Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
An extra for you this week for the occasion of Ash Wednesday. I’ve chose to comment on the Joel passage as I like it better!
One of my big beefs with the way in which we so often use the OT is about reading it as though the only purpose it had was to prophesy stuff about Jesus, or to provide spiritualised insights for 21st century Christians. This passage reminds us that these words were first addressed to real people, with a real relationship with God, but in a very different time and culture. People with a real and pressing crisis to face. The first rule of hermeneutics, or interpreting Scripture, is that
‘a passage can’t mean anything which the original writers didn’t mean the original readers to understand by it’.
So what was going on back in Joel’s day? We know from the context that the nation had been subject to a massive attack by locusts. If you’ve seen this happening on David Attenborough-type programmes you’ll know the devastation which these little creatures can cause, but what we don’t often realise is that it is much more serious than that. All the crops being stripped doesn’t just mean no food: it also means no seed to plant for next year. This isn’t just a tricky situation for a while: it could literally mean the death of the nation. What are people to do?
The prophet knows very well what they should do: they should repent. He clearly sees this devastating plague as a divine punishment, or at the very least a removal of divine protection. So in the strongest terms, this book is a call to deep, heart-rending repentance, at a national level.
Nowadays, of course, we don’t really have big disasters like that, at least not in the developed world. If we did get attacked by locusts we’d probably spray them with something or other and it would all be OK. And the idea that a prophet could get the nation to do anything at all is laughable.
So we do our repentance a bit differently. It’s all about me and God, my bad temper, the fact that I let out a rude word when I hit my finger with a hammer, and those days I missed reading my morning Bible passage. Not earth-shattering sins, but it’s good to have a little clean out once in a while, isn’t it, and Lent seems a good time to do it and to try harder to be nice.
I can’t help but contrast the way we think of Lent with the gut-wrenching desperation of Joel, crying out to God for their very survival. I can’t remember the last time I heard a priest weeping with penitence during public worship, or such a commitment to intercession that it even takes precedence over food and sex. I wonder whether the personalised and individualised observance of Lent which is the stock-in-trade of the C of E is a bit like rearranging the deckchairs while the ship of state that is contemporary Britain is sinking before our very eyes.