Tradition Can Be Wrong

So, I have spent the better part of a week debating what scripture we would be doing this Sunday. I originally planned to go with the lectionary (Hagar and Ishmael), but I noticed there is this problem that the lectionary skips a story that has been foundational in some of our cultural arguments—Sodom and Gomorrah. You all know that I rarely shy away from a controversial passage like that, but one of the problems becomes the vast amount of territory that would need to be covered in a 15 minute sermon (ask the Wednesday night Bible study – we looked at it for an hour and didn’t get through all the material). So where does that leave us? I think we are going to look at Abraham’s conversation with God about Sodom, but not all the rest.

So that means the epistle reflection this week will be the rest of it. Let’s talk about the 800 pound gorilla in the room. When we think Sodom and Gomorrah, we think of another related word—sodomy. We think this story is about homosexuality because our culture has told us it is. However, as Jay Michaelson put it, “Reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an ax murderer as being about an ax.” Or for you proponents of the second amendment, it is like thinking shootings are only about guns and not the people holding the gun. The truth is that the historic Christian Church tradition behind the interpretation of this passage has often made it about homosexuality—there is no arguing that. I know most of us grew up with that being the interpretation of this story. However, tradition can be wrong. What is it my father always said? “Just because all your friends are jumping off a cliff doesn’t mean you should too!” I don’t think that is really what this passage is about, and I know that there are many others that agree.

For one thing, look at the stories that surround it. Last week we read the story of Abraham’s extraordinary hospitality to three strangers (one of whom turned out to be the LORD). Lot then receives the two messengers from God in the same way. That ought to be a big clue. Another point worth raising is that if this is about sexual morality, you might want to read the end of the story, where the hero and supposed righteous man (Lot) participates in incest.

The other place that is incredibly important to help us understand this story is the Jewish Talmud. The Talmud are the teachings of renowned Rabbi’s on each passage of the Hebrew Bible. One such Talmudic reading, called the Sefer Ha-Aggadah, delves deeply into the history of Sodom and Gomorrah. It has several passages explaining the evils of the cities, and some of them are quite comical. One Rabbi suggests that Sodom had such backward laws that if someone injured you, you owed that person money for having injured you. Another is that if someone were to accidentally cut off your donkey’s ear, you would have to give the perpetrator the donkey until its ear grew back (apparently cutting off donkey ears was an issue they grappled with). The Talmud goes into great detail about the evils of Sodom and Gomorrah, but guess what it never mentions? Homosexuality.

Then there is another important Biblical principle to consider. The Bible interprets itself—that means we should look to the other parts of scripture to help us understand what is happening here. Most references to Sodom and Gomorrah are simply warnings—don’t do bad things or you will end up like Sodom and Gomorrah. These references happen throughout the prophets, in Deuteronomy, in the epistles of Peter and a few other smatterings. In these cases, the focus is on the punishment and not really the specific crime.

Finally, there are three passages of scripture that do seem to suggest specific interpretations. The first that needs to be laid out is Jude 1:7 which does suggest that sex played a role in the destruction, “In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and neighboring towns practiced immoral sexual relations and pursued other sexual urges. By undergoing the punishment of eternal fire, they serve as a warning.” Keep in mind, however, that the idea of gang rape also fits this description, regardless of the gender of the perpetrators.

The other two important pieces of scripture on this seem to suggest that this is about something different. Ezekiel 16 says this, “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy. They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me, and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it.” Of course, those who want to read this passage as being about sexuality think that detestable things refers to homosexuality. Perhaps…but if you look at the entirety of the passage, it is pretty clear that it is about not helping the poor and the needy. It should be noted here that this is the traditional Jewish interpretation, and by and large, this is what the Talmudic sayings reference—a nation that has refused to care for the poor and the stranger and insisted on acting unjustly. Perhaps that should come as a warning to us?

Finally, the last piece of scripture that has the most bearing on how we read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah would be what Jesus said about the story himself, in Luke 10 and Matthew 10. Both passages refer to the disciples going out to cities around Israel preaching the good news. Jesus tells them to take nothing with them when they go, but to depend upon the hospitality of those in the cities they visit. Jesus than says, “If anyone refuses to welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or city. I assure you that it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judgment Day than it will be for that city.” Now if you are really determined to stretch the Bible to continue to make this about homosexuality, then I suppose there is very little that could be said  to change your mind. However, this passage is fairly clear that Jesus is referring to how disciples are welcomed. This is a passage that is about hospitality.

If you are one of those that wants to continue to read this passage as a condemnation of homosexuality, than there is nothing to be done to change your mind. If you feel that is what you still believe, perhaps it is time to ask where that belief is actually coming from, because scripture CAN be contorted to support such a belief, but I think the origin of said belief is somewhere other than scripture.

Perhaps what this is really a lesson about is how WE ALL use scripture. I am sure there are some of you reading this who will insist I am the one guilty of contorting the scripture—that is your right to believe such a thing. The point being, any time that we go to the scripture as a means of proving someone else wrong, we are doing violence. As scholar Diana Eck points out, this is using scripture as bullets—not just bullet points. When we pull out verses here or there to make our own positions seem correct and others wrong, we are kind of missing the point of scripture. Scripture is supposed to serve to bring us together and to bring us closer to God. Are any of us really growing closer to God with fights over these kinds of issues? Lastly, I would encourage you again to look to scripture for guidance on how to understand and use scripture. Paul, in several of his writings, encourages us to understand the law by looking for the fruits of the Spirit. By the results of our actions, we will know whether we have truly been following the law of Love and the scriptures. Are any of us getting any closer to God or each other by having these fights? I don’t think so.

We must all be aware of our universal human tendency to simply use scripture to prove ourselves right, regardless of the damage we inflict on others in the process. I would encourage all of us to ask the question, “how will these understandings of scripture bring me closer to my neighbor or God?” If the answer is that they won’t, perhaps it is time to change our thoughts on what a given scripture means to us.

My guess is, that there are still some of you out there that are unconvinced or may be outraged that your pastor has written this. If that is the case, give me a call, let me take you out to coffee (after my vacation), and let’s have an honest and open conversation. Like I said, scripture should be bringing us closer together.

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