Preached on 7 October 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, Year B Thematic track
There’s a church doing an adult ed series this fall called “Clobbering the Clobber Passages.” Now, their focus is on how certain passages are often used to clobber people because of sexuality and gender. The thing is, though, that as long as there have been people with more power than others, the Bible has been used to clobber people; to justify oppression, or just plain cruelty.
But I don’t remember Jesus ever telling the disciples to go forth and clobber. No, Jesus commissioned them, and us, to go forth in his name to proclaim the Good News, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to forgive sins, to raise the dead; to baptize and teach; to be agents of the reign of God.
This morning, our lectionary gives us two readings that are often used to clobber people. You may have even been on the receiving end of one of those attempted clobberings. First, there is the Genesis passage in which we find God has created the first human (not man, just human being) and sees that it is not good that the human is alone.
You might remember that in the first creation story, in the first chapter of Genesis, humankind was the last thing God created before the Sabbath. God created humankind in God’s own image, God created male and female human beings at the same time, and in that Creation story, after each step, God declared the creation good.
In this second story, though, God creates humankind first, and sees that just one human is not good. So, God begins creating the animals to try to find a suitable companion for the human, but none is satisfactory. Finally, God creates another human being out of the first. And the first human being says, “Yes! Bone of my bones; flesh of my flesh. This one is just right.” Only then are they man and woman, male and female.
Now, I’m sure there will be other people who might want to get into word study arguments so they can continue to use this to clobber women; to insist on their inferiority and to justify their subjugation and oppression. But that brings up some questions:
- Who gets to interpret the Bible? And who decides?
- Whose voices are heard and whose count?
- Who gets to use the Bible to clobber people? To assume the role of judge and declare of certain people that they are permanently beyond the reach of God’s grace and love; to oppress them, to say they deserve to suffer and they don’t deserve help?
To answer that last question – Nobody does. Nobody gets to clobber people with the Bible. I would add that no one has to justify their existence to anyone. No one has to prove their full humanity to anyone who thinks that they get to be the judge or the higher authority on how to interpret scripture.
I thought I was going to just briefly comment on that one.
Today’s gospel is another clobber passage. And you know, Jesus does, at times, (and in this passage), clobber people. But who is the object of his rebuke here? Is it divorced people? No, he is directing his critique at the Pharisees because they have used their interpretation of the law to increase suffering.
We have to remember that marriage in 21st-century American society is not anything like marriage in first-century Palestine. For that matter, marriage today is significantly different from what it was even 75 years ago.
So, what do you think Jesus is getting at here? Do you think this is primarily about condemning people who are divorced? Let’s look at a somewhat broader view of the story.
In the previous chapter, Mark tells us about Jesus teaching that we must take care not to put up stumbling blocks, between “the little ones, those such as these” and God. He insists that we welcome the children.
Then, at the end of today’s reading, Jesus again turns to the children – and presumably their mothers and possibly their fathers, who have been listening to him speak; standing in the back, looking on. They want Jesus to touch their children; to heal them, perhaps? Again, he chastises those who try to keep them away and insists that they come to him. He welcomes them. He blesses them.
So, there’s this arc of welcoming and caring for the children and the vulnerable along with warnings about stumbling blocks, trying to keep others away from God.
In the middle of this arc, Pharisees show up and start talking about divorce. Jesus lights into them; clobbers them, so to speak. He condemns their hardness of heart in allowing men to divorce their wives, to set them aside to find a new one. So, it sounds like he’s still teaching about caring for the vulnerable.
Like I said, the marriage they’re talking about is not like our marriages; marriage that we like to think is based on love and for our mutual joy; a joining of two people who freely enter into a legally binding relationship as equal partners.
The marriage Jesus and the Pharisees are talking about is more of a property arrangement. The woman would be transferred from her father’s care to her husband’s. The man has a responsibility to provide for his wife and children. To divorce her is to condemn her and their children to a life of poverty and disgrace. He is reneging on his responsibility to her. A writ of dismissal only allows her to legally marry another, if she finds a man who is willing take her.
Unfortunately, too many people have been clobbered with this passage and shamed or bullied or “advised” to remain in a marriage that should end. Sometimes it is even to the extreme of risking the health, safety, or lives of the wife or child.
The sad truth is that even when two people enter into marriage intent on making a lifelong commitment, if doesn’t always work. There may come a time when it is best to end the marriage.
When that happens, it is painful enough for the people without others clobbering them with the Bible. It is not for us to put stumbling blocks before someone who is already suffering, keeping from God who is the source of healing.
God does not desire harm to God’s people simply to satisfy a law. God’s desire is always human flourishing – especially within marriage.
Jesus doesn’t command us to go forth and clobber in his name. He commands us to love one another; to have compassion for one another; to care for the least of these. And he also promises to be with us always – especially in our pain and our vulnerability, in our frailty and our fumblings.
Jesus promises to be with us to the end of the age.
Thanks be to God.