I’ve been studying the feminist church later, particularly, the “church in the round” as a modern understanding of what it means to be Christian community. At the same time, I’ve been reading Rachel Held Evan’s book “Inspired.” As I looked at the lectionary readings this week these two influences together moved me from an academic discussion on divorce or how we enter the kingdom of heaven as little children to the times when I have felt kept at arms-length by hard-hearted laws and even well-intentioned disciples of Jesus because of my femininity. In my imagination, Sarai and Samuel were born ….
Based on Mark 10:2-16 and Psalm 26
Sarai turns over the loaf of bread in her hands, oblivious to how soft it feels in comparison to what she and her son, Samuel, have just had for breakfast. She has no coin to pay for it in any case; for anything, really. She has only come, again, to the marketplace for a glimpse of the man who was – up until a few weeks ago – her husband.
As he and his rabbi join another group of men, she sidles closer to hear the heated argument that is taking place. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” one sneers. “Yes,” her heart moans over the quiet reply, “it is lawful for a man to put his wife and child out on the street simply because she over-seasoned his dinner.”
Lost in her anger, her shame, her pain, she nearly walks away until the unexpected, inexplicable words root her to the spot. “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
The words that hold her fast have less to do with divorce than they do with the radical hospitality of the one who utters them.
Never before – not even amongst the most progressive of her husband’s friends – has she heard that, as woman, she is equal in the eyes of God: equal in God’s desire for her to have a blessed life, equal in responsibility for the state of her marriage, equal in the ability to demand that the one who has treated her so shamefully should be put aside.
She is “gerushah” – “a woman thrust out.” There is no masculine equivalent in her language, in her community, or in her experience.
And yet, this man – the one called Jesus – who is known for his powerful teachings and miraculous signs – speaks of the sending away of one’s husband as if it is as natural as the sending away of one’s wife.
She shakes her head in disbelief; then smiles as she looks around the group and lists to herself all of the reasons that she has heard over the years as valid grounds for divorce:
“Oh, he can’t keep his hands to himself. Put him aside!”
“Ha, I saw him spinning around on the street just yesterday like a fool. Throw him out!
“And him! He’s far too noisy. Send him back to his mother!”
The smile swells into a giggle; the giggle into the first true joy she’s felt for many years; and both bread and hard-hearted husband are forgotten as she sets off to share what she has heard.
Later that day, Sarai returns to the place with Samuel in tow, as well as a few of the other discarded women with whom they had shared bread and light-hearted laughter and curiosity about the one who would dare say such things to the Pharisees.
As Sarai points him out, the women began to jostle their little ones forward, to cry out for a blessing from the one who had seen them, who had proclaimed them equal.
This time it is not the law that keeps them at a distance; on the margins, as always, where the unwanted and the weak and the discarded seem destined to live. It is Jesus’s own followers with their coarse manners and rude rebukes that send the children scurrying back towards their mamas with tear-stained cheeks.
Unbidden, the words of an old song flow from her tired, wounded, angry heart; words her mother used to sing to her when life seemed unfair; words apparently penned by David himself during the terrible time of persecution when Saul was still king and resentful of the young shepherd and his harp:
God, You be my judge and declare me innocent!
Clear my name, for I have tried my best to keep your laws
and to trust you without wavering.
Lord, you can scrutinise me.
Refine my heart and probe my every thought.
Put me to the test and you’ll find it’s true.
I will never lose sight of your love for me.
Your faithfulness has steadied my steps.
I won’t keep company with tricky, two-faced men,
nor will I go the way of those who defraud with hidden motives.
I despise the sinner’s hangouts, refusing to even enter them.
You won’t find me walking among the wicked.
When I come before you, I’ll come clean,
approaching your altar with songs of thanksgiving,
singing the songs of your mighty miracles.
Lord, I love your home, this place of dazzling glory,
bathed in the splendour and light of your presence!
Don’t treat me as one of these scheming sinners
who plot violence against the innocent.
Look how they devise their wicked plans,
holding the innocent hostage for ransom.
I’m not like them, Lord—not at all.
Save me, redeem me with your mercy,
for I have chosen to walk only in what is right.
I will proclaim it publicly in every congregation,
and because of you, Lord,
I will take my stand on righteousness alone!
With these last words she squares her shoulders, sets her chin high, and steps forward to challenge those who stand in her way …
… just as an indignant cry comes from Jesus: “Why are you getting in the way of these little children? Do you not know that my kingdom belongs to such like these? That they show you the way to enter my shalom, my peace?”
And gently, lovingly, patiently, he takes each one in turn into his arms, wipes away their tears, asks about their family, and murmurs a blessing over them until dusk approaches and the noise of the marketplace dissipates as families head home for the evening meal.
Sarai and Samuel stroll home together in happy silence, their hearts full of wonder:
- who is this Jesus who challenges the teachers of the law as easily as he does his own disciples?
- how could he know of God’s intentions at the beginning of creation and suggest that the law was written by hard hearts instead of loving hands?
- but above all, where is this kingdom in which women have equal rights and children are treasured heirs and how could they get there?