Jesus Live on Scarth Street Part Three: Jesus Discusses Human Relationships
Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 104; Hebrew 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16
Sunday, October 21, 2018 — The Season of Creation and Emergence
Knox-Metropolitan United Church — Regina, SK — Treaty 4 Territory
On the 4th of November 1936, The Rev. Lydia Emelie Gruchy was ordained at St. Andrew’s United Church of Moose Jaw, the first woman to be ordained as a minister of the United Church of Canada — an event well worth celebrating. But it is worth remembering that the chain of events that lead up to this was not straight forward.
Lydia had graduated with honours from the Presbyterian Theological College in Saskatoon in 1923 (she was the first female student ever enrolled in that institution) at which point she applied for ordination in the Presbyterian Church, and was denied.
When the United Church was formed in 1925, she reapplied, but was denied once again.
For the next decade she worked at a number of churches, first at the at the Veregin Church near Kamsack, and then served as pastor at Wakaw and later at Kelvington. Every two years her Presbytery applied on her behalf for her to be ordained and was denied.
In 1934, Saskatchewan Conference, rather than asking for permission, announced that they would be ordaining her, which provoked the General Council of the United Church to put before itself the question “Do you approve of the Ordination of Women?” — the vote easily passed and Lydia Grouchy was ordained, ministered with the United Church institution around developing paths for women into ministry, would return to Saskatchewan to minister with a number of congregations, received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from St. Andrew’s College, and finally retired to BC where she died in 1992.
Her story offers us a reason to be proud, but not complacent and self-congratulating.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been exploring, through the Lectionary (the appointed readings for each week) this section in the Gospel of Mark, wherein we find some of the troubling and challenging sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth — that one must lose one’s life in order to gain it, become great by service, an ordinance to cut off one’s own limbs to avoid wrong-doing, and then today, Jesus seemingly prohibiting divorce and remarriage.
During this time, we’ve been imagining and asking, how, given this sort of dialogue, Jesus, as his person and teaching is described through these writings, might be received in our world today — how would this all go over were Jesus saying these things through a mega-phone or a portable sound system on the corner of Scarth and 11th in front of the Cornwall Centre at noon, or maybe just at the Southern opening to the Pedestrian Mall on a busy Farmer’s Market Saturday.
Would he draw an interested crowd or would people be throwing their produce and cups of fresh squeezed lemonade at him?
Every fall, the Lectionary (the set of appointed readings used in many Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and United Churches) gets thrown off a bit due to Thanksgiving both in the US and Canada, and around now we find several weeks with alternative readings.
So for this service, to ensure that we were indeed tackling some of the readings that often get left out, we’ve been following the readings a few weeks behind which means that today’s passage was actually the appointed reading for the Sunday that fell on Thanksgiving which was also Worldwide Communion Sunday. Which I think brought a lot of relief to preachers all over the place. I’ve been teaching a class at the Lifelong Learning Centre which is made up of folks of many different denominations (and many of no church connection) who confirmed that their congregations happily focused on Thanksgiving readings rather than deal with this passage — and since it comes up in the cycle every 3 years, always at this time of year, I am guessing it doesn’t get a lot of air time.
This whole section that we have been exploring has seen Jesus and his followers in transition from the rural northern part of Jewish Palestine to the south from which the Roman supporting and supported Hebrew rule this land.
It is along this path where Jesus who has been symbolically standing against and critiquing the social, economic and political norms of the day which oppress and divide those living under this brutal and pernicious form of Roman colonial rule — begins to offer an alternative ethic for a community of solidarity and resistance to the forces that dehumanize and degrade human dignity.
This has all been framed by Jesus beginning by bringing a child into the centre of the community, not as a sentimentalized parlour scene from a Victorian painting of Jesus with well groomed and behaved cherub like little ones, but as a symbol of the most vulnerable among society — a sign that this new social order must be judged by how effectively it will protect and improve the conditions of the weakest and most vulnerable members. We see this vivid image being repeated at the close of todays reading.
In the midst of this, they cross the Jordan River, another symbolic location associated with liberation in the deep story these people share as a community, and then Jesus is confronted by the Pharisee’s — the interpreters of law.
Two things should be noted here — one is that Pharisees in these stories are often understood as a stand in for Judaism, portrayed as legalistic in conflict with Jesus as representative of Christianity. To this we should remember that neither Judaism nor Christianity are developed as religious systems for centuries.
Secondly, their role as interpreters of the law. There is no commonly established legal court system in this moment and place in history so disputes are settled at the synagogue, which is not a religious place of worship, but a community gathering space where the local elders adjudicate based on tradition, local precedent, and the prevailing social code.
That social code, should not be understood as Jewish, both because the development of that religious system is a while off, and also because much of the social norms of the day are also deeply influenced by the Greek and Roman household code which are exported along with the Greek language around the mediterranean.
So when the Pharisees ask Jesus their question about divorce this is not a religions question (as we might think it today), but a social one, largely because this a society with a holistic world view in which there are no divisions between the religious, the economic, the household, and morality.
And since Jesus’ ministry has always been about the liberation of the vulnerable, I would suggest that we are not seeing Jesus at his most moralistic here which is how the passage has been read, but suggesting something foundational (yet radical in his moment) about equality between the male and female gender.
The question comes about whether it is lawful (again not meaning legal in the way we understand it today) for a man to divorce his wife. Note that they are not asking is divorce itself permissible — a subtle but key distinction.
When Jesus replies by asking about Moses commands, he is essentially asking them what their tradition offers to this.
They reply that tradition allows a man to write a certificate of dismissal.
Jesus responds by taking tradition back further from Moses to their shared myths of creation: ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
German Feminist Liberation Theologian Elizabeth Shüssler Fiorenza suggests that what the Pharisees are doing is taking the already established practice of discarding woman as if they were property (a practice in Greco-Roman society) and seeking to justify this within their own historic tradition, presupposing, as she suggests, that patriarchal marriage is just a given.
She suggests that Jesus’ response is an argument that:
“Divorce (in their question) is necessary because of the male’s hardness of heart, their patriarchal reality and mind-set…But Jesus insists that God did not intend patriarchy but created persons as male and female human beings. It id not woman who is given into the power of man in order to continue “his” household and family line (which had become the accepted understanding) but it is man who shall sever his connection with his own patriarchal family and the two persons shall become one…” She suggests that the Genesis passage Jesus quotes might better understood as “two people enter into a common life and social relationship because they are created equal.”
Following this, Jesus and his disciples continue the conversation:
‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’
Again, I would suggest that when read carefully and against the context of the day this is not fundamentally a moral prohibition but about liberation and equality.
In the household code of the Mediterranean world, a man commits adultery against another married man, not his own wife, which is challenged in that first statement, while the second establishes a right of the female partner initiate divorce which would have directly contradicted the established practices of the day in which only a man can can administer such proceedings.
Ched Myers notes that while this passage acknowledges divorce as a reality it also brings to attention the fundamental issues of justice and power relations no matter how sacred the institution is believed to be — that this must be read in the context of the whole section interested in the protection of the vulnerable and the “least”. Jesus makes clear to his community that women among them can only be protected if they are no longer treated as object, but as equal subjects in issues of conflict resolution.
Of course, this passage is still overtly framed within a binary understanding of gender, but some other time, we might explore the work of Austen Hartke a transgender activist and preacher and the winner of the 2014 John Milton award for excellence in Old Testament scholarship, who has turned his academic work into a very accessible YouTube series and the recently released Transforming: the Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians in which Hartke offers a fascinating and creative interpretation of the same Genesis creation myths referred to in this passage in relation to non-binary gender identities.
Lamentably though, this passage has most commonly be used throughout Christian History as prohibition of divorce and remarriage which has often had the exact opposite effect of this reading, the continual subjugation of female personhood, many times locking women and children into abusive relationships to avoid social stigma and further marginalization.
How would this go over today? If Jesus were to bring the fundamental core of this teaching — exposing the underlying inequality within accepted social norms to the attention of modern listeners. Coming from my own social location, I don’t want to presume what issues would be raised, but I would imagine issues of consent and assault, inequitable pay and working treatment, whose voice is given hearing. I would wonder if the Jesus who in the book of Mark exposes inequality and challenges hidden patriarchal foundations of social structure by insisting on equality might hand his mega-phone over to brave survivors, while holding a sign simply stating “What She Said!”
Such a presentation might even be pointed towards institutions like the church — if we had time we could ponder a recent video produced by the North Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in which female identifying pastors shared a list of dehumanizing and exhausting things they’d heard from fellow pastors, church officials and congregants. We might also read an article from the United Church Observer this summer from a St. Andrew’s College Student in the joint degree program leading towards an MDiv and ordination, entitled: To those who said I’ll only be respected as a minister because I’m pretty.
As we continue to ponder what it would mean for Knox-Met to become part of Affirming Ministries, might we ponder how continue to make space for female voices, insights and gifts to be affirmed and nurtured in our work, our structures, in our prayers and liturgy, even in our preaching.
Cheryl and I often think of how Lily and Isla take in the Tradition we are part of, certainly Cheryl was not raised in a religious context that lifted up and celebrated the voices of female characters in Scripture, we wonder what heroes this faith has for them, and what new ways of reading the tradition might need to be undertaken that they would find in this path a source of empowerment.
I think that the Jesus of this week’s passage reminds us again of the necessity to look past the surface in our practices and structures to where inequality may be hiding, to bring that forth, and to listen deeply.
There is of course much more to say, let’s consider this the an invitation to conversation…
For in life, in death,
in life beyond death,
God is with us,
We are Not Alone.
Thanks be to God.