Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Aurelia Stookey and Gary Gowler

John Everett Millais, The Lost Coin
Tate Gallery, London
Photo by David Gowler

Please enjoy the wonderful work of art by Millais, but 
today I want just to write a personal note about two of the finest human beings I have ever known:

First, Aurelia Stookey, my mother-in-law, passed away thirteen years ago (December 30, 2002). Here is what I wrote about her and her husband (Mitchell Stookey) in the Preface of my James Through the Centuries book, which I dedicated to their memories:

This volume is dedicated to the memory of two of the most wonderful human beings I have ever known: Aurelia Stookey and Mitchell Stookey. They, more than anyone I know, were “doers of the word,” spending much of their time either actively working for the well being of others or thinking about what actions they could take to promote the well being of others. Aurelia and Mitchell Stookey epitomized the wisdom (from above) and understanding mentioned in James 3:13, and their good lives were filled with good works done in “gentleness born of wisdom.” They were also exceedingly gracious, loving, and kind, and they welcomed me into their family with open arms. They, justifiably, were incredibly proud of their children—Donald, Charlyn, Patricia, Mary Jane, Jerry, Tom, Joe, and Rita—their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren (too numerous to mention here). I am grateful for the years that I was able to be with them and to learn from them, and I am proud to be a member of their wonderful family. Most of all, I am thankful for their eighth child, the greatest gift I have ever received.

Second, Gary Gowler, my brother, would have been 62 years old today (December 30). Here is what I wrote about Gary on the second anniversary of his death:

Gary Gowler (1953-2013)

The parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew includes these words:
34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Yesterday was the second anniversary of my brother Gary's death at the age of 59. 

In many ways, life goes on; in many ways, it will never be the same.

This blog is not primarily a personal blog; it is a blog about the reception history of the parables. I do want to say, though, that Gary's reception of the above parable was a deep and active one. If anyone "deserves" to hear those words from the "king" in the parable, Gary does.

I know it is a cliche to say this about those who have left us, but Gary's influence lives on--through his wonderful family, his extended family, and through all the friends, students, and others whose lives he touched so deeply.

Perhaps the best goal for anyone's life would be to strive to make the difference in the lives of other human beings that Gary made in his all-too-brief life.

Gary, you are still missed very, very much.

Rick Gowler, Gary Gowler, David Gowler, Nancy Gowler Johnson
December 30, 2011

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Elsa Tamez and the Parables (part 3)

Elsa Tamez, Jesus and Courageous Women

After telling stories about Mary, the mother of Jesus (13-22), Mary and Martha, the friends of Jesus (23-31), and the woman caught in adultery in John 8 (33-42), Lydia turns to the parable of the Unjust Judge. The “stubborn widow” in the parable gives Lydia encouragement to persist in her own resistance to the oppression and injustice she faces:

The judge represented someone who was the complete opposite of the widow. She was poor, a woman, and a widow; in other words, she was vulnerable and defenseless. She had a legal case pending against someone who had wronged her. She reminds me of thousands of women today in our Greek and Roman cities, and also of our ancestors. The widow, the orphan and the foreigner are the most unprotected persons in our culture; they are frequently overlooked and their rights are denied. That is why we find that the statutes in their favor are repeated frequently in the Scriptures (43-45).

Corrupt people, like the unjust judge, are found everywhere, which is one reason why the Hebrew Bible repeatedly demands justice for the marginalized, such as the protections for residents aliens, widows, and orphans (e.g., Exodus 22:21-22).

The woman’s stubbornness and perseverance are necessary, Lydia notes, because usually those with wealth and power get their way, and the poor and powerless do not. The widow simply stands up for her rights and demands that the judge do what was right under the law, but he continues to refuse. In this case, the widow’s perseverance is her only recourse for seeking justice (45-46).

Lydia guesses that eventually the judge became afraid of the widow, or at least the situation became so scandalous that it became a public embarrassment. The unjust judge did not suddenly become just; the stubborn widow finally wore him down:

Finally she achieved her goal; her insistence and her constant demand that justice be done paid off. The judge didn’t concede out of his own good will; the rights of widows did not interest him. The judge gave in because he was overcome by the widow’s perseverance. The judge, an arrogant man, had to give in to the request of this poor and very stubborn widow (46).

Lydia concludes that this parable provides a paradigm for how to respond in an unjust patriarchal society. Passivity is not an option; women simply cannot allow themselves to be imprisoned in the roles a patriarchal society assigns them. Women must resist and struggle and persevere, because “Jesus provides the guarantee that justice will triumph” (47).

Another central message of this parable—and of Jesus himself—is that God is in solidarity with the poor and marginalized. God sees them as persons of worth and calls upon the followers of Jesus to do likewise (50), and reading parables from the perspective of women opens one’s eyes to the often-unchallenged marginalization of women. Tamez offers a reading that instead stresses their liberation from such oppression.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

In Honor of my Mother's 84th Birthday: Elsa Tamez and the Parables (part 2)

The Birthday Girl and me
on a sunny day this summer

In honor of my mother, Betty Gowler's, 84th birthday, a continuation of my post about Elsa Tamez's Jesus and Courageous Women (my mother should be added as one of those "courageous women"):

Tamez argues that even grassroot interpretations usually ignore such difficult biblical texts, soften their oppressive content, or say that the marginalization of women in the ancient world reflected in these texts is simply not relevant for the modern world (1994: 193). Tamez counters that the central message of the Bible is profoundly liberating. Interpreters must not ascribe too much importance to the patriarchal ideology that is found in some “peripheral texts,” such as Genesis 3: “the gospel’s spirit of justice and freedom . . . neutralizes antifemale texts” (194). Therefore, biblical texts that reflect patriarchy, including the inferiority of women and their submission to men, are not normative, just as texts that legitimate slavery are not normative (195).
The first step is to distance oneself from established interpretations and to come to the text almost as a first-time visitor with little or no presuppositions about what a text means. The second step is to read the text with the understanding that God is on the side of the oppressed—the “hermeneutic key” found in Scripture itself (198). The third step is to read the entire Bible (i.e., not just texts that include or involve women) from a woman’s perspective, a step that involves including other oppressed “sectors” besides the poor. In this way, interpreters come “closer” to the Bible, being able to apply these texts to their daily lives. This new way of reading the Bible should result, Tamez declares, not only in experiencing God but also in a practice of justice and caring for other human beings (Tamez 1989: 4, 150). 
Tamez demonstrates this approach in an innovative book, Jesus and Courageous Women (2001), in which she uses a fictionalized version of Lydia (Acts 16:11-15, 40) to narrate stories of courageous women who follow Jesus. Tamez hopes that such stories will motivate readers “to rethink our lives in relation to the church and to society” (vii). These testimonies of women are part of the “counter-movement” to the dominant Roman Empire that was an essential element of the Jesus movement within Palestine and the Christian movement beyond Palestine. The narration of these women’s stories and the courage reflected in them highlight the liberating force of the early Christian movement, because it also includes liberation from the oppression of patriarchy.
“Lydia” begins by noting that the active participation of women in the early church and in the stories of Jesus is “usually not taken into account” (1):

The stories I have heard about the women followers of Jesus tell me two important things: first, that Jesus has a special inclination for those people at the marginalized sectors of society, such as women, the poor and the sick, and all those who are discriminated against; and second, that we women have found in the movement of Jesus the hope and vision that things can be different for us . . . (2).
. . .
Jesus believed there must be room for all in society—women and men, the poor, the sick, and the ignorant. The Kingdom of God, the central proclamation of Jesus, is an ideal realm in which there is no war, no domination of one people over another, no hunger, no discrimination, for all people are viewed as precious, loved, and valued in God’s eyes (4).

Next: Tamez's interpretation of the parable of the Importunate Widow/Unjust Judge.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

President Obama and the Parable of the Sheep and Goats

An article in today's Washington Post talks about President Obama's Christian faith, and it highlights the parable of the Sheep and Goats:
President Obama was flying over Los Angeles in June as he listened to the first accounts from a courtroom in Charleston, S.C., where family members of nine dead parishioners who were gunned down at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had just addressed the accused killer.
He heard the words of a daughter who had lost her mother: “May God forgive you. I forgive you.” 
He listened to the plea of a mother who had lost her son: “Every fiber in my body hurts . . . but may God have mercy on you.”
The president paused, the thump of the helicopter’s blades filling the otherwise silent cabin. He had planned to tweet some statistics later that day comparing gun violence in the United States and other developed countries, but now he told his staff to cancel that.
Instead, in the Oval Office two days later, he seized upon something that seemed more important to him than any argument about gun control — an idea central to his political identity and his conviction that he could unify the divided nation.
“The essence of what is right about Christianity is embedded here,” he said of the families, according to notes taken during the meeting.
As Obama saw it, the parishioners and their families met the most demanding teachings of Christ. “They welcomed the stranger,” he said in the Oval Office meeting. “They forgave the worst violence.”
 An excerpt from the parable (Matthew 25:34-36)

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’"
It seems to me that Christmas is an especially good time to remember this parable about welcoming (and taking care of) the hungry, thirsty, stranger, unclothed, and prisoner. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Elsa Tamez and the Parables (part 1)

Elsa Tamez, Bible of the Oppressed

The peasants of Solentiname respond to the parables in the contexts of political and economic oppression, but parables can also be interpreted in light of other aspects of oppression. Elsa Tamez, for example, is a leading proponent of Latin American liberation theology from a feminist perspective. An Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the Latin American Biblical University in San Jose, Costa Rica, Tamez’s analyses of biblical texts illuminate elements of oppression that often are overlooked by interpreters. Her first book, Bible of the Oppressed (1982), for example, argues that God’s self-revelation clearly indicates that “God is on the side of the subjugated,” (1–2), God seeks to liberate the oppressed, and God desires a new and just social order to be created (60–1). The principal motive for oppression is the desire to pile up wealth, Tamez says, and the reason the Bible opposes the rich and seeks the liberation of the poor is not because riches themselves are evil, but because the oppressors acquired their riches “at the expense of their neighbors” (71–3).
In Latin America, Tamez notes, many people now interpret the Bible as a “simple text that speaks of a loving, just, liberating God who accompanies the poor in their suffering and their struggle through human history” (1994: 190). In the context of oppression, hunger, unemployment, war, and other suffering, grassroots readings of the Bible give it new meaning and provide ways in which the Bible can be rediscovered when read from the perspective of the poor. Even in this context, however, women find cases in Scripture that clearly marginalize or segregate them. Such texts are used in modern patriarchal sexist societies to claim that women’s marginalization is a biblical principle. The inferiority of women is enshrined and reinforced in modern society because it is viewed as being “written [in] the word of God” (192-3).

The parables offer a distinctive interpretive problem, because male characters dominate parables, such as kings, farmers, builders, judges, stewards, bridegrooms, sons, fathers, priests, and rich and poor men. The few women featured—only nine out of 108 characters—are ten bridesmaids, a woman asking a judge for mercy, a woman looking for a lost coin, and “a handful of unspecified wives, mothers, and daughters” (Slee 1990: 41; cf. Gowler 2000: 78-84). Women are not only anonymous in the parables, but they are also almost invisible. A feminist reading can look beyond this surface invisibility to find numerous images and scenes in the parables that are “uniquely evocative of women’s lives” and therefore speak deeply to them in ways that are sometimes difficult to see, such as in domestic scenes and parables of celebration and feasting (Slee 1990: 41).

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman   Howard Thurman’s poem, “The Work of Christmas” is my favorite Christmas poem, and I p...