NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Sovereign God, you have created us to live in loving community with one another. Form us for life that is faithful and steadfast, and teach us to trust like little children, that we may reflect the image of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
This Sunday we recognize Francis. No, not the Pope, but the Saint of Assisi from whom the Pope took his name. What we know of Francis has been preserved for us by Friar Thomas of Celano who, at the commission of Pope Gregory IX, composed the First Life of Francis of Assisi. We know from this source that Francis was the son of a wealthy merchant. In his younger years, Francis lived a dissolute life. In his late teens he became a soldier and, on his way to fight for his home city of Assisi, he had a vision that directed him back home. Francis soon became disenchanted with the high life and began devoting himself to prayer. Sent by his father to sell off some of his inventory in a neighboring city, Francis tried to donate the proceeds of the sale to a poor priest at a ruined sanctuary. The priest, suspicious of Francis’ motives, refused to accept the gift. Thereupon, Francis simply disposed of the money. Needless to say, his father was displeased. When he threatened to disinherit his son, Francis beat him to the punch. He returned all that his father had given him including the cloths he was wearing and set out “to preach repentance to all, edifying his hearers with simple words but largeness of heart.” Celano, Thomas of, Frist Life of Francis of Assisi, published in Readings in World Christian History, Vol. 1, (c. 2004 by John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk; pub. by Obis Books) p. 355.
In accord with Catholic teaching, Francis preached that the world was created good and beautiful by God but stands in need of redemption because of human sin. He preached to human beings and animals the duty of all creatures to praise God and the duty of human beings to protect and enjoy nature as both the stewards of God’s creation and as creatures themselves. To Francis, all animals as well as the forces of nature were fellow creatures that he frequently personified. His sense of kinship with all creation is best illustrated in the Canticle of the Sun attributed to him. The Canticle bears a striking similarity to our psalm for this Sunday.
Saint Francis was a man of peace. He bravely travelled across enemy lines to meet with the Sultan of Egypt in an effort to bring an end to the bloodshed between Christians and Muslims stretching over five church sanctioned crusades. Though Francis was unsuccessful both in converting the Sultan to Christianity and in bringing hostilities to an end, the Sultan was favorably impressed with his courage, humility and sincere faith. He is said to have remarked that he might consider becoming a Christian if all Christians were like Francis.
Poverty was a way of life for Saint Francis. While he certainly did not glorify poverty resulting from greed and injustice, Francis believed that contentment came from getting along with as little as possible and on what is strictly necessary. He believed that people should live as producers contributing to the welfare of creation rather than consumers exploiting the earth. Francis and his followers took literally Jesus’ admonition that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. They sheltered where they could, accepted such hospitality as was offered and slept under the open sky when no other options were available. They begged unashamedly and shared without reservation. Throughout his life Francis founded three orders: the men’s Order of Friars Minor, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the Third Order for men and women not able to live the lives of itinerant preachers
There is much about Francis that is legendary. It is almost certain that he did not compose the “Prayer of Saint Francis” popularly attributed to him. His association with animals, though real, has been greatly exaggerated and sentimentalized. Biographical details about his life are intertwined with tales of the miraculous and fantastic. Yet these legends serve only to demonstrate the power of Francis’ teaching and example that have endured for eight centuries.
Into this violent culture of ours that knows no solution to evil other than brute force, no good other than consumption, and no world other than a soulless ball of resources waiting for the strongest and most ruthless to possess it; the gentle witness of Saint Francis drifts across our ruined landscape like a breath of fresh air.
This familiar story comes to us at the conclusion of the second creation narrative in Genesis (the first being Genesis 1:1-2:3). It is part of the biblical overture constituting the first eleven chapters of the book and setting the stage for the opening curtain that will occur in Genesis 12 where God calls Abram to leave his homeland of Haran and journey to the promised land of Canaan. Genesis 12:1-3. These chapters tell the story of a God who creates a good world filled with all that is required for human beings to live well and flourish. The goodness and well-being of creation is constantly threatened by human rebellion and violence. In each episode the judgment and grace of God intervene to counteract the destructive conduct of God’s human creatures. At the conclusion of the eleventh chapter, we find an earth cursed by human sin, divided by language and immersed in idolatry. Yet just as creation seems to be caught in the death spiral of curse, God calls Abram to become a nation of blessing. That nation, of course, is Israel. “It is imperative,” says one commentator, “to begin reading Exodus, indeed the entire Old Testament, with Genesis as the point of departure.” Fretheim, Terence E., “Reclamation of Creation: Redemption and Law in Exodus,” Interpretation, Vol. 45, No. 2, (October 1991). Of course, the converse is also true: we cannot read Genesis without understanding it as the prelude to Israel’s story. It is important, therefore, to keep in mind this biblical context as we consider today’s lesson about the formation of man and woman. We are being prepared for the saga of Israel.
The biggest difficulty we have with texts like this is the baggage they have picked up from having been dragged through the culture wars. Creationists have insisted that this story must be taken as the literal and sole explanation for the origin of human life on earth. Clearly, the cosmological, geological, historical and biological evidence do not support the formation of human beings separately from the rest of the animal world or their sexual differentiation at a later state of human development. Nor does the harmonious, non-predatory nature of life in the Garden of Eden appear to be sustainable in the world as we know it. Consequently, insistence on a literal interpretation of the biblical creation stories requires wholesale rejection of scientific knowledge and theory that is growing stronger by the day. Creationists are up for that fight and more than ready to re-litigate the Scopes Monkey Trial. A good example of their determination to re-write the geological, biological, cosmological record is the multi-million dollar Creation Science Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
This story has also been cited frequently as a proof text for the definition of marriage as the union between a man and a woman. “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.” Vs. 24. This, it is argued, constitutes the normative pattern established from the beginning. But that interpretation seems to place the cart before the horse. In fact, God says nothing about the institution of marriage or anything else. Rather, the story teller reflects on the experience of human beings and their relationships in light of the creation of man and woman. The point seems to be that the attraction drawing a woman and man together finally proves stronger than the parental and sibling ties in which they were raised. This yearning for intimacy, of which sexual expression is one but by no means the only aspect, is naturally disruptive to existing family structures. Yet it is woven into the fabric of God’s good creation and therefore good in itself.
It seems to me, then, that we need to read the text from the beginning rather than the end. The lesson begins with God’s declaration that it is not good for Adam to be alone. God does not proceed with divine dispatch to the obvious (to us) conclusion, but experiments with the creation of other life forms to meet Adam’s need. But Adam’s loneliness is not merely “aloneness.” His longing is for an intimate relationship with one of his own kind. This longing cannot be satisfied by the companionship animals bring or even by his unique relationship to the Creator. The creation of male and female, then, was designed to alleviate that emptiness Adam experiences.
There is an element of humor in this passage that is very much underappreciated. I think that is probably because we have a deeply ingrained sense that religion, faith and the Bible are serious matters. To laugh at something in the Bible seems almost sacrilegious. Often, though, the biblical authors are intending to be funny. They see humor as part and parcel of every relationship worth having, including our relationship with God. Here God observes the earth creature just formed from dust and concludes that “it is not good for this creature to be alone.” So God creates the animals to be companions for this creature. The creature finds the animals interesting and perhaps endearing-so much so that it gives them names. Still, none of them proves a suitable companion. It appears that God is unsure of what is needed here; that God is fumbling around, turning out ever new and exotic animals that somehow fail to meet the creature’s deepest need. Then, in a flash of insight, God suddenly “gets it.” The creature needs a companion of its own kind. “Finally!” says Adam as Eve appears on the scene. “That’s what I’m talking about!”
Note well that the name, “Adam” is not really a proper name. It means simply “taken from the ground,” or “earth creature.” We cannot call Adam a “man” in terms of gender because at this point there is no gender. Without the male/female polarity, the concept of gender is simply unintelligible. As Phyllis Trible, a prominent biblical scholar, has pointed out, the Hebrew word for “man” in the sense of a male human (“ish”) is not used in the Adam and Eve creation story until after the creation of Eve. Only then is Adam referred to as “ish” which means “male person” over against Eve who is “ishah” or “female person.” Consequently, the notion that the male human was created first and the female afterwards is erroneous. Both male and female came into existence when Eve was drawn from Adam.
It should be clear that the primary concern from God’s standpoint is not the establishment of an institution, but rather the alleviation of Adam’s loneliness. If we begin reading this text from the standpoint of God’s concern for human companionship rather than our own concerns about how marriage ought to be defined, I believe that we are lead to some very different ways of looking at issues like same sex relationships, transgendered persons and our treatment of human sexuality generally. God would save his creatures from loneliness. God desires companionship and intimacy for his creatures. Marriage (which is not mentioned at all in the text) is designed to protect such intimacy within a covenant of mutual faithfulness. Any definition of marriage that is used to deny this good aspect of human existence to others cannot be harmonized with our lesson.
Finally, a word or two about marriage. Marriage is obviously not the cure all for loneliness. It is only as good as the creatures entering into it. Because we are all flawed and broken creatures, our marriages are also flawed and broken. There are cold and loveless marriages in which one or both spouses find themselves desperately lonely. Conversely, there are unmarried, single individuals whose friendships, family and professional lives afford them a wealth of deep and lasting relationships where they find comfort, support and much joy. This is yet one more reason why we should avoid getting hung up on the definition of marriage and hear what this scripture says about what makes us human: the deep and lasting relationships that meet our longing for intimacy and help define us as persons.
The superscription to this psalm reads: “To the choirmaster: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.” Introductions like these which preface many of the psalms are routinely ignored in our liturgical usage and barely acknowledged by commentators. This is due in large part to the fact that their meanings are obscure. The meaning of the term “Gittith” is lost to us, though most commentators agree that it is most likely a reference to the musical score accompanying the psalm. The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) associates the term Gittith with the Hebrew term “gat” meaning “winepress.” Accordingly, it interprets the title as “song of the winepress.” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 140. Most of us would be tempted to dismiss all of this as another textual prejinkerty of interest only to textual scholars. But Saint Augustine took this title extremely seriously and made it the touchstone for his exposition of the whole psalm. Exposition on the Book of Psalms, The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8 (c. 1979 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) pp. 27-32. Interpreting the “winepress” as a metaphor for the Church, he plumbs the depths of the psalm for deeper understanding of sanctification, discipleship and martyrdom. We might quibble with Augustine’s allegorical method, but his instincts were correct. In the final analysis, disciples of Jesus read the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, through their faith in the crucified and resurrected Lord.
This beautiful hymn glorifying God is bracketed by a refrain at its beginning and end that says it all: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth.” Vss. 1 and 9. This psalm recognizes the glory of God under which all created things pal in significance. Yet it is this very glory that dignifies and gives meaning to creation generally and to human beings in particular. Vss. 1-2. Small as we are, God does take note of us. Vs. 4. More than that, God has given to us human beings the unique task of ruling over creation and having “dominion” over every living thing. 6.
It is important to understand what is meant by “dominion.” God is still the rightful owner of all things over which we have dominion. We are stewards, not owners. To get an idea of what that means we need to return to Genesis 2:15 which regrettably was not included in our reading for Sunday. The verse reads: “The Lord God took the man (“Adam,” not “ish”) and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” From the dawn of creation it has been the role of human beings to “till and to keep” God’s garden. This means, of course, that we are not free to make whatever use we will of everything under our dominion. Being made in God’s image means that we human beings have a unique capacity to create. We have the ability to alter the face of the earth in ways that no other creature can. This ability enables us both to enhance the beauty, habitability and productivity of our planet and to wreak catastrophic destruction on it.
Proper human dominion is a pressing issue for us today as the earth’s human population grows and consumes the earth’s resources at an alarming rate. A recent United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report says that if the world continues using its resources at current rates, humanity will be using up some 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass annually by the year 2050. The report described this as “three times its current appetite,” and an “unsustainable” rate of extraction. This sorry state has evolved from our viewing the earth as a ball of resources owned by nation states, each claiming sovereign control over resources within its borders and/or owned throughout the world. As Pope Francis warned us during his visit to our country last week, “A selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged.” See WSJ Market Watch, September 25, 2015.
Faithful dominion requires a different vision beginning with the acknowledgement that the earth belongs first and foremost to God. Our use of its resources cannot be guided by a desire to perpetuate a way of life that ruthlessly exploits and carelessly consumes with no thought for the health of the world’s ecosystems, the suffering inflicted on our fellow human beings throughout the planet or the welfare of generations to come. Proper dominion over the earth means learning to stop being consumers and to begin living as contributors. That, of course, will affect the homes we live in, the cars we drive (if any) and the way we eat. It will change a host of other daily habits that injure the environment, foster inequality and threaten peace. The psalm does not give us any concrete guidance in implementing these changes, but it does suggest to us that the potential for a better world is within our reach-when we finally learn to let God be God, let go of our desire to possess our planet and recognize it as God’s garden to be tended and cared for.
Let’s begin with a word about Hebrews. This is an anonymous letter written in the latter half of the first century, probably between 80-90 C.E. It was not fully acknowledged as part of the New Testament cannon until 405 C.E. In the past, and to some extent today also, Hebrews has been viewed by biblical scholars as a comparison of Christianity to Judaism. The intent, they maintain, is to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity. Mauch, T.M., “Letter to the Hebrews,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol.2 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 573.
I don’t buy that. It seems to me that both Judaism and the church were facing a common catastrophe at the end of the First Century, namely, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. Obviously, the Temple was central to Judaism. There are indications that it was likewise important for the New Testament church. Jesus cleansed the Temple and taught in the Temple. According to the Book of Acts, the post resurrection church gathered in the courts of the Temple. The early church, being primarily Jewish, continued to worship in the Temple with fellow Jews. It was widely believed, in both Christian and Jewish circles, that the destruction of that Temple signaled the end of the age and the coming of God’s kingdom. That obviously did not happen. So both Judaism and the church were left with the task of interpreting their respective existences without the Temple. For Judaism, the fulcrum of faith and life became the Torah and the worship of God it inspired in the Synagogue. For the church, Jesus Christ was the Temple of God, the locus of God’s presence. In my view, Hebrews is not an effort to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. It is instead a theological argument demonstrating that the messianic mission of Jesus is not refuted by the failure of certain eschatological expectations following the destruction of the Temple. To the contrary, Jesus’ redemptive mission continues and is embodied in the church.
The passage for this Sunday from the opening of the book consists of rhetorical artistry surpassing “any other portion of the New Testament” according to one commentator. Norden, Eduard Agnostos Theos: Untersuchungen zur Formengeschichte religioser Rede (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1913; reprinted Darmstadt: Vissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1971) p. 386 cited in Attridge, Harold W., The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 1989 by Fortress Press) p. 36. The implicit christological pattern of pre-existence, incarnation, death and exultation are reminiscent of the incarnational hymn at the beginning of John’s gospel. (John 1:1-18).
“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” Hebrews 1:1-2. This passage reminds us that we are not a people of the book. We are disciples of Jesus Christ whose ministry of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation continue in his resurrected Body, the church. Of course, the Bible is critical to us because it constitutes the normative witness to God’s saving act in Jesus Christ. The Bible is not an end in itself. We read it seeking Jesus. We interpret it through Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. We can call the Bible God’s word because it points us to Jesus.
As can be seen, the lectionary folk have again taken their scalpels to our reading, omitting Hebrews 1:5-2:4. These verses cite Psalm 2:7; II Samuel 7:14; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 97:7; Psalm 104:4; Psalm 45:6-7; Psalm 102:25-27 in further support of the author’s assertion in vs. 1:4 that Jesus has become “as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.” More than any other New Testament book, Hebrews weaves the Hebrew Scriptures into every line of its argument. These references are not “proof texts” in the sense that they demonstrate and substantiate Jesus’ status as God’s Son. Jesus’ Sonship is grasped by faith and assumed from the get go. The author of Hebrews employs these scriptural citations not to prove, but to illustrate, deepen and explicate the meaning of Jesus as God’s Son and our true high priest with a rich variety of biblical images.
Our reading picks up again in chapter 2 at verse 5 with a quotation from our psalm. As you recall, the psalmist wonders at the status of the human creature: mortal and perishable unlike angels, yet in intellect and power unlike any other animal. The author of Hebrews uses this paradoxical position of the human creature to speak of Jesus’ status as God’s son. As a human person, Jesus shares fully in our own creaturely nature. Yet at the same time, he is exalted as God’s Son who “tastes death” for everyone. Vs. 2:9.
The reading ends with a citation from Psalm 22: “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.” Psalm 22:22. It should not be lost on us that this is the psalm beginning with Jesus’ words from the cross: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Psalm 22:1. This psalm which begins with a cry of dereliction and concludes with a hymn of praise not only draws the reader’s attention to Jesus’ crucifixion, but also provides the perfect scriptural paradigm for Jesus’ journey from suffering to exaltation. If we are going to understand fully the testimony of this wonderful epistle, we must pay careful attention to its use of the Hebrew Scriptures.
“We do not yet see everything in subjection to [Christ].” Vs. 2:8. That is true today as then. It does not appear that Jesus reigns. Yet contrary to all appearances, we confess that he does. More than that, we live under the belief that he does. For if Christ is not Lord of heaven and earth, the Sermon on the Mount makes no sense. It is not practical to turn the other cheek in the face of aggression. It is not practical to give to people who beg from you. It is not practical to love an enemy that is trying to kill you. At least none of this is practical in a world run by the principalities, the rulers and the assumptions of this age. But disciples of Jesus maintain that Caesar is not Lord. Nor is the invisible hand of the market nor is dialectical materialism nor is any nation state. Jesus is Lord and the day will come when every knee will bow and tongue so confess. Therefore, we throw in our lot with the one we know to be victorious even if that means we will have to take some lumps from those who have not yet figured that out. We take the long view. The Kingdom of God is coming and so we gather as Christ’s Body animated by the Spirit of God so that we can be transformed into the kind of people capable of living in such a kingdom.
This passage and the way the church has interpreted it in the past is responsible for a lot of pain inflicted on a lot of people. I can still recall the days when our churches would not perform second marriages on the basis of this passage. I have heard a number of heartbreaking stories from woman who have been counseled to remain with their abusive husbands so as not to “put asunder” what “God has joined together.” So if we are to continue reading this scripture in our worship services and preaching on it, it is critical that we get it right.
To begin with, we need to acknowledge that what we call marriage has undergone significant changes throughout the ages. Marriage in the time of Jesus is not what it was in the days of the Patriarchs or during the reign of David over Israel. Marriage today is different from what it was in the time of Jesus and, for that matter, different from what it was only a century ago when women in our country could not vote, enter into contracts or, in many instances, own land. Women in Jesus’ day were regarded as the property of men. Adultery was not a crime committed between a man and a woman. It was a crime committed by one man against another man. It was a crime committed by a woman against her husband. Notice how the question is put to Jesus: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” vs. 2. A woman could no more divorce her husband than a cow could rescind her owner’s bill of sale.
So this is not an issue of sexual morality. It is a question of justice and compassion for women. A divorced woman loses her home, her source of sustenance and her livelihood. She can only hope that her father will take her back into his home or that someone needs a servant or a day laborer. Divorce as it was practiced in Jesus’ day laid a disproportionately heavy burden on women. This was, in every sense of the word, a man’s world-but not according to Jesus. For Jesus, women were as much children of God and called as much to discipleship as men. Jesus will not have them treated as cattle that can be disposed of arbitrarily.
Jesus does not dispute the law of Moses in this regard. Divorce is permitted under the terms of the law. Jesus goes on to point out, however, that Moses wrote this commandment “for your hardness of heart.” Vs. 5. Marriage was designed to be a life-long commitment. Because “it is not good” for a person to be alone, dissolution of a marriage is contrary to its purpose. Yet because our hearts are hard, many of God’s good gifts to us are ruined. Marriage is one of them. It is important to emphasize here that the “hardness of heart” necessitating divorce is not found solely or even primarily within the divorcing couple. Due to our ever increasingly mobile society, many young married couples begin their lives together and raise their families in neighborhoods far from where they grew up and where their families reside. They lack the family support and encouragement that is often so helpful in building up and strengthening a marriage. Demand upon professionals to work long hours takes a toll on marriage. Loss of employment, financial stress and illness of a spouse can test even the strongest marriages. I am thankful for a vibrant community of faith that stood by me during times of illness, economic instability and stress in my family. I am likewise indebted to a supportive employer who was flexible enough to give me the time I needed to care for my family in periods of crisis. This week I will celebrate 32 years of marriage-but not with any sense of pride or accomplishment. I know only too well that I owe my successful marriage to a host of partners who stood by me and my wife in time of need. I also know that there are better people than me whose marriages have broken under the strain of the factors discussed above.
In sum, there are many guilty parties in every divorce, such as uncaring and unflexible employers, unsupportive faith communities, distant and disinterested neighbors and corporate business entities that put profits before the stability of communities and the welfare of their workers. So also, behind every successful marriage there usually are a host of supporting angels that have been present at critical times to encourage faithfulness and endurance. Most significantly, the sins involved with the breakup of a marriage are no different from any other sin. They are covered by God’s mercy and forgiveness. Just as God raised Jesus from death, so also God can bring new life and love out of the ruins of a failed marriage.