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Proper 25, Year B

Psalm 13 - link to BCP text
Mark 10:46-52 - link to NRSV text

People often ask me how they should pray. I'm happy to answer, but I think the way the question is most often put shows some assumptions about prayer that are worth considering before buying into them. I particularly have in mind the "should" part of the question, which seems to me to imply that there are right and wrong ways to pray, a kind of prayer etiquette that's important to follow.

That's not something I see in scripture, though. This Sunday's gospel is an excellent case in point. Jesus and his followers are traveling when they encounter Bartimaeus, who shouts, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" It's not a demure, "if you're not too busy" request. There's no "if you want to do this," or "if you think it's best."

Bartimaeus shouts out a demand -- "have mercy on me!" -- that presumes a relationship between the two of them: Jesus as "Son of David" and therefore king of Israel is obligated to Bartimaeus, an Israelite and therefore his subject. Jesus heals him. He doesn't heal him because Bartimaeus has used the "right" title for Jesus. In Mark, Jesus' preferred title isn't "Son of David," but "the Son of Man." In calling Jesus "Son of David" and therefore king of Israel, Bartimaeus is treading in effect into territory that brought a stern "shut up" (the "charge" there is not the wording of a warm "you're right and I'm glad you said so, but please be discreet") from Jesus just two chapters before, when Peter called Jesus God's anointed (Mark 8:29-30).

In other words, far from being healed as reward for saying the right thing in the right way, Bartimaeus is healed despite his addressing Jesus loudly, repeatedly, and presumptuously before a great crowd in a way Jesus would rather not be addressed in public, if at all.

And Jesus not only answers him, but also heals him. Jesus is not one to hang back waiting for us to get it "right" before responding with compassion. And in any case, who said that the "right" way to ask for what we need would be demurely? There are other ways to read the parable Jesus tells of a persistent widow who gets justice from an unjust judge who "fears neither God nor humankind," but Luke clearly reads it as a model of how we should pray, with the widow's relentless tenacity as a model rather than a cautionary tale (Luke 18:1-8).

But really, should we be surprised by this, if we've read the ancient books that Jesus and St. Paul called the scriptures? The Hebrew bible is full of godly people arguing with God. When God tells Abraham that God is judging Sodom, Abraham bargains with God like a haggler at a flea market or boot sale. When God calls Moses, Moses whines and explains just why God is mistaken. When God calls Jeremiah, Jeremiah protests that he's WAY too young.

And have you read the Psalms lately? I've been spending some quality time with them of late, in part because I think that too many of us have taken in a rather silly idea that God is a very, very delicate being who can only stand us when we're feeling Holy and Meek in a cheerful if rather passive way, and I'm writing music to express some other things we often feel and are invited to bring to God. Psalm 10 is a good one for grief and anger. I just wrote a musical setting for it, though it doesn't appear in our Eucharistic lectionary. What would it feel like to pray that on a Sunday? How will it feel this Sunday to pray Psalm 13, which clearly (especially clearly for those who've read books like this one on cultures of the ancient Near East) is trying to SHAME God into acting ("everyone's calling you chicken, God!")? Can we really enter into that space of being angry with God as we all stand their in our Sunday best?

However we dress, though, when we do it, I think it's wise to practice coming to God with our anger, our grief, and our frustration. God doesn't care whether we're "justified" in having those feelings when we do -- as if feelings were something that needed "justifying." God gave us those feelings -- not to control, but to experience -- and we don't have to experience them alone. There is no more appropriate place to bring our anger and our grief -- not only our questions, but our frustrations when our questions aren't answered, or are unanswerable -- than to God; and when we gather as Christian community, we gather together not just as people who rejoice in our experience of God's blessings, but to bring before God the wounds of the world, including our wounds.

As I've preached about before, most of us will one day experience a grief that seems to turn the whole world upside-down, and when (not if) that happens amongst our families, our circle of friends, our communities, and our communities of faith, as people of faith we bring those to God. When we are angry, we rail at God. When we are sad, we weep before God. When we can't hear God or feel God's presence, there is nothing, in my experience, more potentially healing to do than to bring who we really are and what we are really experiencing in that moment to God.

That will sometimes mean railing at God for being absent -- and sometimes, that will be the most powerful way we could experience God's presence. The past is memory, an imagining of what was but isn't. The future is not here; it's our imagining what may be. The present is here, and when we need to experience God's presence, we do it in the present, with our present hopes and fears, our present longings and frustrations, our present feelings and thoughts. Whether we judge them to be acceptable or not, we can have confidence that God is not threatened by them as we are, and can accept them even when we can't. However we come, with whatever words and whatever wounds, in blindness and recognition, in peace or in anger, and whatever else God wants of us, God wants us to COME.

Thanks be to God!

October 24, 2006 in Mark, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Prayer, Psalms, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3)

Proper 24, Year B

Hebrews 4:12-16 - link to NRSV text
Mark 10:35-45 - link to NRSV text

This isn't a great month for taboos, is it? Last week, we talked about money, which is hard enough for a lot of us to discuss without flinching. This week, we're going to talk about something that's even harder for many of us to talk about.

We're going to talk about power.

That's a scary thing to talk about for a lot of people. Some of us find it scary because they think of power as something only bad people would want. If we want power (and who doesn't?), we feel guilty even thinking about it, so we prefer not to think about it. Can we talk about something less difficult, please? Not as long as we're entering into God's word, living and active, able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

But power is what allows someone to see her or his values enacted in the world. Without power, my values are just ideas, daydreams I can shake off or indulge just to pass the time as other people -- the ones with power -- have their way with the world. If I care about the world -- if I want to see an end to extreme poverty or I want broader opportunities for children to get a decent education and good health care, for example -- that means I want power as well.

That might sound harsh in a context of sentimentalized and introspective Christianity, and that's OK with me; I want to challenge that kind of Christianity. We've made Christianity all about feelings -- warm, fuzzy feelings of "love" for others, emotional rushes of feeling "close to God" in worship, guilty feelings that do nothing to repair relationships torn by our behavior. And what God really wants from us, we too often think, is generous FEELINGS. "It's what's in your heart that counts," people say, and when it comes to something like poverty, many would say something that I heard at a Christian conference not long ago and blogged about here, namely, "It doesn't really matter what you do. Just round up the kids on a Saturday morning, make sandwiches, and go out to hand them to homeless people in your town. Results don't matter, as long as you do it with a heart to serve."

Here's the problem that leaps out at me from that statement, though: Results DO matter -- particularly to the person in need. If what I need is medical treatment for an infection and what you give me is a peanut butter sandwich, you haven't helped me at all. What you've done is use me to get your own charge of self-satisfaction ("Gosh, I'm generous!") before you go back to your nice, warm house and comfortable life. Here's what I said about that in February:

... I remain suspicious of our intentions as long as our supposedly generous intentions perpetuate a world order that lines our pockets, increases our privilege, and kills other people's children. We can give sandwiches to the homeless or send grain to another nation, and that's something. But it seems to me that we guard most jealously something that we value more:

We hand out sandwiches, but we maintain a death grip on power. And I mean that “death grip” phrase: this puts us in a position of very serious spiritual danger. We hand out sandwiches while retaining the power to decide whose child eats and whose child dies. We get a twofold payoff from that: we feel generous, and since we're still in power, we can get off on our generosity whenever we want. We give and we take away, and either way, we get a fix of power over others, a power to which we are addicted and which rightly belongs only to God. That's idolatry of the worst sort as well as murder.

This Sunday, when together we read that "even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45), let's not indulge that same sentimentality and speak of Jesus' ministry among us as some kind of emotional posture of false humility, by which I mean drumming up supposedly "humble" emotions and then behaving in the same way we've been behaving for years, behavior that screams things like this:

  • "This is MY planet, and I can use it up in any way I like."
  • "I work hard for what I've got; I deserve it." (Honestly, can I really say with a straight face that I work harder and am therefore more deserving than all of the people who don't have what I've got? Go to the Global Rich List to see just how many people you'd have to be better than to make that claim.)

What does real humility look like? I doubt anyone will be surprised to hear me say that it looks like Jesus. Let's take this Sunday's gospel as a case study in what real humility, Jesus' humility, is.

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

My pals Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out something implicit that's worth drawing out in this "ransom for many" phrase as we reflect on humility. One person can only serve as a ransom for multiple others if that person is worth a LOT materially and socially; otherwise, the captors wouldn't accept the trade. A lot of folks see Jesus' reference to "the Son of Man" here as both a self-reference and a reference to Daniel 7, in which "one like a son of man" is appointed by God as judge of the nations. If that's so, Jesus is in this verse making the astonishingly bolshy claim that he is God's appointed judge.

But even a reader who doesn't see a reference to Daniel 7 in the "Son of Man" phrase has to recognize the bolshiness of Jesus suggesting that his own life is a suitable "ransom for many." When I re-read Mark 10 this week, the phrase that popped into my mind was "a king's ransom." That's essentially what Jesus is saying the gift of his life is. And that brings me to point #1 about what true humility -- Jesus' humility, the kind that can transform and is transforming the world -- is:

True humility isn't about pretending you're worth less than you are; true humility requires recognizing who and how valuable you are. If Jesus had responded to his sense of vocation the way a lot of us think of as "humble," he would have heard God's call, shrugged, and hung around the back of his synagogue every now and then to see whether there was a rabbi who would take as a student someone who was the wrong age to be asking and whose background was "colorful" at best; he wouldn't have felt authorized or empowered to abandon conventional obligations (e.g., his mother, sisters, and brothers!) to become an itinerant teacher. And if you're thinking, "well, that's Jesus -- his followers shouldn't be thinking that way," it might be worth thinking about what Jesus said last week on that subject. It is not hubris to think that you have a role to play in changing the world! It's a sensible conclusion to draw from our being created in God's image, members of the Body of Christ, empowered by God's Spirit as a member of the Church that saw Pentecost. Of course we are invited to participate in God's mission of healing and reconciling the world; it's what we were born for! Scaling back that expectation serves no one and nothing but the status quo, and especially if the status quo serves you as well as it serves me, that's an incredibly selfish, prideful way to think and be.

And in the service of that end, true humility doesn't shirk power; true humility requires claiming power. You are about something larger than yourself. That's how God made you. Thinking that the world and its needs take second fiddle to your leading tune of "ME!" is, whether it's a "the world will just have to wait for some more worthy soul to speak up against the injustices I see" or a "I'm just too busy advancing my own interests," a form of pride. And if you think the only important thing in the world is what's going on in your "heart" or emotions, that's also a form of pride. Your personal wholeness is important to God, and you'll find it most fully when you're most fully engaged in God's mission. That's where you'll see Jesus in the face of a neighbor or enemy from next door or the next continent, and in my experience, that's where you'll see and know who you are -- in relation to others in communities seeking reconciliation. And if you're truly seeking something larger than yourself, some real change in the world, you're talking about claiming power to see something you value made real, given flesh in the world. "Creativity" is a good word for that, in my opinion, and that kind of creativity is part of what it means to be made in the image of God the Creator. Whenever you're blessed to sense that kind of personal power -- the power of creativity in the image of God's creativity, the power of claiming your identity and vocation as a child of God -- I beg y'all to go with it.

And then the second part, no less important than the first since it can't happen without it: true humility uses that power to empower others. Not claiming your power is a very powerful way to serve the status quo, and that's not God's call to any of us. But those of us who have internalized the powerful and empowering Word of Creation and Incarnation are called also to the word of Christ crucified, resurrected, and ascended with respect to power. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The word for "life" here has a resonance that includes something like our phrase "heart and soul"; to "give your life" isn't necessarily or solely to die, but to pour out your very life's breath, your heart and soul, for something. And the testimony of scripture is not that Jesus poured out his life like a libation of wine into the ground in front of the grave of someone once held dear, just giving something up to someone who can't taste life; scripture testifies that Jesus poured out his life for the life of others: as a "ransom for many," for the life of the world. In other words, it most certainly DOES matter for what God's precious gift of life is poured out. Jesus the Christ, as our image of what authentic humanity made and lived in God's image, pours out self not as a worthless gift easily discarded, but FOR OTHERS, for God's mission of reconciling all others to one another and to God's self. In Creation, in Incarnation, on the Cross and in the Resurrection, and in every Pentecost event from the upper room of Acts 2 to gatherings of Christians empowered for mission tonight, God pours out creative power to enable all of us created in God's image to live into who we are as children of that Creator.

God loves you. God loves you just as you are, and receives any gift you offer as a gift, though all our gift to God return to our Creator what God created. But the fullness of God's call to us as individuals are to live into God's call to humanity, to Creation: to live into God's mission. None of us serves God's mission by false modesty, calling a liar the God who gave us gifts to serve that mission; we serve it rather by praying for the courage to see as fully as we can the powerful agent for God's mission that God calls us to be, and by living into that courage, that vision, that mission, as we can best discern (and God pours out gifts of the Spirit for discernment!) in each moment.

That process comes full circle, as eventually true humility calls us to recognize the worth of every other person. If my power is God's creative power, and if I have it by virtue of my having been created in God's image, recognizing that truth will inevitably lead to my recognizing that image of God, that identity as God's child, that power to change the world in the service of God's mission in every other human being. That's how we can do what some people say is an evolutionary impossibility: we can recognize EVERY child -- not just those who are in some literal (and, in God's kingdom, utterly meaningless) sense "flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone" -- as God's child, precious beyond counting, powerful with the power of God's Holy Spirit, and called to participate as fully as I in God's mission of healing and reconciliation, in the enjoyment of God's good gifts.

This is God's Good News for us and for all God made and loves, this week and in every moment in which we draw the gift of God's breath of life. And for God's sake, I pray we will receive that gift as fully as Jesus received it, and use it as fully and as fully to God's ends.

Thanks be to God!

October 18, 2006 in Discipleship, Hebrews, Leadership, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Power/Empowerment, Reconciliation, The Cross, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3)

Proper 23, Year B

Mark 10:17-27(28-31) - link to NRSV text

Those who have heard me talk about my process when I write a sermon know that I have a few questions that are central as I think about what to say:

  • What is difficult, puzzling, and/or shocking in the passage? What would be challenging about trying to live out the message of the passage?
  • What comes across as Good News in the passage? Why would someone want to take on the challenges of living this way? What invitations are in the passage to experience more fully the life God offers?

This Sunday's gospel can rightly be called a doozy, though. If you include the optional portion of the gospel, it's got at least three points that the vast majority of nice, churchgoing people I know will find literally incredible; they wouldn't believe that Jesus really said this stuff, and if he did, they wouldn't believe that he meant it. In one Sunday's reading, we get:

  • It's harder for a rich person to enter God's kingdom than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
  • Jesus says that God will reward people who LEAVE THEIR FAMILIES, including children and parents they're caring for, for his sake and for the sake of the Good News. It's right there in verses 29 and 30.
  • If you compare the list Jesus gives of things that people will (and should -- God will reward them for it) leave for Jesus' sake and for the Good News with the list of things God with which God will reward them, there's one category of person conspicuously absent: fathers. Fathers seem to be absent from God's kingdom.

Careful readers will see even more points in this Sunday's reading likely to stick in our throats, but those three are more than enough to take on here and now. I'm betting that a lot of sermons this Sunday will fall into the genre of "he didn't really mean it," a point supported by a slew of fictititious technicalities.

For example, I'm sure that many have heard that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem (or, in some versions, Jericho) called "The Eye of the Needle," which was so narrow that a camel couldn't get through it unless the packs it was carrying were removed, at which point it could get through laboriously on its knees. Sermons citing this story usually go on to say that Jesus' point is that rich people can enter God's kingdom as long as they aren't overly attached to their possessions and have a humble and/or prayerful attitude. Depending on how stewardship campaigns are progressing, the preacher might add something to the effect (though hopefully with more tactful phrasing) that if you're concerned about this, upping your pledge couldn't hurt. Preachers who are particularly enthusiastic about the Millennium Development Goals (about which there is much good cause to be genuinely enthusiastic) might add that all it really takes to get that camel ready to get through the gate is giving 0.7% of income to intelligently targeted international aid. The congregation sighs with relief, and we all get on with business as usual, secure in the knowledge that following Jesus doesn't really require that we do anything radical, for heaven's sake.

I'm sorry to say, though, that there is no evidence whatsoever that there was ever any such "Eye of the Needle" gate. It's a kind of ecclesial version of an urban legend -- invented, I would guess, as a metaphor that, as generations repeated the story, turned into a solid "archeologists have discovered" report. But it's fiction. Careful readers could tell as much just from Mark 10 itself. If Jesus had been talking about such a gate, his hearers wouldn't have been astonished and said, "Then who can be saved?!"; they would have said something more like, "what a bummer to have to carry those packs yourself for 50 feet." And Jesus would not have replied that it's impossible for mortals but nothing is impossible for God; he would have said something more like, "gosh you all are dim sometimes -- just take off the camel's packs and you're fine!"

There is no such easy out for us, though. There is no "Eye of the Needle" gate that camels can crawl through. There is no technical point of Greek to tell us that Jesus really didn't mean what he seems to be saying here. Those things belong to the Gospel of Supply-Side Jesus, not to the canonical gospels. As absolutely hilarious as Eddie Izzard's comedy routine in Dress to Kill is about how you really just need a very, very powerful blender and a lot of patience to get the camel through the needle's eye, that clearly is not Jesus' point either.

Nor can most of us say, "oh, but I'm not rich." Try entering your income in the Global Rich List and see where you end up. I'm back to full-time seminary/dissertating now, but the $36,000 salary I earned in my last full-time job would have put me in the top 4% of wage earners worldwide.

As with Jesus' saying in Luke (which I've blogged about before) that "whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26), preachers often invent or conveniently misremember some technical point that would make "hate" mean "love less," "rich" mean "ungenerous," and "follow me" mean "do pretty much what your parents taught you will make you respectable and successful."

But that isn't so.

Please, preachers, take your congregations there for a moment and pause. Work this Sunday to bring your congregation to the place Jesus' disciples were when they said, in effect, "WTF are you saying?" We haven't done our jobs if we don't get there. The job of a sermon, in my opinion, is not to resolve difficulties. The job of a sermon is to inspire deeper discipleship, and discipleship is not easy. Jesus offers us abundant and eternal life -- real joy, real love, real peace. Worldly success and respectability can't give those to us; worldly ordering of our relationships can't give those to us. The opportunity we are being offered this Sunday and every day is to let the shock of Jesus' word jolt us out of those old, unfulfilling, enslaving ways of seeing, living, and relating to others so that we're freed to experience more of what God wants for us, as individuals, as members of the Body of Christ, and as members of our communities, our society, our world. That's profound transformation, and we do a profound disservice to one another when we pretend otherwise. I beg you, preachers, not to imply that this Sunday's gospel does anything other than call on each and every one of us to be transformed, to think and pray long and hard about what we're called to do in this world with respect to wealth and poverty.

I hope that many will also use the optional extended reading from Mark, because I think it helps to clarify what comes before. Wealth isn't just "stuff," shiny metals, stacked bills, and numbers on a page or in a computer. Wealth is a -- perhaps the -- worldly value. It orders our relationships -- with one another, with our neighbors, with people across town and on other continents -- in subtle and powerful ways too numerous to count. And therefore the obscene, unjust patterns along which we distribute wealth in our world are symptoms of our disordered, broken relationships that also exacerbate that disordered, unhealthy brokenness.

Jesus wasn't kidding when he said what he did about wealth any more than he was kidding when he said what he did about relationships. God's kingdom, God's rule, God's way of using power are entirely incompatible with our way of using power to maintain our wealth and shut the rest of the world out of it. "Charity" -- the practice of doling out money from our considerable wealth to those who are poor in a way that in no way changes the recipient's lack of access to wealth and power -- is a seductive trap that consolidates our power, adding to it even the power of doling out life and death around our choices of how much to give and to whom, and yet lets us feel particularly generous and self-righteous in the process. Jesus is not calling us to make some minor tweaks in our relationship to wealth. He's calling us to something far more radical and far more transforming; he's calling us to reconciliation, with one another and with God.

That's no small thing. It's huge. Nothing will be the same, and yet that's what we need to be more fully ourselves, more fully human in God's image, more fully alive in the eternal life God offers. That's why Jesus talks about it as he does in the full passage allotted for this Sunday, putting nothing in parentheses for "optional discipleship." Jesus is not just talking about a few minor tweaks to financial planning; he's talking about a new world. And yes, that means new ways of relating to one another. Jesus' words about what the world means when it says "family" were at least as shocking in his own culture as they are in ours. As I've blogged about before, he was born in the reign of Caesar Augustus, the original "family values" politician, who wanted to rebuild the empire from civil war by exalting the family as the basic unit of the empire and the best guarantee of good social order. He grew up hearing that God commanded every Israelite to honor father and mother and to "be fruitful and multiply." He must have known just how appalling, how immoral, it would sound to say that anything that could inspire someone to leave parents and children alike might be God's Good News.

And yet there it is. He said it. He meant it. There's no hermeneutical trick that will get us with any integrity from what Jesus taught and how Jesus lived and died to "God wants you to be respectable, but MORE so." Following Jesus leads to radical change -- in us, in our families, in our communities, in our world. Jesus' words in this Sunday's gospel would be grossly unfair if they didn't invite every parent and every child to follow him too. In any case, that kind of radical change is particularly hard on people who, like fathers in a patriarchal society, find that the world as it is is working well for them. "Fathers" don't appear in Jesus' list of relationships in God's reign because there are patriarchal "top dogs" in God's kingdom; God's reign means of necessity that nobody else is reigning. Those who happen to be fathers are called to follow Jesus, but their relationships, like all of ours, will be transformed in the process.

That sounds like a lot to take on, and it is. But the Good News is that, as Jesus said, nothing is impossible with God. It might take some deep shocks to jolt us out of our old perspectives. If we find ourselves sometimes looking at the magnitude of transformation to which Jesus' Way calls us and our world and saying, "How is this possible? Who on earth can be saved?" that's probably a good sign. It can mean that we're ready to make some different choices with potentially radical consequences, to throw ourselves -- all we have and all we are -- on God's mercy. And the Good News is that God's mercy is beyond human reckoning, deeper and taller and broader than even the brokenness of the world that God is healing and reconciling.

Thanks be to God!

October 13, 2006 in Discipleship, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Kinship/Family, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Reconciliation, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3)

Proper 22, Year B

Genesis 2:18-24 - link to NRSV text
Mark 10:2-9 - link NRSV text

I want to say this up front about this Sunday's gospel:

A lot of conservatives point to this as containing the heart of what Jesus had to say about God's creative intent for human sexuality. I agree with them completely on that point -- but Jesus' word to us, I believe, challenges idolatry of American "traditional family values" as much as it undermines our culture's worship of every romantic impulse. In other words, this Sunday a lot of us are going to find ourselves pushed to think beyond cultural myths of marriage to ask ourselves what God really wants for us in relationship with one another.

It's a question posed in this Sunday's gospel, some Pharisees come to Jesus as a fellow teacher to ask his opinion on a subject that was in many ways just as "hot" of a topic in first-century Jewish communities as it is in many twenty-first century cultures -- namely marriage.

They ask Jesus a question that a lot of teachers were asked: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? They didn't see need to ask whether a woman could divorce her husband -- there weren't all that many women who would want to do such a thing. In the first-century Mediterranean world, a woman's honor is embedded in that of her father until she's married, and her husband when she is married. A woman who for whatever reason needed to leave her husband had better hope that her father would take her back. Otherwise, without a male attachment, she would be perceived as a "loose woman" on more than one dimension. Most women in such a situation had few options for making a living, and as "damaged goods," little prospect of remarriage. If their fathers would not take them back, many would have no option to survive aside from prostitution. Still, a lot of debate about marriage and divorce didn't treat it so much as a question about what would happen to the women as a question of contract law related to the agreement between the fathers who arranged the marriage.

Many teachers saw the question in more explicitly theological terms, though, insisting that the central question to ask is what it means to be the people of the God of Israel. Among other things, that meant thinking of he survival of Israel, of ensuring that there would be future generations to honor God. With Jewish people being a tiny minority in the Roman Empire, under threat as a distinct people not only by oppression from without, but also, in the eyes of many, by slow attrition, as Greek culture continued to deepen its influence. Especially under such circumstances, it's not hard to understand how many rabbis would respond to a question about God's purpose for human sexuality by pointing to Genesis 1, and in particular to God's command -- it wasn't just an idle suggestion! -- to "be fruitful and multiply."

Men wanted heirs to pass along the family name and honor, and that certainly played a role in thinking about marriage and divorce, but it was also an issue of God's imperative. God commanded us to "be fruitful and multiply." If a marriage wasn't going to be "fruitful" with children, that was more than rotten luck; it was taken by some as a sign that the relationship wasn't blessed by God. And (how unusual!) it was often assumed that the fault for a "barren" marriage was with the woman.

For all of these reasons, the most common reason for men wanting a divorce in the ancient world was that the marriage wasn't "fruitful" -- wasn't producing children, and to all indications, wasn't going to later either. And if, as many thought, God's purpose for marriage was to "be fruitful and multiply," building up future generations who would carry on not only the family name, but the name of the God of Israel, why should anyone stay in a "fruitless" marriage? Why not divorce?

All that's to say that few would be surprised to hear that when Jesus was asked about divorce, he quoted from the book of Genesis to ask what is God's purpose of marriage and what kinds of behavior best uphold that.

But then Jesus quoted from the wrong chapter.

Jesus starts with an affirmation from Genesis 1: that all people, women and men, are made in God's image. That deep truth of who we are as God's children must be upheld in whatever else we say about human relationships. But when Jesus wants to say more about God's intention for marriage, he doesn't go to Genesis 1; he goes to Genesis 2. As Orthodox rabbi Steven Greenberg points out, Genesis 1 is a story in which humans aren't at all distinct from animals in terms of what God says to them about sexuality; humans and animals are told to "be fruitful and multiply" in precisely the same terms. It's in Genesis 2 that God's creative intent for <i>human</i> sexuality as something potentially distinct from animals' is hinted at. As Greenberg argues, we see it in the first mention of Genesis, after God's repeatedly looking at Creation and proclaiming its goodness, that something is "not good":

"It is not good that the human should be alone" (Genesis 2:18).

God creates us for community. To become more fully who we are, who God made us to be, we need to walk alongside another who will be with us for the long haul, who sees us at our best and our worst and will tell us the truth about both, who knows us deeply and loves us unconditionally. Theologians (who always love coming up with impressive-sounding words) like to call this dimension of marriage the "unitive dimension." I prefer over that technical phrase the description from the rock band U2: "We're one/but we're not the same/we get to carry each other" ("One"). But perhaps the best description -- certainly one of the oldest, and also the one to which Jesus pointed -- is the one of Genesis 2: the two become one flesh, and are naked, and not ashamed. With people made in God's image and created for self-giving love, that's an amazing experience of God's glory, God's creativity, and God's goodness.

So in Jesus' eyes, what we say about marriage must be guided by two points. First, it's got to recognize that God created humankind, both male and female, in God's image (and if I may digress, I have to underscore that the point here is that all humankind is made in God's image, rather than that a man without a woman or a woman without a man does NOT reflect God's image; the phrasing makes that clear enough, but the sheer ridiculousness of suggesting, for example, that single people -- such as Jesus of Nazareth, or St. Paul, for example! -- don't reflect God's image as well as any given heterosexual couple makes the suggestion unfathomable beyond its apparent usefulness for grinding contemporary theopolitical axes). Second, it's got to uphold that "unitive" dimension of relationship -- the "it is not good for a human to be alone" of Genesis 2.

As to the third point that people often bring up when discussing God's intention for marriage -- namely the command to "be fruitful and multiply" -- I have to say not just that Jesus was completely silent with respect to it, but that he seems to have rejected it.

His teaching regarding remarriage after divorce makes that clear. The most common reason a man in Jesus' culture would have wanted a divorce was if the marriage wasn't going to do what many men and women thought all marriages were for -- namely to produce children who could serve as heirs. Jesus' word on marriage pulls the rug out from under that. Jesus says, in effect, that a man who leaves his wife in hope of finding another marriage "fruitful" with children shouldn't have children at all. Women and men, Jesus teaches, aren't for use as baby factories or tickets to respectability, and a relationship isn't to be taken up or put aside with those things in mind.

Put positively, Jesus is saying that a marriage, like any other relationship, shouldn't be evaluated based on its perceived "fruitfulness" in terms of children, but based what St. Paul would call its fruitfulness in the Spirit. A relationship between two people that helps both live more fully in the world their identity and vocation as human beings made in God's image is blessed by God. Other considerations are peripheral.

In the first-century Mediterranean world, this word from Jesus was a profoundly liberating word. It may be that some of what Jesus had to say about divorce is less directly applicable to our culture, in which many women can and do make a living -- and one in accordance with their vocation as a daughter of God -- without having to rely on a father's whim or a husband's name, a woman's chances for remarriage are often not lower than a man's, and childlessness is far from the top reason for divorce. Conservatives are right, I think, in underscoring most the points that Jesus took from the beginning, from Genesis.

These points still constitute a profoundly challenging word to us, to be sure. Upholding marriage as the journey of two who have become "one flesh" challenges our culture's idolatry of romance, in which any powerful current of emotion or sexual attraction is interpreted as an entitlement to take up or set aside another human being like a toy or a prop. Understanding that we were created from the beginning for community, for deep communion, means that Christian communities must help to meet that need, recognizing that "it is not good for a human being to be alone" and committing to journey with one another intentionally, not leaving fulfillment of that basic and universal human need to romantic accident. Recognizing that all humankind -- all women and men -- are made in God's image and blessed by their Creator challenges us to overcome our culture's insistence that pairing up and parenthood are a universal call or at the very least a necessary component of "success" as a human being; it calls us to affirm the vocations and wholeness of those who are called, in Jesus' shocking terms, "eunuchs for God's kingdom" -- wholly available to a vocation as a "single" person in terms of marriage and children, but not at all alone when Christian community is "fruitful" in the Spirit. Those challenges can be daunting, but taking them up has the potential to set us free for authentic right relationship with one another -- each loved uniquely as God's child, each challenged and supported to grow in community.

Thanks be to God!

October 5, 2006 in Genesis, Kinship/Family, Mark, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Women, Year B | Permalink | Comments (10)