On May 29 the RCL features the last of its series of readings from the Book of Revelation, this time from Revelation 22, but with some verses missing. CSBV Research Associate Peter King asks whether it is a good idea that the Lectionary silently omits verses we might not wish to hear.
Revelation 22: 12 – 21
Easter 7 (RCL)
I’m sure I’m not the only person who is disturbed by the Book of Revelation. Its grotesque and, at times, horrifying imagery is alien to many twenty first century readers, though not perhaps to the people of Ukraine living in the midst of the Russian invasion. It is no coincidence that much of the traditional Christian image of “hell” comes from the Book of Revelation, and this to many people seems a far cry from the message of Jesus. Coupled with this is the way in which Revelation clearly engages in what we might now term “othering”, creating a clearly defined “us” and “them”, which further serves to make the book a problem for many readers today.
In this week’s Lectionary reading, from Revelation 22, “we” are safely in the holy city whilst “they” are outside. But from the Lectionary’s version you would never know that, because for the Lectionary “they” simply do not exist, for the verse relating their fate (15) is just omitted. Further on, the warning not to tamper with the words in the book (17, 18) is also omitted.
But what are we to make of the Lectionary’s decision to edit the Biblical text and to omit statements which (presumably) are felt would be offensive to modern hearers ? And for whose sake has this decision to censor the Biblical text been made? For the sake of the churchgoers who hear the texts week by week ? For the preachers who have to expound them ? For the church which has to own them ? Furthermore, in preaching such edited texts is it better to go with the Lectionary and leave out hard and controversial verses or is it better to include them and at least let a congregation hear them even if the preacher does not go on to engage with them in a sermon ?
Whilst I can see why the compilers of the Lectionary have decided to omit certain verses from the weekly readings, it is interesting that this seems to be simply assumed as it is not mentioned at all, let alone explained or justified, in the compilers’ Introduction. There is considerable discussion of the two different options for readings from the Hebrew Bible, thematically related to the NT readings or semi-continuous, but seemingly none on this (largely invisible) choice on the part of the compilers.
I would suggest that the better option is to include these difficult and disturbing verses. I am uneasy about effectively pretending that they do not exist, and the implications in doing so for those who are troubled by them and have questions about them. If part of the Christian vocation is truth-telling, then it would seem that telling the truth about our own scriptures, and the hard questions of interpretation and understanding they pose us, is something which we cannot, and should not, avoid.
So, if you are a regular user of the Lectionary, I would encourage you to consider putting back these disturbing and difficult verses – and perhaps even to address them in your sermon, or discuss them at a Bible Study group.
But what about this week’s troubling verse, which warns us that outside the holy city we will find the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. At the very least it is a reminder that actions have consequences, and that the sort of people we are and the things we do in our lives do matter and that in some way we will be held accountable for them. It is also a reminder that the church over two thousand years has been only too good at “othering”, and raises the interesting question as to who we would consign to the outside of the holy city, and why.
Yet I continue to wonder about the othering we seem to find in the New Testament itself, such as this (and other verses) from Revelation.
In their thought-provoking book Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (IVP USA, 2019), Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah set out their conviction that:
The concept of the other stands in direct opposition to the teachings of the New Testament. Theology that arises from Scripture and from the teachings of Jesus does not allow for the identification and exclusion of the other.Unsettling Truths, p. 22
And as I myself have written elsewhere:
If the life and teaching of Jesus is characterised by radical inclusion and nonviolent love, then surely it makes no sense for those who fail to heed that call to be threatened by exclusion and violence.Peter King, ‘I’ve Never Liked This Story’ CSBV Website
So it may be that we need to look beyond the othering of images like this in Revelation to see what it is trying to say to us. N.T. scholar Ulrich Luz poses precisely this question in his study of the Gospel of Matthew. For Luz, the idea of “judgment” (and hence exclusion) is a necessity not for God but for us, for without it we would be unable to take seriously the call of God:
We remain in a quandary. It seems to me that the notion of judgement according to works is a theological impossibility for the God who abides in Jesus of Nazareth and who defined himself in the resurrection. But it may be that we, as human beings, need the idea of judgement because, without it, we would be unable to take God seriously as God. The idea may be an anthropological necessity. Is this the solution to the deep dilemma underlying not only the Gospel of Matthew but the New Testament as a whole?Ulrich Luz, Theology of the Gospel of Matthew (Cambridge 1995), p. 132
So, let’s put back in the verses the Lectionary has chosen to keep from us and our congregations, and let’s engage with them and seek what they are saying to us in our very different twenty-first century world. And before we get too comfortable within the holy city of Revelation 22, let’s just ponder for a moment the fact that for some people in our world today it may be us who are on the outside !
Peter King trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education. Peter’s work for the CSBV includes producing Bible study resources such as these, and running our preacher’s blog Sunday Sermon Monday Mourning.