Proper 22, Year B, RCL
7 October 2018
There’s a comedic fantasy series you may be aware of, commonly called the Discworld books, by the late and great Terry Pratchett. If you haven’t read any Pratchett and want to, you can google up whole flowcharts as to which of the many books in this series you want to start with, but personally, my favorites are the ones in which Granny Weatherwax appears. Granny Weatherwax is an old and cantankerous witch, who doesn’t hold with highfalutin educated language but is very powerful and dedicated to helping people in need — the salt of the earth but definitely not the sugar of the earth. In one of these books, she has a conversation with a young man about the nature of sin.
“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment on the nature of sin, for example,” says the young man.
“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” answered Granny.
“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that–“
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes–“
“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”
Today’s readings are all about the consequences of thinking about people as things. Let’s start with the gospel. When I was growing up, this gospel passage was one of the scary texts that people would use against others. “Don’t get divorced!” seemed to be the main thrust of it. “And if you do get divorced, you can’t remarry or you’ll have broken one of the Ten Commandments!” And nobody ever made a distinction between men and women in talking about these verses — the assumption was that this saying of Jesus applied in the same manner both to husbands and to wives. And given his talk with his disciples, it does seem like that.
But let’s dig into the context for a moment. In this situation that Jesus is addressing — the Pharisees coming to him with a trick question hoping to catch him in some heresy — there is one really significant difference from our own. They were asking about men divorcing their wives. In this time and place, could women initiate divorce proceedings?
No. They could not. A woman was “given in marriage” to a man and had to stay married to him for the rest of her life or his. Her entire life and livelihood depended on: being given to a good husband; pleasing that husband consistently throughout her life; bearing children, preferably sons, to take care of her in old age; and to make the most of the household’s economic stability. If any one of those four things failed, her life was severely impaired if not destroyed.
But men could divorce their wives. A man could decide to trade his wife in for a younger model after she was done bearing children, or he could decide he didn’t like her tone of voice one day, or he could decide he could elevate himself socially by getting a different wife. The law didn’t require him to give a reason. All he had to do was write out a certificate and pack her off back to her father’s house.
“Because you were so hard-hearted,” Jesus says, “Moses let you legalize treating a person like a thing. But I’m telling you that if you do it, you are committing adultery against her. And you are putting her in a position where her only economic recourse may be to commit adultery herself by finding another husband to shelter her.”
For his authority on this matter, Jesus appeals further back than the Law, to the story of creation itself. God created human beings male and female, in the image of God, both sexes representative of the image of God, and their coming together is holy because it is a deeply human connection — two people becoming one flesh. In the creation story, which we read at cardinal points of our liturgical year, every time God makes something, God calls it “very good.” God hallows all that he creates, and blesses the interconnections and bright points of mutuality that come from creation.
Compare the Genesis story to competing creation stories in Israel’s collective experience. The Babylonian creation story goes something like this: Before the world was created, there was chaos, represented by Tiamat, the terrible goddess of horrifying disorder. Marduk, who in some versions is her son, goes to battle against her, defeats her, cuts her body up into pieces, and makes out of those pieces the world we know today. Order and well-being is brought forth through violence — violence against a specifically feminine principle.
“Babylon” has come down to us as an epithet for the regime that persecuted Israel in ancient times, a metaphorical reference to Rome in Christian times, and in all cases a reference to corruption, suppression of truth, and oppression of people that God loves. But for all that we say we hate what Babylon stands for, have we really rejected their foundational story? Or have we adopted and disguised it?
Earlier this year I watched the movie Spotlight for the first time — which tells the story of how the Boston Globe exposed the coverup, by senior officials in the Catholic archdiocese, of child sexual abuse by priests, and which eventually led to the exposure of similar coverups all over the world. I was so fascinated by this film that I went looking for interviews given by the real reporters behind the story; and in one of these, the real Walter Robinson said that to him, the real scandal was that in the tens of thousands of documents the Globe looked at, in all the internal correspondence of the Church, not once was there any expression of concern for the children who were harmed by these priests. The concern was reserved entirely for the priests themselves, and their spiritual well-being and rehabilitation. The sin against these children was just an abstraction; in some cases the children themselves were seen as dangerous occasions for temptation.
When you set that against today’s Gospel it seems quite damning, doesn’t it?
But lest we pat ourselves on the back for not being the Catholic Church, we need to ask: do we come from the same society and culture as they do? Yes. We do. Do we pay lip service to the Genesis story in which all of creation is good, while investing our hearts in an idea of violence as redemption and restoration? Yes, we do. Do we say that some people are people, and other people are disorderly abstractions, or occasions for sin, or disposable for the greater good? Yes, we do. Do we treat vulnerability itself as a signal that the vulnerable person must be sinful?
Yes, we do.
Our lesson from the Hebrew scriptures today is from Job. Satan (in this case better known as the Accuser, or in our terms an investigating prosecutor), has been given leave by God to heap misfortunes on Job, to reduce him to abject vulnerability so that he will deny the goodness of God and God’s creation. If you know the story, you know that Job’s friends come to comfort him, and at first they’re very helpful. They sit with him and don’t say much. But when Job starts to complain, they feel as though he is threatening the order of the world. They begin to say, “Well, surely you must have done something to cause this to happen to you.” Job pushes back, and they push harder, until by the end they are actually calling Job names, accusing him of corruption and shady dealing and blasphemy, saying that his righteousness is a sham, that he overestimates his holiness as a human being. Job’s friends — and we ourselves — would rather believe that Job deserves his sufferings than face the fact that sometimes bad things happen to people that we can’t explain or prevent. To acknowledge that truth is to let in chaos. And Job’s friends succumb to the impulse to beat back chaos with violence.
This is a very old and very pernicious temptation. To say that people who are vulnerable are sinful, or to tell ourselves that they aren’t really people at all. But our reading from the letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus is the perfect image and representation of God, and in order to redeem the world and make creation right and good again, he had to suffer. Not commit violence against others, not to go to battle against the enemies of right and dismember their corpses to restore order. Jesus redeemed the world by being the one to suffer. And he told us, in as clear a language as he could, that the people of the kingdom of God are the people our culture thinks of as not-people: Women. Children. The sick and suffering. The refugee. The oppressed.
Everyone in here is, or loves, someone who matches one of these descriptions. And you don’t need me to tell you that our society does not have your back. If you think of your wife as human, as a person with a complete and functional soul, herself the image of God — our society is not going to back you up on that. If you want your child to have a life free of abuse, the powers of this world don’t have the time of day for you. If you are dedicated to comforting and healing the sick and the weary and the poor, our society laughs behind its hands as it puts out a foot to trip you up.
The very level of violence being shown against the vulnerable in our world today is a sign that the powers of domination know they are under a real threat. People in our public spaces would not be embracing cruelty if they were not deathly afraid of what seems like chaos but is really redemption. In a minute we are going to renew our baptismal vows, and we should be fully aware that we are pledging allegiance to a kingdom whose king was nailed to a cross. When we pledge to respect the dignity of every human being we should not gloss over it as an abstraction. Read any headline in today’s news and you know it is not an abstraction at all. Our society pays lip service to the goodness of God’s creation, but puts its soul and its treasure in the evil idea of redemptive violence. When we renew the promises of our baptism, we are choosing to go against this; we are signing up for something scary. But we are also signing up for hope. Because we do not need to escape suffering to be people worthy of honor and justice and vindication. We are the people of God already. The kingdom of God is made for, and made to be ruled by, those who do not have power, or who relinquish their claim on it. So remember:
People are not things.
Suffering is not sin.
The children are the kingdom.