Jesus, divorce, and our moment in time

File:Studio per Vulcano e Venere.jpgSaturday

Mark 10:1-16

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

We are in a unique moment in the United States, confronted as we are by profound and troubling divide over sexual assault, the treatment of women, the allegations about Brett Kavanaugh and his elevation to the Supreme Court. The words of Jesus on divorce echo profoundly in our time, not as legal precept, but as commentary on our divisions. What follows is a posting from 2015.

Cuckold. It is a verb that describes what one man has done to another by being intimate with his wife. Committing adultery in the Biblical world was about cuckolding. It was something a man did to another man. Sex outside of marriage wasn’t the issue. Adultery was shaming a man by taking what was his – or shaming the woman’s father and brothers.

We tend to think about adultery as a matter of personal morality, a measuring of ourselves against a personal standard of conduct, not altogether so different from measuring our Body Mass Index or how fast we can run the mile. In the Biblical world, adultery is a betrayal of your neighbor and a rupture of the human community.

This was also the problem with divorce. Marriage was arranged by the parents. It involved an alliance of two families (or a bond within an extended family, since the ideal marriage was with a cousin or second cousin). For the groom’s family to dismiss the woman and send her home told the whole village there was some defect in her. It brought shame to her father and brothers. It led to feuding. It tore the fabric of the community.

So adultery and divorce are part and parcel of the same problem – human communities at war. Betrayal. Dishonor. Revenge. Feuding. It is a world awry. It is a world sundered from God and one another. The world where Cain kills Abel and we assassinate with everything from words to barrel bombs. It is the world where Jesus will be crucified.

Divorce isn’t really authorized in the Old Testament law; it is merely acknowledged. What is in the law are some restrictions to limit the destructiveness of divorce.

But, of course, that is the essential nature of the law. It seeks to limit our destructiveness. The concern is always our neighbor. The commandment not to steal, kill – or commit adultery – is not about my personal moral integrity; it is about protecting my neighbor. So the scripture limits revenge, limits greed, limits our treatment of the natural world, limits our wars and slavery and all the other realities of a broken world.

But God intends more for us than just that we be a little less cruel, a little less violent. God wants the law to be written on our hearts. God wants our lives to be governed by God’s own Spirit. God wants us to be new creatures in a renewed creation.

So, when asked about divorce, Jesus talks about the beginnings, about God’s intention, about Eden, about all that marriage could and should and will yet be when the stone is rolled away and the Spirit given and the new world begun.

We need to do more than limit the harm we do. We need to be born anew. We need to journey with Christ through the death of our old self into the resurrection of the new. The argument here isn’t whether divorce is “right” or “wrong”, but whether I am right or wrong. And the unspoken but precious promise here, as Jesus and his followers head towards Jerusalem, is that Christ will set me and us and all things right.

It seems to me that the words of Jesus should put the Christian community on the side of reconciliation and the healing of the human community rather than the pursuit of political triumph.  They also put us on the side of hope.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Studio_per_Vulcano_e_Venere.jpg Tintoretto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Leave your gift

File:Second Temple view1.jpg

Thursday

Matthew 5:21-37

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

When we hear the word gift and altar we cannot help but think of the offering plate and a church altar. It’s hard to imagine a religious institution teaching that you should not make an offering if you are at odds with someone. Every organization dependent upon donations is normally trying to remove any obstacles to giving, not adding one. But then, the mission of the church is not to encourage offerings; it is to make disciples of Jesus.

In the traditional liturgy of the church, just such a moment happens before for the offerings are gathered. The presiding minister declares “The peace of the Lord be with you” and, following the congregation’s response, “and also with you,” bids the community to share the peace with one another. God has made peace with us in Christ Jesus – now, before you give an offering, before you come to the table, we are summoned to make peace with one another.

I wonder how the community would react if we spoke more bluntly: “Don’t come to the dinner table divided from one another.” “You can’t be reconciled to God if you won’t be reconciled to one another.” “God doesn’t want your money if you’re not going to walk the walk.”

Jesus and his hearers, of course, are not imagining people in pews with ushers passing offering plates. They are imagining the massive temple platform surrounded by its grand colonnades. They are imagining the inner courtyards: for Gentiles (beyond which no gentile could go); for women (beyond which no woman could go); and for men (beyond which only priests could go). In the walled and colonnaded courtyard that is open only to ritually pure Jewish men there is a gate that leads further in to the temple courtyard with its great altar and the smoke of the rising offerings. Beyond that altar stands the temple proper, covered in gold, its giant pillars guarding huge closed doors. What could be seen only over the top of the enclosing walls is now revealed in full glory. To that gate a man brings his calf or lamb (or doves, if he is poor) where it is slaughtered and the priest takes it to the altar for the gift to be burned in part or in whole.

By the time you had completed the rituals, passed through the courts, and stood in line with your animal – to be told to leave the creature there and run out in order to be reconciled with some adversary… now we can hear the startling point Jesus is making.

God is in the world to reconcile. God is in the world to heal the human community. God is working to restore the torn fabric of life. It is not just murder that rends the human community, but every word of insult and anger. It is not just the act of adultery that tears at society, but the passions willing to violate the integrity of another family. We ought not think, says Jesus, that our moral behavior and religious acts mean anything if they are not joined to the reconciling work of God.

Tough words. Important words. Life-giving words.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASecond_Temple_view1.jpg By Ariely (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

The angels are dancing

File:Angels dancing sun Giovanni di Paolo Condé Chantilly.jpg

Wednesday

Exodus 32:7-14

7The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…”

Much about this story is delightful. The people have acclaimed the golden calf as the divine power that brought them out of Egypt – and God responds by saying these are Moses’ people whom he brought out of Egypt. It’s a little like one parent saying to the other “Do you know what your son did?” as if the child were not his or her own child as well. God tells Moses to get out of his way so he can destroy them, and Moses intercedes saying, “What will the neighbors think?” (More literally, and more darkly, that the Egyptians will think God lacked the power to give the Israelites the promised land, so he killed them in the wilderness – or that he intended to kill them all along!)

We have trouble letting God appear to be so “human”, infected as we are with later notions of God as omniscient, omnipresent, and unmoved. But the narrative isn’t trying to tell us about God’s inner being; it is trying to make clear how great is the divide created by Israel’s idolatry. To give glory to the divine through the image of a bull, in keeping with the religious ideas and imagery of the ancient near east (virility, power), is to betray the relationship created at Sinai. “I will be your God and you will be my people,” said the LORD, but neither has been either. Israel has been like a newlywed bedding down someone encountered on their honeymoon.

This is not about Israel transgressing a commandment; it is about Israelites betraying the one who was paid the price to claim them as his own.

And this is not just about Israel. This is about the reality of all our idolatries. They are not errors and mistakes; they are adulteries. They are relationship destroying. When we put our faith, hope and trust in anything other than God we are no longer God’s people. The covenant lies broken, like the tablets of the commandments shattered upon the ground.

And there are so many suitors wanting to claim that throne – possessions, family, work, health, all claiming to be the source of life’s goodness and joy, life’s meaning and purpose, life’s true center. And we give our allegiance away so freely. There is a reason the prophets will come back again and again to images of adultery to explain the destruction of the nation. Those who had been delivered from bondage in Egypt found bondage in Babylon.

The genius of the text is the genius of the whole Biblical narrative. The betrayal that deserves abandonment is met with mercy. Moses understands. Moses reminds God of his own nature. He intercedes.

We are much too willing to step aside hoping God will, in fact, destroy sinners and enemies. But we are called to be Moses, interceding for God to show mercy. We are called to be Abraham, pressing God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. We are called to be Jesus, forgiving those who crucify him. We are called to be children of the Spirit, children of the Resurrection, children of the reign of God when sinners and outcasts are gathered and all are fed from the tree of life.

It’s in the light of that day, dawning in Jesus, that the heavens are full of joy and the angels are dancing.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAngels_dancing_sun_Giovanni_di_Paolo_Cond%C3%A9_Chantilly.jpg  Giovanni di Paolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cuckolding

For Wednesday

Mark 10:1-16

File:Studio per Vulcano e Venere.jpg10Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Cuckold. It is a verb that describes what one man has done to another by being intimate with his wife. Committing adultery in the Biblical world was about cuckolding. It is something a man did to another man. Sex outside of marriage wasn’t the issue. Adultery was shaming a man by taking what was his – or shaming the woman’s father and brothers.

We tend to think about adultery as a matter of personal morality, a measuring of ourselves against a personal standard of conduct, not altogether so different from measuring our Body Mass Index or how fast we can run the mile. In the Biblical world, adultery is a betrayal of your neighbor and a rupture of the human community.

This was also the problem with divorce. Marriage was arranged by the parents. It involved an alliance of two families (or a bond within an extended family, since the ideal marriage was with a cousin or second cousin). For the groom’s family to dismiss the woman and send her home told the whole village there was some defect in her. It brought shame to her father and brothers. It led to feuding. It tore the fabric of the community.

So adultery and divorce are part and parcel of the same problem – human communities at war. Betrayal. Dishonor. Revenge. Feuding. It is a world awry. It is a world sundered from God and one another. The world where Cain kills Abel and we assassinate with everything from words to barrel bombs. It is the world where Jesus will be crucified.

Divorce isn’t really authorized in the Old Testament law; it is merely acknowledged. What is in the law are some restrictions to limit the destructiveness of divorce.

But, of course, that is the essential nature of the law. It seeks to limit our destructiveness. The concern is always our neighbor. The commandment not to steal, kill – or commit adultery – is not about my personal morality; it is about protecting my neighbor. So the scripture limits revenge, limits greed, limits our treatment of the natural world, limits our wars and slavery and all the other realities of a broken world.

But God intends more for us than just that we be a little less cruel, a little less violent. God wants the law to be written on our hearts. God wants our lives to be governed by God’s own Spirit. God wants us to be new creatures in a renewed creation.

So, when asked about divorce, Jesus talks about the beginnings, about God’s intention, about Eden, about all that marriage could and should and will yet be when the stone is rolled away and the Spirit given and the new world begun.

We need to do more than limit the harm we do. We need to be born anew. We need to journey with Christ through the death of our old self into the resurrection of the new. The argument here isn’t whether divorce is “right” or “wrong”, but whether I am right or wrong. And the unspoken but precious promise here, as they head towards Jerusalem, is that Christ will set me and us and all things right.

 

Image: Venus, Mars, and Vulcan, Tintoretto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons