In Dallas, Texas, one week prior to the assassination of President Kennedy, I heard German New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias reminisce about his life in Israel, where his parents were missionaries. After WWII, he returned nervously to Israel to see if the treatment of Jews by the Nazi regime had severed forever his friendships there. When he knocked at the door of an old friend, he was welcomed with an embrace.
The life situation of the reader provides a lens through which a text is read. Or, to change the metaphor, the life situation provides the magnet, which draws from a text whatever most clearly addresses the reader. For the same reader the same text may, under different circumstances, console or correct or convict or enlighten or inspire.
Lent carries in its bosom a seductive danger: excessive inwardness. The seduction is this: a season of prayer, repentance and preparation for Good Friday and Easter necessarily involves trips to the heart, but tarry there too long and repentance can stall out as melancholy. The danger is this: self-examination may spawn attempts at self-improvement, with the result that looking at self replaces looking to God, and small measures of merit replace the immeasurable grace of God.
It is difficult to listen to a text when there are other texts in the room talking about the same subject matter, often in ways more elaborate and more familiar. Mark is the text before us, but Matthew, Luke and John are also in the room. Each has a right to be heard.
Isaiah faced a challenge. How was he to awaken an exiled community from the lethargy of despair? The people’s confidence had been shattered; their entire worldview was drained of its mimetic properties. Former glories lay in ruins. Now the people lived in the land of the dreaded enemy, a people who goaded them with “Sing us some of those songs of Zion, miserable losers!"