Last week Minjing and I watched a TV program called Half the Sky. The term “Half the Sky” refers to the traditional saying that women hold up “half the sky.” Men, of course, hold up the other half. But the TV program described the truth that, although women make up more than half the population, throughout the world they are abused, enslaved, forced into prostitution and subjected to horrifying traditional practices such as female circumcision.
Some Pharisees came to test Jesus and they asked, Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? It was a trap. Jesus asked: What did Moses command you? These men knew the scriptures very well and they replied, Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her. And just like that, they had fallen into Jesus’ trap!
Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female…, Jesus replied.
What do you think is going on here? The Pharisees were interested in preservingtheirhumantraditionstotheiradvantage. Theydidn’tcareabout the dignity and value of women because women were considered property. They asked, Can a man divorce his wife? The idea of a woman divorcing her husband was unheard of. They were looking to justify themselves and keep things the way they were. Their interest in their traditions was not about justice or dignity for all people; it was about preserving power for themselves.
The Pharisees easily could have escaped Jesus’ trap. Instead of pointing to human traditions they could have lifted up God’s law, which is what Jesus did afterwards with his disciples: Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. In other words, he was saying, “What part of the sixth commandment ‘You shall not commit adultery’ do you not understand?”
But none of us can get too comfortable. We all get caught in the net, as Jesus teaches in Matthew’s gospel: But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Do you see? It was a way of saying to the men, “If you want to use human traditions to hold power over those who hold up “half the sky” you can, but if you do, you are quite far from the kingdom of God.
So what does it mean to follow God’s law instead of human tradition?
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
Remember last week when children appeared in the gospel reading? We listened to how essential children are to teaching adults. Much of the conflict that adults experience and injustice we inflict on one another is the result of looking backwards. We get stuck in the past: anger, grudges, hurt feelings, revenge, power-plays—all these are signs of an inability to forgive, to live in the present, to set the past aside and move on. Children, on the other hand, have practically no history and very little to remember. They are rooted in the present, eager to move into the future. Remember last week’s children’s sermon, with the kids facing backwards? How could they follow the leader if they were facing the wrong way? How can we follow Jesus, the one leading us into the future, if we’re facing the past?
Over the past two weeks the scriptures have called us to be righteous, a word that means to be in right relationship with one another. Making that point again today he says, You cannot enter the kingdom of God on earth unless you receive the Kingdom of God like a child. We cannot be in right relationship with God or one another unless, like children, we are facing forward, receiving the gift of the present, embracing the future–including new revelations of God’s love in our own time.
Today’s reading on divorce is one of those that has been used to beat up on divorced people. I know that firsthand. When my parents were divorced one of my mom’s good friends used passages such as this to shame her. It was deeply hurtful to her. It was an example of Christians using human traditions rather than God’s law of love to suit their needs.
But the Bible every day is used by Christians either to let ourselves off the hook by following human traditions or to beat up on people whom society looks down on, also by following human traditions. In a few weeks thepeopleofWashingtonwillcastvotesonmarriageequality. This morning’s first reading and gospel reading are two of those that have been used to argue against gay marriage. “God made them male and female,” the scriptures say. “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife.” The Scriptures make it sound pretty clear. On the other hand, remember last week’s teaching? Jesus said, “If your hand causes you to sin cut it off. If your foot causes you to sin cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin tear it out.” That also seems clear! I don’t know anyone (thank God!) who has obeyed that teaching, but like the Pharisees, we are tempted toward whatever seems to suit our traditions, our comfort zone and our self-interest.
Over the course of my life I’ve found stories more helpful than rules in helping me to move forward on difficult questions in my life. Here’s a recent story that I’ve found helpful in grappling with the whole marriage equality question: Our NW Washington synod bishop, Wm. Chris Boerger, was raised as a Missouri Synod Lutheran. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the many flavors of Lutherans the Missouri Synod is one of the more conservative expressions of Lutheranism. And yet, here is a man who has listened, and prayed, and is now a very different person from what he was in the first half of his life. If Christian faith is about continual, lifelong conversion and transformation here is a man who, for me, embodies just that. A few weeks ago he spoke out publicly on marriage equality. He said, “Referendum 74 has been portrayed as a threat to marriage as we now know it. I am at a loss to see how the commitment of one human being to another will threaten others.” This is our bishop.
Christians may be in different places on this issue but at some point we all have to reckon with the law of God, the law of love. For, as our second reading teaches, we were created to be slightly lower than the angels—angels being those creatures closest to God. If God is love to be close to God means to practice the law of love. As Jesus taught, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind—and your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these,” he said. Even as we are tempted to rely on human traditions, our own self-interest and our own comfort, today’s readings remind us of Jesus’ love for women, his love for children, and his love for all people, especially the powerless and the outcast. May God’s people in the 21st century learn and practice such love! AMEN