Published on 24 Sep 2012
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 23, 2012
Dean Peter Elliott
Christ Church Cathedral
Click here to listen to an audio MP3 of the sermon
Yes to the children!
Isn’t it interesting that a news story about Jesus maybe having a wife arrives the same week as the lectionary assigns the Proverbs reading about a capable wife? For any who missed the news story here it is, in brief. Dr. Karen King, a professor of early Christian history at Harvard Divinity School announced, at a conference in Rome last week, that she had identified a scrap of papyrus written in Coptic in the 4th century, including the words, “Jesus said to them…my wife…” In the New York Times Professor King was quoted saying, “This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married.” She continued, “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”[i] Dr. King was clear that this fragment did not affirm that Jesus was married; it simply indicated that Jesus marital status was discussed in antiquity.
Immediately commentators jumped aboard. In the Washington Post mystical theologian Cynthia Bourgeault—who for some years now has argued for a non celibate Jesus—said this: “Sooner or later, the evidence trickling in from all quarters is going to be too overwhelming for all but the most obdurate traditionalists to ignore. …Why has institutional Christianity become so invested in maintaining that Jesus has to be a celibate to be Jesus? That, it seems to me, is by far the more searching question.”[ii] And, on the other side of the pond, in an article in The Guardian New Testament scholar Professor Francis Watson, of Durham University claims to have found evidence suggesting that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a modern forgery, saying that the papyrus fragment…is a patchwork of texts from the genuine Coptic-language Gospel of Thomas, which have been copied and reassembled out of order to make a suggestive new whole.[iii]
So what are we to make of all this? You can almost hear the publishers of The Da Vinci Code planning a sequel. What’s interesting is that Jesus still makes news. 2000 years later, his life still is of interest. If his story didn’t matter to people, this latest discovery wouldn’t matter. For the record, it doesn’t really matter to me whether Jesus was or wasn’t married. It’s likely that he was, given what we know about the social history of the time. He was not an ascetic, like John the Baptist: clearly he enjoyed life in its fullness. But he did live in a patriarchal age, in time when texts like Proverbs 31 on the capable wife would have been revered.
What’s interesting about the description of the capable wife (PROVERBS 31:10-31) is what we miss, because of translation. It is in fact an elaborate acrostic poem, with each line in Hebrew beginning with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. And the woman it describes—a wonder wife to be sure—doesn’t have many of the wifely qualities that you might assume an ancient text to provide. Her identity does not come from her husband, but from her own agency. She is not described primarily as a mother, and there is no physical description of her—we don’t know anything about her perceived beauty or lack of it. Not known by her beauty, her mothering or her husband, this capable wife is not what we might expect a patriarchal text to describe.[iv] Most commentators see her not as an archetypal wife but as a personification of Sophia, wisdom incarnate. What we have therefore in this text from Proverbs is a celebration of wisdom, known in the ancient world and described frequently in feminine terms. Wisdom in this strand of the Biblical tradition is the soul’s true spouse.[v]
Wisdom is the theme of passage from the letter of James (JAMES 3:13-4:3, 7-8A) we hear this morning, beginning with these words, “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” James—by tradition Jesus brother—goes on to describe what a life devoid of wisdom looks like and he nails it: “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” At the core of human life is this tendency to want what others have. Wanting what another has can lead, as James rightly asserts, to violence and murder. When the news isn’t covering new findings from Biblical scholarship it is certainly reporting stories of violence locally and internationally. Without wisdom we are thrown back to our base selves, coveting, desiring what others have, and thereby engaged in the rivalries and conflicts that lead to violent thoughts, words and deeds.
So how do you find this wisdom? Where are we to look for the wisdom personified in the capable wife, the wisdom that James commends? In the Christian tradition, wisdom is found in the Paschal mystery. The Paschal mystery is how Christians describe the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s not in speculating on his marital status as fascinating as that may be: rather it’s laid out rather plainly in the New Testament that God’s wisdom is revealed through the death and raising up of Jesus. In Mark’s gospel the disciples don’t get it: in today’s reading (MARK 9:30-37) Jesus tells them directly that he will be betrayed, killed and raised up. He says this to them—and what do they do? They argue about their internal pecking order. Who’s first, who’s best, who’s the greatest of the bunch, who’s the closest to Jesus, who’s the one who is top of the heap. They behave as we behave most of the time: suspicious of each other, trying to get ahead, coveting what we perceive others to have. Jesus disciples are so recognizable because we’re just like them. And to them, and to us, he offers another way. Jesus brings them together, invites them to focus not on themselves, but on a child, and then holds the child in his arms, and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Now to get what he’s saying we need to clear our minds of how middle class North Americans regard children. In the ancient world, children were not held in high regard. Yes, people loved their children, but this was clearly a “children-are-to-be-seen-and-not-heard” kind of culture; children were cared for by women, who were also second-class citizens. Both were regarded as property. Infant mortality in the first century was quite high, perhaps as much as 30%. Another 30% would die in childhood. [vi] By identifying a child as the model of welcome, Jesus is saying that what the world values is not what wisdom values. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s not about what you have or what you don’t have, it’s not about what others have that you want, it’s not about who’s the greatest or the most well known: it’s about looking where you’d least expect it to find God’s grace working.
Looking, for example, to a hill outside of Jerusalem where they executed criminals: there—just a short time after this account from Mark—we see the same Jesus stripped of his clothes and his dignity, dying with the rejected, crying out in pain from the torture: and this is, according to our tradition, where we find wisdom. God’s wisdom expressed in this moment and in the good news of the resurrection—that the one who was executed returns without a word of revenge or retribution but only bidding his now completely confused disciples words of peace and forgiveness. This is the paschal mystery and it is through meditation on this that we find wisdom.
What I find most intriguing about the Christian way isn’t speculating on whether or not Jesus was married but why at the centre of our faith there is this story of violence? Why do we remember, each time we meet, the story of Jesus execution? What are we to learn from this? What it does for me is to connect faith with real life. Christianity isn’t about escaping from the way things are in the world through a spiritual path. It’s about seeing the world as it is and knowing only too well our own parts in the pain and violence of the world. And then offering a model, another way, an uncharted path—and offering that model not by way of ideas or theology but through the story of a life. It’s like God knew that the only way we could live peacefully in this world was to step into our place, to live without coveting what others have, to walk through the violence of the world and experience it, and then return with only words of forgiveness and peace. And it is as we seek to model our lives on Christ—the forgiving victim—that we can live differently in the world and be part of a community that offers another way to live.
Wendell Berry’s great poem Look Out ends with the following verse with which I close:
Leave your windows and go out, people of the world,
go into the streets, go into the fields, go into the woods
and along the streams. Go together, go alone.
Say no to the Lords of War which is Money
which is Fire. Say no by saying yes
to the air, to the earth, to the trees,
yes to the grasses, to the rivers, to the birds
and the animals and every living thing, yes
to the small houses, yes to the children. Yes.[vii]
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