October 7, 2012
There are those who look forward to this Sunday each year with great excitement. We are blessing the animals today, on this closest Sunday to October 4, which is the Feast Day of St. Francis. We bless the animals in conjunction with the commemoration of St. Francis because among so many other things, Francis was known for his love of the animals—among the stories his followers and devotees told about him were his preaching to the birds, taming the wolf of Gubbio, and more. Francis’ love of the animals was part of his delight in all of creation, as we sang in our processional hymn words attributed to him in praise of creation.
The annual presence of animals in our worship is not just a marketing attempt. It as an acknowledgement of the role animals play in many of our lives. Our pets are dear to us; they are our friends, our companions. Sometimes they seem to know or anticipate our moods and needs. Yesterday, after Matt and Brittany’s wedding, I blessed the service animal of a woman who was in attendance at the wedding and worried that she would not be able to attend the blessing scheduled at her home church. For some of us, the relationship we share with a pet may be more intimate, more important than any relationship we have with another human being.
Today’s gospel invites us to think about relationships, human relationships, marriage. Now, the question the Pharisees is about divorce, and when we hear both the question and Jesus’ answer, we immediately transfer it to our own culture and project it on to our understanding of marriage and divorce. But that’s making an enormous mistake because divorce in first-century Palestine was very different than it is in 21st century America. For one thing, in Jewish law, divorce was permissible—a man could divorce his wife if he found something objectionable about her (no word in Torah about whether a woman could divorce her husband for similar reasons—of course she couldn’t). In both Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures of the day, marriage was largely a matter of economic survival and social stability. Women needed to be a member of a household
The Pharisees omit one aspect of the Mosaic law in question, that a man divorcing his wife needed to provide her with a certificate of divorce, which might have given her some protection from slander bring this question to Jesus to “test him.” He turns the question away from the legal basis for divorce to the origins of marriage in creation. In other words, he refocuses attention away from divorce to marriage itself. Equally interesting, when talking with his disciples, Jesus speaks only of the one who initiated the divorce, not the other party, and he makes clear that divorce should not be used only to legalize adultery or personal interest. Perhaps most important, Jesus puts the man and woman on equal footing. It would have been revolutionary to claim that a woman could commit adultery against a man—adultery was seen as a crime against property, a woman belonging either to her father or husband, and he being the injured party.
All of this points to a very different understanding of both divorce and marriage in the ancient world than in ours. We marry, or hope to marry, primarily for love, and divorce, if it occurs can be both incredibly painful, and occasionally quite necessary. To simply extract Jesus’ statements from the gospel to our own context is to misread both the intent of the text, and perhaps to do indelible harm to people caught today in difficult situations. Many of us hear these words from scripture with great pain, thinking immediately about how divorce has affected ourselves, our loved ones, or our friends
To understand all of this a little better, we would do well to go back to the beginning, just as Jesus does, and to reflect on marriage as laid out in the Genesis story of creation. Jesus makes that move, and in some ways it is problematic for us as well, in a culture and church that battle over the meaning of marriage and over the blessing or marriage of same-sex couples. Still, I believe that there is something here for us to ponder, that God has created us to be in relationship. In fact, in Genesis 2, God states clearly that it is not good for the man God created to be alone—and sets about creating a helper, a friend for the man. Eventually, the woman is created and the man says, “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.”
We know, many of us from our own experience, that a lifelong relationship with another person is life-transforming, fulfilling, making us richer, better human beings. Many of us know as well the pain and loss of relationships ended whether by divorce or death. Some of us have yearned for such relationships and never found them; others have had the frustrations that their deep love for their partner was not recognized by society or blessed by the church.
Jesus’ words remind us that it is our responsibility as Christians, as the church to honor and support the relationships that we find life-giving and meaningful. We can do that in many ways. One way is what we’ll be doing later, when we bless the pets people have brought to church today. For the reality is that the relationship we have with a beloved dog, or cat, or in my case, with six cats can be as important to us as our relationships with other human beings, the love we share with them as deep, powerful, and meaningful.
We do it in other ways, by honoring and supporting the life-giving human relationships, the communities that give us hope and sustain us. We do it, too, when we acknowledge the pain of broken relationships. We have all experienced such brokenness, some of us in divorce, others in irreparable breaches with friends of family members. To help us heal when hurt by others, and to confess, when we have caused such pain to our loved ones—these too are among the responsibilities of God’s people. And finally, to stand by and hold up those who have lost to death a spouse or life-partner, to grieve with them, wipe their tears, and kindle in them hope for the future, that too is our call.
But enough of all that. Today is a day when we celebrate our pets, our friends and companions, invoke God’s blessing on them, on us, and on all creation. Let us go forth rejoicing in the goodness of the relationships with which God has blessed us, enjoying the goodness of God’s creation, and experiencing the love that God has bestowed on us and with which God embraces us in Jesus Christ!