17th Sunday after Trinity
Two days ago, I took a train out of St Pancras’ Station to go and see a former student who is now a priest in the Diocese of Peterborough. It was a short journey but I got into an interesting conversation with a young woman who sat opposite me. She turned out to be a deeply committed Christian, and was very interested to know about my work as a teacher in a theological college in the United States. At one point in our conversation, she suddenly said, ‘Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God?’ I replied, ‘I certainly do, but I am not a fundamentalist.’
She asked me to explain what I meant. I said, ‘I believe the Bible is the Word of God, but the various writers were fallible people like ourselves. They were inspired by God, yes; but what they wrote down was influenced by the culture and attitudes of their time. They were limited in time and place like every human being. The Word of God comes to us through fallible instruments.’
There was nothing unusual in what I said to her. It was a typical Anglican understanding of Scripture. I realized as I said those words that the readings appointed for Mass this Sunday were an excellent example of just what I was saying to the young woman.
If we want to understand what Scripture is saying, we need to know the context in which a particular passage was written. If we do not know the context, reading the Bible can be very dangerous – we may not understand at all what the Word of God is telling us.
In the rabbinic tradition of the Jews it has been the custom, since before the time of Jesus, for the teacher to comment on the Scripture that has been read. For Christians that same tradition has continued in the homily or sermon preached after the reading of the Gospel. The purpose is to ‘break open’ the Word – to interpret the Scripture in terms of the lives of the hearers so that the Word may take root in them and bear fruit.
So let us look at the first reading from the second chapter of Genesis. On the surface, this reading might seem to be the biblical authority for marriage. If it is, then it is certainly not the foundation for the Christian understanding of marriage.
Let us look beneath the text to the context. First of all, you may have noted that Genesis 2 shows the male to be superior to the female: the man is created first – well before the woman; and as Genesis tells the story, God created a great many animals before he got around to creating woman. God seems to be looking for a helper for the man, and finally hits on the idea of making the woman out of the man’s rib.
Now none of this is really surprising. In ancient Hebrew society, men and women were not equal. There was, in fact, a radical inequality, an inequality that some of my Jewish friends continue to encounter today. But in Genesis 2, this inequality is simply taken for granted. Man is dominant; woman is subservient. That is how Israelite society was organized and there are some Christian groups today which have preserved the Old Testament model!
The Christian teaching on marriage is that the man and woman are partners, companions. All contemporary theologians who write on Christian marriage speak of it as grounded in the equality of the two partners. Yes, I know, some Christian couples have not heard that message, but it is clear in the teaching of the New Testament that in the Body of Christ there are no superior and inferior members. All of us are equally the children of God. And if that applies to the Church, it certainly applies to the partners in Christian marriage.
Then should we even read Genesis 2? The great value for Christians in that passage is the wonderful insight which comes in the first sentence: ‘It is not good for a man or woman to be alone.’ That is the sentence which introduces the Creation story, and is both the reason for the story, and also a fundamental insight into what it is to be a full human being. The insight is that we need each other; our lives are mutually interdependent.
It is in all of our relationships – in marriage, but also in friendship, and even in encounters with strangers – that we are called by God to leave our self-centred isolation and to be fulfilled as we turn outward in love toward others. When St Thomas Aquinas wrote of the Christian understanding of marriage, he placed his teaching under a more inclusive category: friendship.
I see a marvellous wisdom in this, that all marriage should be understood as one form of friendship. As in our friendships, each party is equal, and there is a mutuality and a reciprocity which is characteristic of really strong friendships. So the teaching of Genesis 2 continues as a source of insight into God’s way with us. As with the man in the Creation story, God brings into our own lives others – because it is not good for us to be alone.
Some of those ‘others’ are of particular significance: a spouse or a partner, but also those really important friendships which have graced our lives, and changed our lives by inviting us to love, and by loving to become even more fully the children of God.
But what about the Gospel reading from St Mark?
The biblical scholars who prepared our lectionary of readings obviously intended that the reading from Genesis should be held together with the reading from Mark. In fact, as you may remember, Jesus specifically quotes our passage from Genesis 2. But what is Jesus saying? Is he simply repeating the phrase about a man being joined to a woman? What is the context?
The Pharisees are testing Jesus about the Jewish law which permitted a man to divorce his wife for whatever reason he chose; needless to say, the law did not permit a woman to divorce a man. Jesus answers the Pharisees that the Law of Moses exists because they are hard hearted. Jesus renounces that teaching. In effect, he is saying that in marriage a woman is not a piece of property. She is a human being and must be treated with the same respect as you would treat your own flesh.
This teaching was revolutionary, and our reading goes on to show Jesus giving his blessing to children whom his own disciples were trying to send away. Another revolutionary act. Children, like women, were inferior members of society. All power was placed upon the adult male. And Jesus is saying that we must all become like little children – powerless – utterly dependent upon the grace of God. It is hard for us to imagine how radical such teaching was in the time of Jesus. And it continues to be radical today: radical equality; radical inclusiveness; all of us are equally loved in the sight of God.
Yes, the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God; but we must not rest on the surface of the text. We must dig into it and see what it is saying to us today. And we must remember that the Word comes to us pre-eminently in the context of our celebration of the Eucharist each week.
Again the Word does not stand alone: it is always in context. And in each Eucharist, the Word comes to us embodied: yes, in the proclamation of Scripture, but also embodied in the gathering of the People of God, for Jesus said, ‘where two or three are gathered together in my Name, I am there in the midst of them.’
And so embodied for us in our spiritual food and drink, in our Communion in the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ: here each week in every Eucharist the Word is made visible.