The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings

Today’s readings introduce a series of readings in the books of Job and Hebrews. In the Gospel readings in Mark, Jesus continues his march towards Jerusalem, accompanied by the apostles who continue to argue over whose name will be in the biggest lights on the marquee. I’ll comment briefly on the first two readings and devote the bulk of the sermon to the Gospel.

Job

The book tells the story of a paradigmatically righteous man who suffers massively and undeservedly. The book doesn’t explain why, although it soundly rejects a number of bad explanations. Instead, the book focuses on more immediate questions: how do we respond to such suffering, either our own or our neighbor’s? What does this suffering say about humanity? About God? (Is God good in any meaningful sense, or just very powerful?) Do we only serve God as long as we perceive it to be profitable? We’ll be in Job most of October; if you read about a chapter or two a day you’ll be able to engage the Sunday readings at a more satisfying level.

Hebrews

Hebrews is one of the least accessible books in the New Testament. It was usually ascribed to Paul, who was almost certainly not its author. It seems to assume that its audience is in danger of abandoning faith in Jesus for some other form of Judaism. In any case, the bulk of the book is devoted to Jesus’ superiority. In the process, it offers perspectives that Christians throughout the centuries have found illuminating and encouraging.

For instance, in the second half of the 20th Century, Christians sought –as they have in every time and place—for ways of speaking of Jesus that resonated with their hearts. One of these: Jesus our Brother. Not: our God, our Lord, our Master –all true enough—but Jesus our Brother. And it was in this prickly epistle that we found the richest resources to develop this image: the one who “is not ashamed to call [us] brothers and sisters,” the one who shared our flesh and blood. Jesus is our Brother, who can help us when we suffer and are tested, because he suffered and was tested too; one of the few human beings worthy to be Job’s brother.

Hebrews is significantly shorter than Job; reading a chapter every other day or so should keep you current with the Sunday selections.

Matthew

One of the jokes about my people, the Scots, is that if there are three of us, there’ll be four political parties. This could have been said of the Jews of Jesus’ day, as illustrated by today’s reading. Moses permitted divorce; on what grounds could a man seek divorce? The School of Shammai said: only for unchastity; the School of Hillel said: for practically anything, including burning the roast. The Pharisees wanted to know what Jesus thought.

Jesus asks what Moses commanded; they reply citing the provision for a certificate of divorce. Jesus interprets that as a concession to their hardness of heart, and returns to the creation story: “‘the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

That certainly sounds as though Jesus is taking a position to the right of Shammai: there are no grounds on which a man could seek a divorce.

So that’s all we need to say about that? Hardly. Matthew tells the same story as Mark, but in his story Jesus says “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” So in Matthew, Rabbi Jesus aligns with Rabbi Shammai. Paul takes up marriage in his first letter to the Corinthians—we read this in the Daily Office in the last couple of weeks—and permits divorce and remarriage in the case of a Christian whose non-Christian spouse wants out.

So how do we respond to the NT as a whole? Over time the Greek-speaking Eastern Church and the Latin-speaking Western Church came to give quite different answers. The Western Church understood Jesus words as transmitted by Mark as canon law: no divorce. Unfortunately, what that often ended up meaning was that if you were well-connected (money helped), you could get an annulment, and if you weren’t, then you could either divorce & remarry or continue to receive Holy Communion, but not both. The Eastern Church read the same texts and concluded that marriages could die, and so divorce and remarriage were permitted as tragic concessions to our continuing hardness of heart. The history of the Western Church has been a history of gradually approaching the Eastern Church’s position; although some parts –most notably the Roman Catholics—continue to prohibit divorce.

Marriages can die. This certainly rings true. But does it really take Jesus’ words as recorded in Mark seriously? Well, yes, for I think what Jesus is doing here is like what he does in the Sermon on the Mount: “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;” “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Does this mean we adjust our laws accordingly? No. Jesus is, I think, making two points: we must not fall into the trap of equating obeying the law with goodness, because anyone with half a brain can figure out how to satisfy the law and still do evil. Second, if we tightened up the law to eliminate this problem, most of us would be locked up.

More broadly, the various ways we Christians have read today’s Gospel is a prime example of the danger of taking a single text as the basis for doctrine or church law without attending to the rest of Scripture!

Returning to Paul, while Paul has his opinions—and bless him for acknowledging them to be opinions and not trying to pass them off as Gospel Truth—he’s clear that both the single and married states are vocations, callings in which we can reflect God’s holiness. So, at a marriage, we’re asked “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” And we respond: “We will.” And we’re reminded of this obligation to mutual support as we celebrate marriage anniversaries. Sadly, there are no liturgical affirmations of this obligation to uphold those whose vocation is the single life. (Perhaps the folk thinking about Prayer Book revision could think about that!) But the obligation’s there, the obligation to uphold each other in either state, married or single. Perhaps today’s text can encourage us to take this obligation more seriously, to listen each other more carefully, to live as brothers and sisters in this new family Jesus is shaping, to do better than Job’s friends, who, hovering just offstage, can’t wait to tell Job what he’s done wrong.

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