Midweek Musing. On law, love, and embrace for the vulnerable.
Sermon for Wesley Uniting Church – 7 October 2018
So here we are again. A difficult passage, one we might want to quickly skip over because it’s too hard and incomprehensible; one we might want to tear out, throw away all together because it’s been presented to us in the past as a hardline narrowing perspective on human relationships, and marriage in particular.
I wonder, though. To hear Jesus speak thus would put his words in contrast to his actions.
If Jesus actions are consistently opening up relationship, not closing it down, we might use that to help us discern meaning in his words here.
To hear Jesus speak of the Law without question or challenge to the way it is being applied in Jewish community in his time is to bring an inconsistency into his approach to the Law. Do we think Jesus is inconsistent, untrustworthy? I don’t think so.
As usual in these stories, the people questioning Jesus are testing him.
Some scholars have seen Jesus here pointing through a particular law to the Torah (Law, or Instruction) as a whole, and its purpose – God’s purpose – which is Love. Which is to provide protection for those who need it most – the vulnerable.
It seems likely that the laws on divorce in question in this story are intended to protect women, vulnerable in cultural structures founded on the premise that men – of particular race, wealth, freedom, status – are the most human humans, and all other humans are at their service, their disposal.
Now, of the gospel accounts, Luke’s is the probably one that highlights most the women in the sphere of Jesus. As Mark tells his story, he, too, shows his audience the affirmation Jesus offers to women, shows Jesus to see, respect, and nurture the inherent dignity of women in their full humanity. Right at the beginning, Jesus calls the disciples, then heals Simon’s mother-in-law – and at the conference I attended last week, someone suggested we can see the same pattern of call stories in the structure of this story of healing. He sees her, he greets her / takes her by the hand, he calls her / lifts her up, she responds with service.
In another story he heals not only a woman but also a child; in another the mother of a child asks for help and she is not only woman, but of an enemy nation; there is a widow in the Temple Jesus sees and invites his disciples to see, she is woman, she is the poor in their midst; and when the men have all fled from the foot of the shameful cross, the women remain to witness, and they are the first to witness the resurrection. Mark’s story of Jesus carries the presence of women in Jesus’ sphere as vital, welcome, to be remembered.
From the scholarly work people have done, it seems likely that in the culture into which Jesus was born, men could divorce their wives if they sneezed at an inconvenient moment for their husbands. I may be exaggerating slightly, but there is a strong likelihood nevertheless that it was far easier for men to divorce their wives than for women to be granted divorce.
There is a story of a woman who Jesus meets at noon beside a well. He notes that she has been married several times, and the man she is living with at present is not her husband. A scholar I read this week suggests that when a woman was divorced, and most likely not welcomed back into the protection of her father’s or brother’s houses, for shame, they were without home, resources, income, without protection. They sought a husband wherever they could find one, or a man, even if he would not give her the dignity of actual marriage.
The position of women within the social structures of Jesus’ time was one of extreme vulnerability. No doubt there were women who by virtue of circumstance, honourable men, or their own tenacity and resolve, found ways to overcome that vulnerability. For many, their experience was to be treated as property, easily disposed of, and in constant need of protection.
Is it any different today? Women are still stoned to death for adultery in some places, relieved of their autonomy over their own bodies, unsafe outside after dark and inside too many homes any time, and let’s not forget the way the media treated our one female prime minister.
It is possible that in his response to the testing, conniving question on the Law, Jesus seeks to remind the people that the law against divorce is a law that seeks to protect the vulnerable women, who were being discarded by the men who had all the power in their relationships.
I hear impatience in Jesus’ voice – your hardness of hearts has made such a law necessary. Your unkindness towards one another, your dismissal of the dignity of one another: you brought this on yourselves. If you were kind, which is to be wise, which is to follow God’s way of love, what need would there be for this harshness? none. For if you were kind, the vulnerable would be protected, cared for, actually may not be vulnerable at all because the system wouldn’t put them in that position – if it was built, on kindness.
I think it is possible to discern such meaning in Jesus’ words – because this meaning is discernible in so much of the story that is told of him. In that story we see through Jesus that God is for the vulnerable. God reaches out to the vulnerable, rejected, overlooked, marginalized. God looks to the ones who need God the most. And so must we.
So must we.
As a friend of mine commented this week – God is in the healing of the broken humans left by broken relationships – let no one tear asunder what God has brought together. We must speak with compassion, not judgment. We must act to embrace, not ostricise.
Imagine communities centred on relationships of mutual dependence, on love. Jesus does.
Imagine communities fostered by respect of dignity, pursuing the health of each one and the community as a whole. Jesus does.
Imagine communities that protect the vulnerable. Jesus does.
Every time I tell the story of Jesus welcoming the children the disciples would send away, I rediscover God’s delight in welcoming the little ones, the vulnerable.
Tell the story
The welcome of the kin-dom is the welcome of the vulnerable. And you know what – each one of us is a little one to God. No matter how much we pretend, put up facades, wield swords of ‘power’, we, standing before God properly, are those children.
We are a four year old running across the church hall into the arms of the minister who will catch us up and swing us around with utter delight and joyful abandon after playgroup has been packed up. Yes, I was that minister, and that is the moment I enter when I tell this story. I stand in Jesus’ place, who stands in God’s place, and I see the children through their eyes, I see you, I see me, through their eyes, and as I see myself there, I let go, become a four year old utterly trusting those arms and throw myself into them.
See yourself there.
Look at the people beside you, today, each day this week. See them there, welcomed with utter delight into the embrace of God. tell me you then don’t understand Jesus’ impatience at our unkindness. Tell me you can meet them with anything but love and joy and delighted welcome.
That is what the law seeks to promote. Not trickery, not legalistic narrowing of relationships but God-inspired relationships of love and mutual embrace. And that is how we will come to this table today. So loved, beside others so loved, sharing that loving kindness with each other.