John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

The Power of Women and the Heart of the Law (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

Sermon preached at St. Aidan's Episcopal Church on October 7th, 2018. Lectionary gospel reading from Mark 10:2-16 and Genesis 2:18-24 (NRSV).


For many of us individually, and certainly for our larger community, the events and debates of these last few weeks have been very difficult. They have brought into question our values, our identities, and what worth we give to those around us. Setting aside party allegiances or abstract policy commitments, I think it is fair to say we are all worse off after the weeks that ended with a confirmation yesterday, but women in particular have lost the most.

It was with these events in mind, and with a heavy heart, that I turned to our lectionary passages today. Both our Genesis and Mark readings have something to say about the relationship between man and woman, and both have been used for harm and for good throughout the centuries of first Jewish and then Christian tradition.

In Mark’s chapter 10, the gospel chronicler’s conversational foils come back again to challenge Jesus: “And Pharisees approached and tested him, asking him whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife.” Jesus gives a clear answer: yes, of course it is lawful, it’s in the Law right there, but isn’t a better question “is it right?” Now, before we assume this is a blanket condemnation of all divorces, in ways that some interpreters from Protestant or Catholic traditions have long insisted, it’s important to know the context in which Jesus was speaking.

The two leading Jewish rabbis who developed the foundation of what is now known as Rabbinic Judaism were called Hillel and Shammai, and they nearly overlapped with the work of Jesus in the previous century. In general, Hillel was the more liberal and open commentator whom both Jesus and Jewish tradition ended up affirming the majority of the time, while the school of Shammai was much more strict. Jesus’ articulation of the Golden Rule and his insistence on the two greatest commandments comes straight from Hillel.

I love this one story about the Rabbi Hillel. A challenger came up to him and said, “I’ll join your school if only you can recite the entire Law while standing on one foot.” Hillel lifted a foot, said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” He then lowered his foot and said, “That is the Law; all the rest is commentary.”

The Jewish debate over divorce centered on a law given in Deuteronomy that said a man may dismiss his wife if he finds something “indecent” about her. Shammai insisted that this only implied adultery, while Hillel’s expansive reading allowed this to include burning the bread. Until the 11th century, Jewish law gave only men the authority for divorce, and for almost any cause, while Jesus’s embrace of Shammai’s interpretation built Christian refusal to consider any divorce for any reason. Neither seems to me to be getting at Jesus’s real message though; both miss the heart for the head.

When Jesus answers these religious teachers, he refers back to Genesis, the passage we also read today in our lectionary. He talks not only about the law, but also about the intent behind the law and how our “hardheartedness” has distorted that heart. Jesus quotes passages from Genesis, saying “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” and “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” For this reason...what is this reason he is referring to? We’ll have to go back to the full selection of Genesis to find it.

There are two common misunderstandings about Genesis 2 that come out of misleading translation work. The first is in the opening line of our selection, where God says “it is not good for man to be alone.” The translation in your bulletin says that God set out to make “a helper as his partner.” This concept of the “helper” in English dates back to the King James’ “help meet,” and implies to many readers the idea of an assistant to the main worker. However, the Hebrew doesn’t have that sense at all. God isn’t offering someone to play second fiddle at all. The word here is “ezer.” You may have heard it as part of the name Ebenezer—that’s right, the ‘ol Scrooge himself. It means “stone of help,” which the prophet Samuel named to commemorate a victory God brought his people over the Philistines. Webster’s dictionary says “ebenezer” as a noun means “a commemoration of divine assistance.” This is the very word used for God coming to the aid of his people, full of power and authority! There is no hint of a secondary assistant role here in our text.

The second translation issue that many Bibles have here is one of gender. You see, the “Adam” mentioned here is not a proper name. A’dam, related to the word for dirt from which the human was crafted, A’damah, simply means human. Hebrew words are often male in gender unless necessarily female, so there is no direct indication of maleness here. Jewish tradition has often picked up on this and depicted the “man” in our NRSV translation as a genderless, androgynous human. That’s why I prefer the translation “earthling,” as a non-gendered indication of a being from and inhabiting this earth. It is only later in our text when the one being becomes two, differentiated in gender. And even when that happens there is a translation issue. The traditional “rib” that istaken from the earthling more typically means “side,” as in “the side of the tabernacle.” That is, we could, and quite likely should, read this account as the division of one whole being into two equal halves, which then come back together in marriage to form a whole unit.

These then are the principles Jesus draws on in his message on divorce. The importance of relationship not merely for progeny, which in fact is not mentioned in the account at all, but for the human to be whole and integrated. The equal value of each partner, not one holding priority and authority over the other. And the point he makes is that, yes, there is a law, and there are times that law is necessary because of“hardheartedness,” but that law should be applied only in full acknowledgement of the original intent. Divorce is necessary at times, but only in service of that underlying principle of creating a whole, equal, life-giving unit.

So I hope you take two things away from our passages today. First, that it is the heart of the law that matters, not the letter. Too often we appeal to the letter in order to avoid the principle, and feel ourselves justified. This is wrong. And the second point is that we all, men and women, need powerful women in our homes, our communities, our workplaces, and government to come to our aid, for the greater good and unity of all.

Amen.