Picture a hammer. It’s just a hammer, right? In one person’s hands that hammer can be a tool for building or repairing something. It can be used to construct a home for a family that needs one or to fix a leak in the roof. But that same hammer in another person’s hands can be a weapon. The hammer that fixes the hole in the roof can also crush someone’s skull. It depends on how it’s used.
Scripture is often the same way. Certainly scripture is more than just a tool, but it can similarly be used to build up or to break down. It can be used to strengthen our faith, both individually and collectively. It can also be used to attack people – to make them feel shame about who they are or what they’ve done, even when neither of those things is inherently shameful. It can be used to oppress people in ways that God does not intend.
Today we hear not one, but two passages that have historically been used as weapons. Let’s see how we might reclaim them from those who wield them in dangerous ways.
Let’s begin with the first reading from Genesis. The opening chapters of Genesis actually contain two creation stories from two different sources, and the one we hear today is part of the second account. In it we hear that the first woman is created from the rib of the man whom God has temporarily put to sleep. This story has been interpreted over the centuries to mean that women are inherently subordinate to men, less powerful and more easily conquered by the forces of evil.
One 15thcentury document, for example, concludes that women are weaker in intellect and more susceptible to the devil’s temptations, declaring that woman
…is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.[i]
Over and over again throughout history this biblical text has been summoned to justify the subjugation of women. And our English translations do not help. Our translation this morning says that God wanted to create a helper for that first human. In English “helper” often suggests an inferior status – a sidekick, a person who is not necessarily equal to the one being helped. But that’s not the case in the original Hebrew. The word translated as “helper” is not inherently subordinate. It means a counterpart, one who is an equal partner in the shared work. It suggests mutuality more than subordination. You know who is most often described as “helper” in the Hebrew scriptures? God.
This story in Genesis does not tell us that women are inherently inferior. What it does tell us is that we are created for relationships – deep, loving relationships in which we can be vulnerable and depend on each other and trust one another. To be bone of bone and flesh of flesh means that we are all made of the same stuff, created by God as equals and partners. And I believe that this text is not limited to the marriage relationship as we have often assumed. There are many kinds of relationships in which we can derive strength from mutual support and love. We can experience that powerful connection in family relationships and in close friendships. What is vital to our lives is some kind of relationship in which we can be fully ourselves as we love and are loved in return.
But, being human, we are also extraordinarily good at breaking relationships. And while the Pharisees in today’s gospel push Jesus into commenting on marriage, we all know that broken relationships are also not limited to marriage. Even if we have not personally been divorced, we have all been part of a relationship that has fractured in some way. Each of us has contributed to the erosion of a connection we have held dear. That’s the darker side of sharing the same human flesh – which is at once capable of love and intimacy and also capable of seething resentments and shouting matches. Jesus knows this about us.
This passage has often been used to beat up on divorced people – an approach that Jesus would surely condemn. In this moment he is pushing against the more legalistic approach of the religious leaders, hearkening back to Genesis and the loftier intentions of the Creator, who does not desire us to be alone. It’s not about rules for Jesus. It’s about relationship – healthy, holy relationship.
Perhaps less obvious is that in his later conversation with the disciples, Jesus frames his argument in a way that is uniquely empowering for women in the ancient world. Men could divorce their wives fairly easily in that culture, leaving women vulnerable to shame, social rejection, and economic ruin. And the men didn’t necessarily have to claim a credible reason for dismissing their wives. They could just wake up one day and declare that it was over. Jesus highlights here that women have the same voice and power in deciding when a relationship is beyond repair.
Even so, no matter who initiates it, Jesus knows that the end of a relationship brings pain – a pain that often reverberates through families and communities. In modern times we obviously wouldn’t agree that when someone divorces and remarries, it constitutes adultery. But it’s worth remembering that even when we move forward after a relationship ends, there remains a shared history with that person. And when there are children, there is an ongoing relationship that lasts beyond the marriage.
I find it striking that for the third week in a row we hear Jesus calling us to pay attention to the children – the ones most vulnerable to being hurt when relationships unravel.
On Friday I was at Princeton Seminary for a conference, and when it ended late in the day, I grabbed some dinner and wandered around near the university while I waited for the traffic on the way home to improve. I stepped into one of the stores, where I was the only customer, and the young woman behind the counter was warm and engaging as she helped me find some face cream to try. We chatted about many things, and I learned in that conversation that her parents are divorced.
I admitted to her that I am a pastor, and I explained a little about the subject of today’s gospel. I made it clear that she was not obligated to answer my nosy question, but I asked her what she would say to a couple who was going through a divorce.
She didn’t have to think too long before offering this advice: Don’t say ugly things about the other parent to your kids. She remembered how painful it was when her dad would complain to her about her mom. It was equally painful when her mom referred to her dad by all kinds of terrible names. She said, with a wisdom beyond her years, “I understand that sometimes marriages don’t work out. But just because your relationship has become toxic doesn’t mean you should poison the family.” Thinking of her younger siblings, she added, “All kids want is to feel safe and loved. We want you to show up at our soccer games and our concerts without yelling at each other.” She paused and repeated the words: “We just want to feel safe and loved.”
That’s all any of us want – to feel safe and loved. And that is what God wants for us. That’s why God’s love, unlike much of human love, is completely unconditional. God’s love for us does not depend on whether our relationships are flourishing or disintegrating. God’s love is steadfast and sure, regardless of our circumstances.
I pray that no matter what our relationship status happens to be, no matter what shame we carry with us from the past, no matter what difficulties we face in the present, that we will know how much God holds us in that unshakeable love. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ