by Christine Wenderoth
Director, JKM Library, Associate Professor of Ministry
You may not know this about librarians, but those of us who work in academic settings like seminaries, labor under something of an inferiority complex. We're academicians, but not vaunted faculty. We've got advanced training in things too esoteric to mention, but most of us don't posses the Piled Higher & Deeper. We've been here forever, but not one of us has or ever will have tenure.
No one from the local newspaper has asked any of us for an op ed piece, or to speak on a controversial denominational event, and even though some of us are ordained, we're not asked to preach at an important gathering of prospective donors. No, we're folks who just feel overworked and under appreciated.
It may also surprise you to hear that librarians are not the only folks around here who feel overworked and under appreciated. Perhaps you know someone personally who feels that way. I have it on the best of authority that administrative assistants, cafeteria workers, musicians, even students can feel this way from time to time. Anybody else? Well, of course, and the point is that Jesus speaks to and about all the overworked and under appreciated. For example, these words:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
'Have you understood all this?' They answered, 'Yes.' (Matthew 13:47-51)
This utterance comes at the conclusion of a long discourse in which Jesus uses a series of homey images…a sower, wheat and tares, mustard seeds, yeast, pearls, fish. Jesus uses all these "the kingdom of God is like's" to get the crowd, and the disciples to understand their role, their mission in this plan for the world which Jesus has come to bring. Verses 51-53 simply gather up these parables so the larger story can continue. So Jesus asks, "Have y'all understood all these stories I been telling you?" to which the disciples mumble assent. Now they may have said "Yes! We got it! Let's get started!" or they may have said in the manner of a teenager, "yes" (eyes rolling, close the door as you leave). Or they may have said "uhn-huhn" meaning "not really". But Jesus graciously takes them at their word—yes, they understand—and continues: "Therefore, every scribe who's been trained for the kingdom is like the master of a household, who brings out of his treasure old stuff as well as new." What? Can anyone say, Non sequitur?
Who are scribes? Scribes were the learned ones, the scholars of the day that's clear. It's not real clear if they were esteemed full professors or minions of menial tasks. Internal textual clues don't clarify this, for while this seems a rather positive statement here, we know from earlier bits in Matthew that the phrase "scribes and Pharisees" is pretty much an epithet. So high toned scholar or lacky who runs the photocopier—we don't know.
However, this ain't just any ole scribe that's invoked, but a scribe trained for the kingdom. "Trained for the Kingdom." Matthew has a particular agenda in mind. His community had moved away from the synagogue and was opening itself to mission to the gentiles. The "kingdom" for Matthew was universal, at work now, if hidden. Therefore our modest and ambiguous scribbler apparently has work to do that concerns everyone and that carries some urgency to it. Our scribbler, it would seem, has ministry to do!
We might imagine a monk no? hunched over an illuminated manuscript in dank and dark quarters, scratching away for the greater glory. Or we might envision an administrator, burning the midnight halogen, balancing the books, raising great sums, planning schedules, recruiting students. Or we might see in our mind's eye a seminarian, clicking the computer keys, studying the Word in order to pass and pass it along. But wait! Our scribe is likened unto a master of a household—a person of hospitality and consequence, the one with full authority over the homestead, the host who welcomes travelers and delights in displaying the stuff in his cupboards for his guests. Vintage china, 60's LPs, leather bound miniature books, porcelain swans, coffee mugs from tourist traps, old cars, photograph albums, Japanese fans, iguanas. I've been shown all these things by hosts. What united these treasures old and new was that they showed me what was remembered and valued by the host.
I doubt that scribes trained for the kingdom will schlep out old coffee cups, much less an iguana. What would they share? Old and new what? Well, scribes deal in words, of course, so old and new words. Words scratched on rocks. Words written on papyrus. Words embedded on discs or floating in cyberspace. Words that scream out Isaiah's pain or approve of Ruth's maneuvering, or reinterpret Isaiah and Ruth in the light of one who came after them. Words which bend back on each other and convey by constant cross-referencing. Words which shed light on their Author and which, with study, bring understanding. These words, I think, are Matthew's implied agenda. He begs for the stewardship of them, for the cataloging and indexing and preserving and circulating of them. He begs for the sharing, for the teaching and preaching and study of them. He begs for the engagement of these words with the world. For Matthew's God is doing new things with the old and old things with the new. Nothing is useless. The old story is to be rehearsed; the new story is to be announced.
And who, who is to bring out of this storehouse the words for all guests and mendicants who would view them? Why, gentle friends, here's where our friend Hildegard comes in.
Hildegard. Man o man, she was a scribe, a hyperactive scribbler. She is one of those people who makes you tired just listening to her accomplishments: mystic, poet, prophet, preacher, playwright, scientist, historian, composer, artist, advisor to kings and popes, and finally, administrator (i.e., Benedictine abbess). She wrote pioneering books of medicine and natural history. She wrote hagiography, the first known morality play, over 50 published homilies, volumes of correspondence to four popes, several monarchs (including Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine), and Bernard of Clairvaux; she wrote hundreds of lovely liturgical musical compositions (music and words), and she drew her many visions. In her spare time, for fun she created her own language. And if this weren't annoying enough, Hildegard was sick most of her life, suffering from what we now know to be migraines as well as various stomach ailments.
So how does such an overachiever like Hildegard help us overworked and underappreciated types? Well remember, the twelfth century was not known for giving women theological, ecclesial, political, scientific and artistic authority. Nor were composers given name recognition (you either knew who wrote that hymn you just sang, or didn't care). Nor were plays, pictures, letters, songs, and class lectures given much status. This was not high theology. Hildegard, as amazing as she was, as famous as she was, regarded herself as a sister, a messenger, a teacher—a scribe.
These days she might have said she did nothing more than "channel" her visions and tunes and words. Her celebrity came after her 40th birthday thanks to the support of one impressed reader (OK, he was a pope); her travels as a preacher and teacher began after her 60th year. Celebrity was not her self-understanding, but scribe. Scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven.
She was, in other words, one of us, one of the humble scribblers, one of the dishwashers, secretaries, computer geeks, accountants, electricians, the greeters and administrators, marketers and groundskeepers, students and teachers that we are—we who through the words we keep and words we share perform ministry. We, whom Jesus names as ministers of the inner circle. There may or may not be full professors in Jesus' crowd. It is not said. But there are scribes, curators of old and new words, which confirm the promise and demonstrate the nature of God's reign in all places and time.
Thus, we can take heart. For not only are we given guidance (the books stay alongside the terminals, for example), we are described. No matter what our role here, we are described as person with a ministry of care and transformation. We are described as a modest person with a ministry of great consequence. Blessed are we, o servants of the Word!