The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22B)
Sunday, 7 October 2018
Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy, forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
My mother mentioned to me in passing the other day that her friend Becky had gone to Saint Thomas’ Fifth Avenue last Sunday for Evensong. I asked her how Becky had liked it and my mother said she wasn’t very pleased by her experience and had especially remarked that with everything going on in the world, the priest got up there and just spent the whole sermon talking about angels. I pointed out that I happened to know that like us, Saint Thomas celebrated Michaelmas last Sunday, so it wasn’t at all surprising. In fact, I told her, I could have been criticised for doing the very same thing. Indeed, I had thought about that myself at the time and discussed it with several of you at coffee hour and afterwards with the wardens. When is it OK to bring current events into a sermon? When, in fact, is it necessary?
Reinhold Neibhur famously said that a modern preacher must stand in the pulpit with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. As you know, I have never subscribed to that view. At the same time, you also know (and I know that some of you don’t always like it) that I have not shied away from it either. My rule of thumb has been that when events or issues are important enough they must be addressed, but it is even better when the scripture appointed for the week points us in that direction naturally. You may remember that I waited until the Feast of Christ the King back in 2016 to discuss and name my reservations and concerns about the conduct of the then president-elect in light of the model we are given in Jesus for what a true leader looks like.
Over the past few weeks—really over the past two years—we have been rocked as a nation as we have confronted the sins of violence and aggression against women, of toxic masculinity, and the abuse of patriarchal power. We have seen so-called Christians hide behind Scripture to give cover to individual abusers and to systems of power that keep marginalising, not only women, but people of colour, immigrants, members of the queer community, and others. We have seen people entrusted to lead our nation as legislators and jurists avoid the consequences of their actions, their lies, and their inaction. And, as I have said before, Christians—looking to the example of Christ the King whose authority comes from the loving heart of creation rather than venal self-interest and lust for power—must call the nation to account. Indeed, historically, Anglo-Catholics have set the bar high in this regard.
Today’s scripture, therefore, demands we look at the questions of patriarchy and power, of the relationship among the sexes, and the way we treat each other, for these scriptures have also been used to prop up a system that is rooted itself in sin. The lessons from Genesis and Mark have both been used to reinforce male control and the subjection of woman. Examined carefully, however, these texts can be seen in another light, but we can not avoid first examining how they have been misused.
In both, it is easy to find evidence, cover, if you will for the positions that women are naturally subject to men, that they come second, they serve men and help them, their existence and purpose fulfilled only in relationship to men. The Genesis story is clearly gendered in this way. The first human was a man, a biological male, and woman was made to help him as an afterthought, after this man who exercised dominion over creation by naming all the creatures—a supreme act of power—had found he needed something to complete him. Woman was not created because of her own personal, subjective value, but because of her objective value to men. This critical analysis shows how easy it is to present as natural, even to name as stemming from Natural Law, this relationship among the sexes. At the heart of the text, however, is a germ of something else, the notion of mutuality and unity that is one of the most important elements of loving relationships.
Jesus’ teaching on divorce makes explicit reference to the Genesis story and can seem to present that same seemingly natural, unexamined order of things. This text has been misused to keep people in relationships in which there is no mutuality or love, or worse, where there is abuse and violence. It has been misused to keep women from coming forward, naming abusers, getting the help they need, reminding them that their supreme duty is always to their men.
On the surface, these texts seem to reenforce patriarchy, natural male dominance, the subjugation of women. Marriage is indissoluble. It’s the will of God. No matter what. Women are subject to men. They serve men and help them. Yet, in his words on divorce, Jesus was actually signalling a move away from this view, to use the language of today’s discourse, to smash the patriarchy and its hold on the institution of marriage. Even though his teaching sounds hard and intractable, its purpose was to destabilise the status quo, not reinforce it.
Marriage in the Jewish world of the Roman Empire was by definition patriarchal. Most marriages were arranged. And while marriage was certainly a state into which two people entered for their mutual benefit, those two people were, in fact, two men: a man and the father of his intended wife. They contracted a financial arrangement between them whereby money was exchanged and the woman became, basically, the property of the other man. In this environment, as well the Pharisees arguing with Jesus knew, divorce was quite common, yet (unlike under Roman law) only a man could initiate a divorce by giving the woman a certificate and sending her away. The certificate dissolved the legal binding that had taken place, freed the man, but still, in many ways, restricted the woman so that, for example, she might need her ex-husband’s consent for remarriage (1).
Patriarchal marriage had no room for either the psychological or sacramental understandings that have become the norm in modern times. In this context, “Jesus’ positive ideal of marriage as becoming one flesh” and being indissoluble is a wholly new point of view, a novelty, and as such was, in fact, one of the most controversial teachings of the historical Jesus (2). As I discussed a few weeks ago, Jesus is no conservative like the Pharisees with whom he is disputing. He is a radical and here he is making a radical return to that image from the creation story of the oneness, the unity and mutuality that is the ideal for human interpersonal relationships. Jesus is saying that the financial arrangements of men, the powerlessness of women, the abuse of divorce for the self-interest of men only, are contrary to the work of the emerging Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ words about divorce need to be seen in the context of the patriarchal marriage market he believed to be inimical to the Kingdom of God. These teachings challenged the whole male, hierarchical power structure of the Jewish society of his day, in which women were seen as objects to be used and acted upon. Jesus creates a new, diametrically opposed, paradigm; a subjective, radically inclusive view of women and others on the margins, born out in other places in scripture in Jesus’ teachings and actions, especially in this Gospels of Mark and John.
In the very next episode in Mark’s story, in fact, Jesus calls children to him, those most disposable, invisible of creatures in the ancient world and proclaims their importance. Earlier in the narrative he healed, and truly saw, the otherwise invisible woman with the flow of blood, the ritually impure nameless woman, who had “suffered much under many [male] physicians” (5:26). Later Jesus would praise the other unnamed woman, whom the disciples had belittled, who anointed him with the precious nard oil. Of her Jesus says, “wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Jesus sees what others in a world steeped in the unquestioning assumption of the superiority of men, especially men with power, do not.
In John’s gospel we are presented with two episodes where, despite Jesus’ seemingly harsh views of divorce, Jesus sees beyond narrow teachings on human relationships, to a broader view of how all are to be seen and included. In his encounter with the woman at the well who has no husband now, but has been five-times previously married, Jesus invites her to partake of the Living Water that he offers. The disciples think she is beneath contempt, but not Jesus. And later in that text, Jesus meets the woman accused of adultery and proclaims, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:8) (3).
Again and again, Jesus calls us to overturn the structures of society that institutionalise oppression, that keep people on the margins, that judge people based on anything other than the quality of their love. Jesus overturns the assumptions of patriarchy that marginalise women, that keep us from being in right relationship with each other, that prioritise power and personal gain over mutuality and respect, over love and justice.
Jesus calls us to respect one another, to listen to one another. In doing so he especially is calling on us, men like me and many of you, who exercise power, to listen to those who have been denied their voice. Jesus calls us to see and hear the woman with the flow of blood, the woman who anointed Jesus with oil, the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, to see them and hear their stories, believe them, and change, not just what we do as individuals, but makes changes to those very structures of power.
Indeed, we have been given the authority to do this, conferred in our baptism as ministers of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. In large and small ways, in our public and private lives, we can, like Jesus, disrupt the status quo that keeps people on the margins—keeps women on the margins—and denies people their voices. Sometimes that means shutting up and listening, sometimes it means speaking up, sometimes it means joining, marching, or voting; or as the Prayer Book puts it, “reverently using our freedom and employing it in the maintenance of justice in our communities.” Whatever is right for us, we can, out of our deep and abiding faith in the God who shares in our suffering and promises us love and redemption, demand institutions challenge their assumptions about power and authority and make changes to make room for others and other ways of seeing. This is Jesus’ call, following the example that he has set for us over and over again.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 2 October 2018
(1). John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina Series, 2 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 297.
(3) Donahue and Harrington 2002, 298.
© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume