Updated: Aug 14, 2021
Many of you know that I used to work as a forensic psychological expert witness. My last job prior to entering the ordination process was to evaluate patients who had been court-ordered to a state mental health facility. Sometimes I evaluated their readiness for trial; sometimes I offered an opinion as to whether they were ready to be released. As you might guess, this was a low stress job – compared to being a rector, anyway. The legal arena, as many of you know, can be a combative and unforgiving place. Making a mistake could have serious consequences for the person I was evaluating. For example, if I accidentally referred to Mr. Joe Smith as “John,” just once in my testimony, the opposing attorney gleefully pointed out that “You don’t seem to even know the name of the man you are evaluating, doctor” - thus potentially undermining my entire testimony.
This is not new. Legal nitpicking has been part of human history for a lot longer than most of us think. Take today’s Hebrew scripture about Job. Most of us are familiar with Job as the poster boy for suffering. For forty-two long chapters, Job suffers the loss of family, friends, health, and home – all because of a bet between God and Satan. Yes, you heard it right. In today’s reading, the Lord God and Satan make a bet.
This is a very strange story, primarily because you have to wonder, “Why is God betting with Satan”? The answer comes with understanding of the original language of the text and what it tells us about the players in the story. In Hebrew, Satan, or Ha-Satan, means “adversary or, “accuser.” Although in our culture, the words, “devil,” and “Satan” are often used interchangeably to mean the guy with the horns and tail who is God’s opposite, in the Hebrew tradition, ha-Satan (the adversary) “is not yet the diabolical opponent of God’s righteous purposes as he later appears in Jewish apocalyptic writings, including the New Testament. In this story, Satan works for God! This provides us with a clue about the mystery of God’s relation to evil; Satan cannot act without God’s permission.” So, think of it this way: God and Satan, two members of the same heavenly court, are talking about the nature of evil. Satan’s argument is that people are basically self-interested, greedy, and dishonest; they lack integrity. But wait, God says, Job is none of those things; Job has integrity. Job is proof of that human beings have the capacity for goodness. God is so confident in Job, that he allows Satan to try to prove him wrong. God’s “bet” with Satan is not some casual idea for solving an argument; it is a formal trial of the nature of humanity; Satan is the prosecuting attorney, Job the defense attorney, and God the judge. God is the judge because only God understands humanity – and, as we now know, only God has allowed Jesus to be subjected to suffering on our behalf in order to give us the opportunity to truly live, as the psalmist claims to do have done, with integrity.
The word “integrity” appears multiple times in Hebrew scripture and is, perhaps, best defined by Titus: “God’s steward must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain (1:7).” Having integrity means being compassionate, humble, and honest. It’s a pretty high standard –one that is impossible to attain on our own. Acting with integrity is acting in order to please God, not other human beings. Acting with integrity is acting without desire or hope of reward, or “blessing.” To live with integrity is to live for and by God’s grace.
This is what the book of Job is all about. The Satan believes that human beings only have faith in God because there is an inherent pay off in it for them, so he makes the case that if Job’s blessings are taken away, Job will curse God. It’s not a hard argument to make – then or now. All we have to do is look around us to know that it is a trap that many people fall into, believing that we know the will of God and that God will reward us with earthly blessings for doing it. It is the basis for the “prosperity Gospel.” It is also the reason that people feel comfortable making judgements about others; about laughing at others’ pain.
But that is not what Jesus said or did. Jesus did not admire or spend his time with the “haves” of his own time. He had little use for the powerful, the rich, and those who were confident of their own integrity. Jesus did not hate the company of perceived evildoers. Jesus readily sat down with those his society deemed wicked. Jesus turned his society’s ideas about who was righteous and who was not upside down. This is evidenced by the exchange we heard in today’s gospel between Jesus and – another lawyer! Remember, Pharisees were Jewish experts on law, and they had some legitimate questions for Jesus, who frequently did things that contradicted it. In this case, the Pharisees wanted Jesus to tell them whether or not divorce should be legal. As was his way, Jesus answered their question with a question of his own, asking what Jewish law said about divorce, knowing, as they did, that Jewish law allowed men to divorce their wives, if they broke the rules.
Jesus’s response is one of the most abused passages from scripture: “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female…what God has joined together, let no one separate.” This is not a statement about who can be married; it is an assertion about what marriage is intended to be. It is Jesus reframing the question. “Divorce, [Jesus says], is something you can do, but it is not what God intended.” He “seeks to move beyond a legalistic approach to questions of divorce ([which is] the approach of his adversaries) toward a theological affirmation about God’s purposes for marriage.” For the followers of the Law of Moses, marriage was intended to stabilize society – to enforce a hierarchy in which women were inferior, marriages were financial transactions, and children insured the survival of the species. Love had nothing to do with it. But Jesus said that’s not what God intends marriage to be. For God, the purpose of marriage represents God’s intention for all human beings - to live in love and respect for God and one another. If marriage is not furthering that purpose, then it is not functioning as God intended.
And then Jesus goes one step further. He tells his legal adversaries that God’s intention applies to both spouses. Women have equal power in the relationship – for good or for ill. Either partner can be at fault for not living in loving covenant with one another as God intended. Thus, Jesus’s primary message is that couples should be subservient to one another – and not in order to maintain the societal hierarchy, as it was in Mosaic Law, but because marriage is intended for mutual joy; [and] for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity. Note that I say “intended.” The church recognizes that, simply because we are human, we are often unable to live as we intend. When that happens, we can acknowledge our loss, forgive one another, and move forward, confident in God’s grace and presence in all our circumstances.
This insight into one specific law helps us to understand the way Jesus approached all law – practically, sensibly, and compassionately, clearly acknowledging that human beings were not made for laws; laws were made for human beings. Laws that are enforced for their own sake – laws that are used to hurt and oppress – laws that promote human prosperity and power over love and grace – are not being used as God intended. Jesus drives this point home by reprimanding the disciples for attempting to keep what were considered the riff-raff of society – children – away from him. Children, Jesus told them, of all people, understand God’s intentions. Children innately grasp true integrity, because it makes sense. Be kind. Be honest. Be fair. Think before you act. Most of all, love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, the way God loves you – and treat other people the same way you would like to be treated. On these two commandments rest all good and true laws. AMEN.
Paul E. Captez, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 126.
David B. Howell, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 142.
Charles L. Campbell, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 143.