Protecting the Vulnerable

Protecting the Vulnerable

Our scripture this morning has been misunderstood. Traditional church doctrine has taught that divorce is a sin and grounds for expulsion from the community of faith. That is very ugly, when most people going through a divorce are already pretty beat up and hurting as it is.

So let’s try to unpack our scripture to see what might have motivated Jesus’ teaching. The context of our scripture was the extremely low status of women in the First Century. Women had almost no legal rights. They were considered to be the property of men, first their fathers and then their husbands. A woman ranked just a cut above a mule or a slave. A mule could be killed. A slave could be abused but not killed. A wife was supposed to suffer in silence.

In ancient Israel a man could have more than one wife, and prostitution was legal, so the desire for sexual variety was not a compelling reason for divorce as far as men were concerned. If a woman burned her husband’s supper, however, that was considered adequate grounds for divorce. And divorce was easy. All the man had to do was say three times: “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you,” and have a scribe write out a “bill of divorce,” and the woman was on her own. She had no rights to property from the marriage, no rights to her children from the marriage. She was simply out on the street with the clothes on her back. The “bill of divorce” was her proof that she was no longer married, and so she could return to her father’s house, or she could start making her living in one of the only ways left to her – prostitution.

Jesus was absolutely revolutionary in his attitude toward women in his time and cultural context. The Gospel of Luke mentions several women were bankrolling “the Ministry,” “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”

Jesus also believed that women had brains. At the home of Mary and Martha, when Martha complained that Mary was not helping with the women’s work, because she was listening with the men to Jesus’ teaching, Jesus said that Mary had chosen the better portion. Many non-canonical gospels, especially the Gospel of James, grant Mary Magdalene a much more prominent role in the circle of Jesus followers, even claiming that Jesus considered her equal to or even superior to his male disciples. Karen King, a professor at Harvard has even come forward recently with a 4th Century snatch of papyrus from Egypt purporting to refer to Jesus’ “wife.”

Jesus was concerned about the status of women in his society, and so when he was asked about the law of divorce, he sided with the women. Essentially he was saying, in a society in which women have no economic options, if you marry a woman, you must continue to provide for her, even if the relationship sours.

What would Jesus say about divorce in twenty-first century America? Our situation is so far removed from First Century Israel, trying to apply Mark 10:2-12 in our modern context is fraught with difficulty. For one thing many divorces are initiated by women, who no longer wish to be married, and forcing them to remain in a loveless or even abusive relationship is not what Jesus intended. Churches that excommunicate or dis-fellowship people, when they become divorced are just adding insult to injury. Divorce is a crumby experience and the church needs to provide comfort and spiritual insight in helping people sort out their lives after the break-up of a marriage. There is usually enough blame to go around and the key is forgiveness, resolution and moving on.

The key to understanding how we might apply Jesus’ intent to our modern context is to try to sort out what is a fair and equitable financial arrangement, when a marriage dissolves. Currently we have too many women and children living in poverty, because of divorce. Way too many single Moms are trying to support their children on their own after the Dad has abandoned his responsibilities.

And maybe that is why the lectionary included verses 13-16, where Jesus says, “Let the children come to me.” Jesus’ ministry was notable, because he included women as his followers and because he reached out to children another disenfranchised segment of his society. Perhaps what we need to carry away from our scripture this morning is that Jesus reached out to, embraced, lifted up the nobodies. Women and children did not count in his world, and Jesus affirmed their worth. The affirmation of the disenfranchised helps to explain the amazing growth of the early church in the Roman Empire among women and slaves. In Paul’s letter to Philemon we see Paul intervening with a Christian Master to free his slave Onesimus. Similarly in several of Paul’s authentic letters we see women described as apostles, deaconesses, and other offices of leadership within the early church. It was only after the church adopted a more conservative message and organization in the second century to appeal to the men of the Empire, that women were put in their place, “wives be obedient to your husbands” and slaves were counseled to “be obedient to your masters.” Indeed, I think it was hard for the church after Constantine to see the difference between wives and slaves.

I don’t know what it is about fundamentalism, but fundamentalists of all stripes, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu seem bent on turning back the clock on the liberation and empowerment of women. One of the most important social movements initiated by Jesus was affirming the worth and status of women. Jesus’ vision of the freedom, equality and dignity of women has been a long time coming. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

The day is coming in the United States, when women will be guaranteed equal pay for equal work. And if we look at the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, Leyman Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist, and Tawakkol Karman a Yemeni journalist and human rights activist, Jesus’ vision of the power and dignity of women is spreading — slowly to be sure.

There are set-backs along the way like male dominated legislatures mandating vaginal ultrasounds for women, or Islamic militants raping women’s rights advocates to try to keep them in their place. I’ve heard some women speculate that maybe those men need to have prostate exams administered by a women’s roller derby team – level the playing field – turn the other cheek.

Even though progress is halting and slow, like the resurrection of Jesus, the victory is assured. Women all over the world are entering the work force and claiming new dignity and power in their societies. Bangladesh for instance has a long way to go, but women have entered the labor market in droves. They are limiting the size of their families, and they have even elected a woman Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. An international social revolution is afoot.

Social evolutions take time. If we measure human progress in terms of the empowerment and dignity of women from the time of the First Century until now, at least in the developed West we live in a very different world than Jesus. Not only are women better off, but the advancement of women has generally been coupled with improvements in the treatment and security of the most vulnerable in society.

Like Moses many of us will not cross over the river into the Promised Land. If we climb to the mountain top, God may give us a glimpse of a brighter fairer future. And we will have to be content to know that our efforts in the present have brought us closer to the Commonwealth of God Jesus proclaimed was at hand.

In 1970 I was working at the Washington Office of the Council for Christian Social Action of the United Church of Christ. Our offices were in the Methodist Building in between the Supreme Court Building and the New Senate Office Building. Just down the street was the American Headquarters of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The WILPF was founded in 1915 in a bid to try to stop World War I. Since then the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom has advocated an end to war, disarmament, women’s suffrage, and full human equality for all people. I was invited to an anti-war meeting at their headquarters, and there were several older women in attendance along with a number of younger women. The younger women were already beginning to reflect some of the advances the feminist movement had made.

There were a couple of very ancient and frail looking ladies among the younger women, who had been part of the founding of the WILPF in 1915. They had spoken out against war, worked for the right to vote for women, opposed child labor, advocated for free public education, and protections for the environment long before any of those dearly won issues had become popular. And what I noticed most was the sparkle in these ancient and wise women’s eyes as they saw the younger women stepping into a new future they had helped to shape.

Like those older ladies many of us will not live to see the day, when the commonwealth of God becomes a reality. But what we are promised is that if we keep the faith, follow in the way of Jesus, in some way we do not yet understand, we will know it and be part of that future in that day.


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