and a simple story, right? Well maybe. But drawing on the work of a theologian by the name of Paul Nuechterlein, I’d like to suggest that there is a significant unknown unknown hanging out right in the middle of this passage. Nuechterlein asks the question:

In verse 53, where we find the words, “they did not receive him,” who is “they”

Nuechterlein says that he has opened up every commentary that he can find on Luke and that 100% of these commentaries tackle this passage with the assumption that “they” are the Samaritans. Sometimes this assumption is even cemented into a printed Bible and magnified, so that this section is entitled something like, “The Samaritans Reject Jesus,” although “Reject” is a vastly more loaded and judgmental turn of phrase than “Did not receive.” (If you show up at a friend’s house unannounced and he says, “It’s not a good time. Could you come back tomorrow?” your friend has not received you. If, on the other hand, your friend starts swearing and throwing rocks at you, your friend has rejected you.)

Nuechterlein invites us to wonder: What if “they” are not the Samaritans, but rather, are the messengers whom Jesus has sent ahead? Listen again:

“…they (the messengers) entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they (the messengers) did not receive him…”

Luke – the book from which our Gospel this Sunday comes – also contains one of the most famous parables in all of scripture: the parable known as the Good Samaritan. Indeed, the Good Samaritan appears in the very next chapter of Luke, Chapter 10; we’ll read it here in church in two weeks’ time. If you have heard a sermon or two on the Good Samaritan, you will know that Jesus builds this parable on a spectacular reversal of expectations. For many or most of Jesus’ followers, Samaritans are untrustworthy foreigners, maybe even contemptible and vile. But Jesus makes the Samaritan into the one who stops and helps the wounded man. The one you loathe, Jesus says: he’s the hero of my story.

If Nuechterlein is right, then what we hear today in Chapter 9 anticipates what we will hear in Chapter 10. These messengers go ahead into the Samaritan town, but because the messengers have not received Jesus – because the messengers don’t get the Gospel, because they believe that you can both follow Jesus and engage in exclusion and bigotry and ostracism, because they believe that Jesus backs them up in their prejudice – they are incapable of connecting with the villagers. They are stopped by their hatred. John and James are in the very same headspace when, with terrifying casualness, they suggest murdering everyone in the village: men, women, and children alike. If Jesus hadn’t been there to rebuke them, they might very well have gone through with it.

Now, a few minutes ago, I suggested to you that our unknown unknowns around scripture overlap with our unknown unknowns around ourselves – that the stuff that we can’t see about the Bible is the very same stuff that we can’t see about our own hearts. I want to suggest that every human being – you and I, all of us – has acted and perhaps is acting right now like the disciples in this story. We exclude and we judge and we even hate. And a lot of the time, we call our exclusion and our judgment and our hate being Christian.

Once again, this kind of behaviour is really obvious to spot when we see it in other people. For most of us gathered in this church, it could not be any clearer that the vilification of Muslims or GLBTQ folk or immigrants is incompatible with the Gospel, that folks who engage in this kind of behavior and call themselves Christians have wildly misunderstood who Jesus is and who he is calling his followers to be.

But before we start feeling too great about ourselves, consider how we may talk, consider the casual contempt that we may feel, for people who vote differently than we do or people who have different feelings about gun control than we do. Think about the way we speak about people who are less educated than ourselves (this month’s issue of The Atlantic has an article that talks about the derision that many of us cheerfully express for people who aren’t especially smart: those of us who would sooner stab ourselves in the eye with a pencil than utter a racial epithet or a homophobic slur will happily use the “S-Word,” we will mock people for being stupid). In the last couple of days, I have been startled to witness the hot vitriol directed towards those who voted for Britain to leave the European Union. And you don’t need to spend long hanging out in Portland to hear burning vitriol directed towards anyone planning on voting for Donald Trump.

There are so many ways in which all of us have not received Jesus. And listening to this way of talking, this way of being, it’s not hard to imagine you or me saying: Lord, should we call down fire on those people?

Now, before I wrap up, let me clear: I am not suggesting that Jesus is advocating for some kind of moral relativism, a worldview in which everyone has their opinion and all opinions are all equally valid. We know from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that Jesus doesn’t feel that way at all, that Jesus is spectacularly opinionated, especially when it comes to protecting and standing with the poor and the marginalised. There is no doubt in my mind, for instance, that Jesus, who consistently rejects violence, wishes that there were fewer people running around our society with guns, that he wants us to work for a society in which there are fewer guns. What I am saying is that, even as Jesus calls us to this work, he calls us to do it in love – and not a halfhearted “hate the sin, love the sinner” kind of love – but to the genuine, all-in love that calls us to connect with and find communion with everyone, everyone, everyone.

Jesus does something really hard: he shines a light on our unknown unknowns. In particular, he shines on light on those places where, without even really noticing it, we respond to hatred with hatred of our own or to exclusion with exclusion of our own. He calls out the ways in which we, like those first messengers, have not received him. And then he asks us to open our hearts. To let him in. And to go forth. To go forth even among people whom we don’t understand and don’t like, maybe even people we hate as much as his first followers hated the Samaritans. And there, in the midst of that strange and disquieting village, he asks us to proclaim and to hear the Gospel.