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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

The House of the Interpreter

Wisdom means many things in the Hebrew Bible.  It can mean practical skill, competence, good management.  It can mean insight and discernment.  It can mean knowledge of the natural world.  It can mean learning the lessons of history and transmitting them to your children.  It can mean being able to play music and write poetry.  It can mean having a moral sense, an educated conscience. It can mean detachment from our drives, an inward stability of character.  But however they speak about it, wisdom is a religious quality.  The wise sum it up as the fear of the Lord, committing your way to him.  The wise know their place in the scheme of things, and in relation to God the creator who is not only the source of wisdom but is Wisdom itself.

Being aware means learning how to discern and ‘read’ the world and what God is doing in it. There are biblical stories that seem designed to explore how God works in the lives and histories of people and nations, and how some have the gift to see into the meaning of events, understand the patterns within them.  The Joseph story in Genesis is like this.  It is one of the most perfect narratives not just in scripture but in all of literature.  Our passage comes in the middle of the story where Joseph is playing games with his estranged brothers: he knows who they are, but they have not yet recognised him.  One of the story’s themes is to portray Joseph as a wise man.  He shows shrewdness and skill as a manager in Potiphar’s house; when Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him he behaves with integrity; he knows what is required when famine befalls; and not least, he has compassion for his brothers with whom he wants to be reconciled. 

But more than anything, Joseph has the gift of interpretation.  He can understand his own dreams, and others soon start telling him theirs: the butler, the baker, Pharaoh himself.  Somehow, Joseph has the gift of detecting in them what God is doing or is about to do, and counsel the right response. Dreams provide clues to the mysterious workings of providence; what is needed is to know how to read their meanings within the larger purposes of God. Every psychoanalyst knows the importance of decoding the complex but intelligent symbolism of dreams and how reflecting on them adds to wisdom. In a larger way, reading the signs of the times is like reading dreams. ‘Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good’ he says at the end of the story. 

I want to commend to you the interpreter as an image of what the church is for. One of its tasks is to help people understand and respond to what God is doing in the world and in people’s lives: pointing to meanings, uncovering significance, not simply human significance but divine significance.  Wordsworth, in a beautiful phrase in his ‘Lines Written above Tintern Abbey’ speaks about ‘seeing into the life of things’.  You may say that it’s a brave person who speaks like that in our age.  Yet in the ancient world no-one seriously doubted that providence, dreams, omens, sacred texts all carried meaning; the only question was, what.  Today when we are suspicious of ‘grand narratives’ we still want to ask the fundamental question of how we recognise pattern, structure and connection in the world, and how we dare to speak about it.

As Christian interpreters, we establish meaning in different ways.  We do it when we bring the power of the gospel to bear upon human lives and transform them.  We do it in the celebration of the liturgy where we play at living in the kingdom of God as if it were already fully present. We do it in our relationships with individuals, when, in joy or in sadness we attempt to read the stories of their lives in the light of the value God puts upon each of them. And we do it in our citizenship of the world by putting the questions of God’s kingdom to situations where justice and mercy are unacknowledged or forgotten and victims have no voice of their own.  In looking for ‘divine significance’, we are taking seriously our role as God’s interpreters.

I’m saying that the interpreter is, if you like, God’s spy in recognising and naming the good, the beautiful and the true, and also falsehood, deception and illusion for what they are.  In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian comes with his heavy burden into the house of the Interpreter.  As he steps inside, he is shown a painting.  It shows a man ‘with his eyes lift up to heaven, the best of Books in his hand, and the Law of Truth writ on his lips; … his work is to know and unfold dark things to sinners, even as also thou seest him stand as if he pleaded with men.’  He says the Interpreter is the guide Christian must follow on his journey.  It’s of course a portrait of Christ, depicted both as travelling companion and as destination, the interpreter par excellence of our pilgrimage.  In knowing and unfolding dark things and standing as if he pleaded with men, Bunyan is saying that Christ himself is the model; for the living Word is God’s final act of interpretation by which his movement towards us is revealed as grace and truth.  Calvin says in the Institutes that the scriptures are like spectacles which bring the world into focus and help us to begin to see things with God’s way of looking.  When Christian leaves the house of the Interpreter, he comes to the wall of salvation and finds the cross> There the burden he carries falls off his shoulders, and he is free. Good interpretation brings liberation because the truth always makes us free.

To be an interpreter is part of the church’s apostleship. It is always a risk. We know how broken and fallible the church is.  But there are God-given ways by which we are kept close to the mind and heart of God, learn to read his ways in what the French spiritual writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade called ‘the sacrament of the present moment’.  They are the old fashioned disciplines that nurture the inner life: prayer, reading the scriptures, meditating, the kind of silence that teaches us to pay attention, spiritual friendship that helps us know ourselves; and not least, enriching our lives through literature, poetry, film, music and the arts which are so often the unlooked-for sources of wisdom in our time. These are among God’s instruments to help us become aware, have insight, be wise and become good evangelists.

The task of the interpreter is not some huge ordeal. It will come to us as naturally as breathing if we simply speak honestly out of our faith, and are ready when asked, as St Peter says, to give a reason for the hope that is within us. When the world is as it is, why should we have hope and not give in to despair? This is where the interpreter is crucial. The story says that Joseph ‘reassured’ his brothers, ‘speaking kindly to them’.  ‘The Lord meant it for good.’  To help others glimpse how, in the changes and chances of the world, ‘love is his meaning’ is the missionary vocation of the church and of each of us individually.  It is to be a dealer in hope and help turn back the tides of human angst. It is not to point to ourselves but to God in Christ, to make room for the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in the lives of others and ourselves. As the hymn we are about to sing puts it so wisely, ‘God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.’ 

Durham Cathedral, 28 July 2013.
Genesis 42.1-25; 1 Corinthians 10.1-24

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