What Are You Reading? Part 2
Last September, I reflected on Mark Allan Powell’s “What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap between Pulpit and Pew.” Powell’s contention is twofold: first, that one’s social location or life experience influences how one fills in the background for a scripture passage, and, secondly, which character(s) one relates to bears on the meaning derived from a passage. Powell uses the story of the Prodigal Son with three different groups and asked each to fill in the gap in the story left for the reason the son ended up tending pigs. The social location of each group affected their response to his question (See WNY Catholic, Sept. 27, 2021.)
Powell also presents examples of how the character in a parable or gospel story with whom one relates influences one of the messages derived from a passage. He refers to this as “character empathy.” Powell uses the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) to illustrate this point. A robbery victim lies near a road, two Jewish leaders pass him by but a Samaritan stops to aid him. Jesus asks: “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?” His question prompts the response, “the Samaritan,” even though Samaritans were age-old enemies of Jews. The reply indicates that the characters one is concentrating on are the passersby. Hence, the message would be that if a Samaritan can help another who is in need, then surely a Christian should do likewise.
However, in Tanzania, Powell found people identifying with the victim. “People who have been beaten, robbed and left for dead cannot afford the luxury of prejudice. They will accept help from whoever offers it.” In their situation, food brought to their villages should be accepted without prejudice against the persons providing it, e.g., Moslems, Christians, or NGOs. For them the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is answered not by “whoever needs my help” but by “whoever helps me.”
Consider the story of the disciples gathering grain to eat on the Sabbath. The Pharisees criticize them while Jesus defends them. One student, relating to the disciples, reflected that “Jesus has our backs.” On the other hand, a bishop reflected that he needs to support his clergy; he was relating to Jesus. Does a disciple ever need to have another’s back or does a cleric/teacher ever need to remember that God supports him/her?
Preachers and teachers should pay close attention to empathy choices of themselves and their audiences – switching choices may lead to fuller understanding of the gospel message.