Pentecost 19, Year B
Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I felt sorry for Pope Francis this week. On the one hand, during his visit, he was lauded in the streets and in the press by throngs of Americans, churched and unchurched, Roman Catholic and Protestant, young and old. Yet on the other hand, the weight of all of their opposing hopes and bottomless expectations must have fallen heavy even upon his shoulders; their fickle praise, too, must have danced before his eyes a like taunting tempter. The liberals in the crowd waved his words about social justice like victory flags and then turned away in disgust when he upheld traditional Roman Catholic teachings on abortion and marriage. The conservatives disdainfully ignored his pleas to abolish the death penalty and to open up our gates to refugees, and yet they raised up his meeting with Kim Davis like a golden trophy.
As a Christian these days, caught in a world of conflicting sound-bites and oppositional rhetoric, I often feel as if I, too, am constantly being asked to fit myself into one camp or another. Can’t I lament the senseless deaths caused by a flood of mass shootings, searching for positive steps to stop the killing, without seeming to threaten my kind neighbor’s Second Amendment rights? Can’t I talk about welcoming refugees, or pray for an end to war, without being labeled unpatriotic? Can’t I join loving same-sex Christians in holy matrimony without having my theology dismissed as anemic? Can’t I disagree strongly with what Kim Davis is doing and yet still believe in the rights of the conscientious objector? You might be facing different dilemmas, but no matter to which side of the gaping divides our upbringing and personal reflection have led us, I’m sure that each of us knows the feeling—the feeling of being carried down a rough river much too quickly, barely dodging boulders of inflexible opinion, trying to keep our heads above the floodwaters of information surging around us.
Jesus, like the Pope, is no stranger to opposing camps trying to find out where his loyalties really lie. The scribes and Pharisees lie in wait constantly for Jesus’ teaching to get him on the wrong side of someone. That’s what’s happening in today’s difficult Gospel reading. Before we snatch up Jesus’ words to support our views of marriage or to condemn those whose marriages have failed, let’s take a look at what is happening in this passage.
In Jesus’ day, Jewish scholars were at odds over divorce. Yes, the Law that God gave to God’s people in Deuteronomy was clear: a man could definitely divorce his wife. As always, though, there were details to argue about. The issue for the rabbis was remarriage, as well as what would constitute grounds for divorce. Could a woman be turned out because she burned the pita bread? Or did she have to do something worse, like get caught in adultery? It was always the men who could do the divorcing in the patriarchal first-century world.
The Pharisees want to know if Jesus is going to uphold this Law, and which side he will take. What interpretation will he bring to scripture? Or will he dismiss the whole problem and thereby prove himself to be the heretic that they believe he is? What is interesting for us is that Jesus doesn’t play the debating game with them at all. Jesus refuses to join sides in the rabbis’ debate. Instead, he pushes the question to the extreme.
Modern rhetorical scholars call Jesus’ technique “over-acceptance.” Actors involved in improvisation do it all the time. Today, on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, I immediately thought of the story of St. Francis and his father. When a bishop ordered young Francis to repay his father some money that he had taken from the family business to fund his religious causes, St. Francis did more than give back the money. He stripped off all of his clothes and dumped them at his father’s feet, standing naked before the crowds. Francis had “over-accepted” the bishop’s demand. Over-accepting is a way to make a point that goes beyond what a simple reply can do. Jesus uses this technique to stay ahead of his enemies, but he also uses it to shake us out of our complacency, to prevent us from settling into easy rule-bound ways of thinking.
Theologian Sam Wells argues that our whole Gospel is a story of over-acceptance. “In the annunciation and the nativity,” he writes, “God overaccepts human life. He does not reject his people, nor does he simply accept them: instead he comes among them as a Jew... [And then] in the resurrection, God shows that even the worst offer, the execution of the Son of God, can be overaccepted - even death and all its causes can become part of the story [of new, everlasting life]."
So what does this mean for us, for us who seek to follow an overaccepting Lord? How do we follow his lead? Certainly, concerning divorce, Jesus knows, as do any of us who have been through it, that the ties of marriage cannot be broken without deep pain. We know that what God has joined together comes apart only in broken pieces, with the tattered bonds trailing behind us like sad rags wherever we go. Jesus does not flinch from this difficult reality. But his strong words are not meant to establish new laws in the divorce courts, either. They are not aimed directly at the joy that might be found in a happy second marriage. They are meant to break through the limiting arguments of the religious scholars of his day. They are meant to take us off of our ideological high horses. They are meant to point to our common dependence on God’s grace, the grace of a God who reaches out to us with the loving enthusiasm of a little child, over and over again.
On this Sunday that kicks off our Stewardship campaign, what would Jesus say if he came into our parish and a budget committee member asked him, “Hey Jesus, tell ‘em that they need to give ten percent of their gross income to St. Thomas like it says in the Bible?” Jesus might ask for a dollar bill and tell him to give it to George Washington, but to offer up to God everything bearing the imprint of the Creator of heaven and earth. He might also tell us to sell everything that we have and give it to the poor.
And if Jesus came to coffee hour today, in the wake of the attack in Oregon, and I asked him to tell you that the answer to the violence in this country lies in gun control, he might well tell you instead that violence will continue to explode until we learn to love our enemies and those who persecute us.
Perhaps the most important words of Pope Francis—the words that each of needs to hear amid the din of political posturing—were his words proclaiming 2016 to be a “holy year of mercy.” Mercy for me, for you, for those that we condemn and for those that we love. The divine mercy of over-acceptance, greater than any solution that we can imagine for ourselves. Mercy that is, in the poetry of TS Eliot, “A condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything).”