Sunday, November 14, 2015 YR B
25th Sunday after Pentecost
Context is Everything
I want to talk today about context. Context is a very important concept in
linguistics. All communication happens in a context; and the context profoundly shapes
the message. It was a linguist who coined the expression “Context is everything.”
Our lives are stories. By “our lives”, I mean our individual lives, the lives of the
various communities we participate in, and the life of humanity in general. All of these
can be thought of metaphorically as stories. All have a beginning, development,
denouement, and conclusion. Like all stories, our lives occur in a context, and the context
profoundly affects the meaning that we derive from them. A life “out of context”, isolated
from a larger story, is a life without meaning.
Scripture is also a story. Or rather, a collection of stories, conceived and recorded
in particular times and places, and translated in bits and pieces over the centuries,
between languages with different writing systems, different syntactic and semantic
structures, and in widely varying contexts.
Father Brent reminded us last week of the importance of context to the story of
Ruth, Naomi and Boas. Without the “backstory”, as it is sometimes called, the lectionary
excerpt did not adequately represent the whole story.
Not only are the stories in scripture conceived, written down, and translated in
different contexts, when we read scripture, or hear it read aloud, we find ourselves in yet
other contexts. God speaks to us in whatever context we find ourselves in our own
stories. Those of us here live in a very different time, and in a different place,
geographically and culturally, than did the writers of scripture. Each of us is also in a
different context today than we were three years ago when we last heard these same
scriptures on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost. In fact, we are in a different context today,
sitting in church listening to scripture read aloud, than we are when we read the Scripture
to ourselves at home as we are about to be overcome by sleep. The story does not change,
but the context profoundly affects the meaning of the story. God will meet us “where we
are,” as long as we are open to hearing God’s voice.
Take for example the story of Hannah. This is a story that is hard for many of us
to relate to. Polygyny is not common in our society, so it is hard for most of us to
comprehend the social dynamics of a family with multiple spouses. The “co-wife”
relationship is not one we are familiar with. Some would say these are just obscure
ancient writings, with no connection to our present situation. But this point of view leaves
out the importance of context. So I want to expand the context of the story of Hannah a
little. Then I would like to put this story in the context of another story — a modern story
of a friend of ours named Neema Labani.
The word “Chanah” in Hebrew is where we get the names Hannah and Anna in
English. It means “grace” or “favor”. Hannah’s husband Elkanah must have been rather
rich, because he had two wives. He favored Hannah, but Hannah had no children because
God had “closed her womb.” From this, we can infer several things.
First, Hannah lived under a cloud of shame. Those around her undoubtedly
wondered what she had done to deserve the punishment of “barrenness”. Certainly her
jealous co-wife Peninah took advantage of this disgrace by taunting Hannah, and making
life even more miserable for her.
Second, Hannah’s physical and eternal future was in jeopardy. Sons were the
social security system of the ancient world — and much of the modern world as well. If
Elkanah had died suddenly, his sons through Peninah would have inherited everything,
leaving Hannah dependent upon their goodwill (or lack thereof). She knew that without a
son, she could end up on the street with no protector and no source of support.
This would be true not only for her earthly life and old-age, but also for her
afterlife. For the ancient Israelites, the concept of a spiritual afterlife was nebulous,
perhaps even non-existent. Thus, like many modern cultures, they considered “life-afterdeath”
as unfolding in the lives of their male descendants. Elkanah’s and Peninah’s
immediate future and life for eternity was assured through Peninah’s sons. But Hannah’s
When Hannah decides to make her petition before God in the temple, she is even
further humiliated when the priest compounds her grief by assuming the worst, “How
long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!” But once she explains
herself, Eli listens and tells her to go in peace, sending her away with a blessing.
Thus Hannah’s suffering is even more complicated, more profound than the
surface of the story suggests. She is enmeshed in an unjust system that seems to be
working against her desire for security, continuity, and a hopeful life. From God, to her
taunting co-wife, to her naïve husband and finally the accusing priest, Hannah seems to
have little control. Her only recourse within this system, is to return to the God who had
“closed her womb” in the first place. Do we hear echoes of Job in Hannah’s story?
This story has a happy ending, as recorded in Hannah’s response in the canticle
read today. God understands Hannah’s sorrow, and listens to her faithful prayer. God
does answer prayer. There is hope for the hopeless.
When I read this story, I was reminded of another story — a modern story of a
friend of ours named Neema.
When we first met Neema, she was selling handmade beadwork by the side of the
road in Iringa, a small town in central Tanzania. She was a member of an ethno-linguistic
minority within Tanzanian society. She spoke zero English and had learned Swahili, the
national language, as a second language. The word “neema” means “favor” or “grace” in
As we got to know Neema, her sister Joysi, and three of her daughters, Sayuni,
Dorisi, and Naimini, we learned that Neema was the 10th, and last, wife of a much older
and very rich man. Neema had given birth to five children, four daughters and a son. The
first daughter was afflicted with epileptic seizures, and needed constant care. She was
living with relatives in a different part of the country. The second child, her only son, had
died in childhood. Neema was left with her three younger daughters. Sayuni was about
14, Dorisi about 8, and Naimini about 6 when we met them.
When Neema’s husband died, according to her traditional culture all of the
husband’s wealth was divided among his sons — the sons of Neema’s older co-wives.
Neema then came under the authority and “protection” of these men, some of whom were
older than she was. Like Hannah would have been if Elkanah had died suddenly, Neema
and her daughters were dependent on the goodwill of her co-wives’ sons. Unfortunately,
as the story was told from Neema’s perspective, the male family elders did not have the
best interests of Neema and her daughters at heart. They were only interested in the
potential bride price to be earned from marrying off Neema’s young daughters.
But Neema had different plans for her daughters — she wanted them to be
educated. She had a different vision than the one prescribed by her traditional culture.
She saw education, rather than an arranged, and probably polygynous, marriage, as the
key to a hopeful, reasonably secure life for her daughters. So she fled with her daughters
to Iringa, where her sister Joysi was eking out a living making and selling traditional
beadwork. There she lived a practically starvation existence, maintaining her personal
dignity, while trying to save up money to send her daughter Sayuni to high school.
Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending. At least not yet. Probably
because of her life of deprivation, including possibly malnutrition and malaria, Neema
became very ill with kidney, liver and/or heart failure (she never received a proper
diagnosis). While her daughter Sayuni was in her second year of high school, Neema died
of her illnesses. Since then we have heard that her two youngest daughters went to live in
an orphanage, but we do not know what happened to Sayuni or her eldest daughter.
Thank God that there are orphanages in Tanzania operated by organizations, including
the Anglican Church, that are motivated by the Biblical principle of caring for widows,
orphans and the homeless. This story is still being told, and may yet have a happy ending.
Neema’s story is Hannah’s story, with a few variations, transported a couple
thousand years and miles from ancient Israel to 21st century East Africa. I am sure that
Neema, in her context, could identify with Hannah in a way that would be very difficult
for most of us. But Neema’s story is also the story of millions of women who find
themselves in similar circumstances right now, today, around the world. In fact, it is a
story of everyone who faces seemingly impossible situations — situations in which we are
at the mercy of someone else, where forces beyond our control seem to determine our
destinies. This story is not new, neither is it ancient and therefore irrelevant. It is a
timeless story that reminds us that we are not the first nor the only people who have
experienced desperate situations. In other words, the stories of Hannah and Neema help
us to put the stories of our own lives into context.
I would like to suggest that in order to fully appreciate our own stories we need to
consider our contexts — where we came from, where we are, and where we are headed.
The scriptures help to provide that context — the ongoing saga of humanity, the Great
Story that God is telling in which we all play a part. Though we may find individual
passages perplexing, enigmatic or even offensive to modern ways of thinking, in
honoring the whole scripture, we acknowledge that we are not necessarily the wisest,
most sophisticated, advanced or intelligent people who have ever lived. We are not the
pinnacle of civilization! We have something to learn from every scripture that is read, as
long as we remain teachable. In our gospel passage today, the disciples reveal their own
ego-centric attitudes by proudly exclaiming over the large stones and the large buildings
of their temple. They thought that their civilization was the pinnacle of human
achievement. But Jesus is not impressed. He replies by prophesying the imminent and
total destruction of the temple. The temple, and its destruction, is but one small piece of
the Great Story that is still being told. I’m sure that Jesus is not overly impressed with the
great achievements of our own 21st century society either. It will pass away, just like
dozens of other civilizations and empires of the past. Our responsibility is to do justice,
love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), in whatever context we
find ourselves. Part of walking humbly with our God is to remain teachable, and open to
what the Lord may be saying to us through stories such as those of Hannah and Neema.