Where Mercy and Justice Meet

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Genesis 2:18-24 OR Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

The readings this Sunday are thickly planted with pastoral land mines. Even the revised common lectionary, which typically supplies a kinder, gentler Old Testament alternative to the Catholic selection, offers a passage from Job with a theologically problematic encounter between God and Satan and an unkind reference to women. You decide if that’s safer to preach on than God’s fashioning the woman from the man’s rib. Happy is the preacher observing World Communion Sunday this week.

God knows – and we take as a matter of faith – that Scripture is meant to help and unite, not hinder and divide, but these selections have often been sources of discord. They are hard readings some have used as weapons, particularly against women. They are interpreted differently between and within churches and denominations, dividing the Body of Christ into a host of fractious camps and labels: liberal from conservative, progressive from traditionalist, “accommodators” from “fundamentalists.” Dangerous texts, indeed.

What makes them dangerous is that they touch bedrock aspects of our personhood: bodies, gender, sexuality, and intimate relationships. Many current (and former) Christians conclude that the Church has selectively misinterpreted such passages across the centuries, mercilessly enforcing literalist readings of scattered passages while ignoring behaviors the scriptures more forcefully and consistently condemn: ignoring the poor, harming a neighbor, withholding hospitality from strangers. Agree or disagree, the challenging task remains: how do we, as a Christian community, read these texts together?

I’m unaware of an ecclesial tradition in the Christian West that hasn’t modified its discipline concerning marriage in the past five hundred years, but the current rancor and confusion prompt some to insist the Church, having made such a mess of things, should stay out of the bedroom. After the bile and demonization (from both pro and con) that characterized much of the so-called debate over same sex marriage, I understand why someone would say that.

I don’t pretend to have a solution, but this I know: the Church can’t afford to cordon off and evacuate this minefield. I’m not saying what form Church discipline should take. I’m asking the Church to accept that – while there’s no such thing as safe sex this side of the eschaton – we needn’t make embodied human intimacy more fraught than it already is. To put it another way, the Body of Christ is in the bedroom, like it or not.

Today’s readings help us see why if we receive them with beginner’s eyes and ears. The Genesis reading describes an intimate and embodied relationship between the man and woman: “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” This union is deeper and more organic than humanity’s already considerable connectedness to the rest of creation. Humans are of and for one another. The Job reading, with its boils and degradation, reminds us of our vulnerability and the link between bodily, mental, and spiritual distress.

The reading from Mark reveals an organic relationship between spouses far deeper than Moses imagined. Most Christian traditions, whatever their discipline concerning remarriage after divorce, understand marriage as more than a contractual merger. (I don’t mean to suggest Orthodox Judaism makes it easy for a man to obtain a get.)

In this light, the apparent non sequitur of Jesus discussing divorce and then calling the little children assumes new relevance. The central reality of a small child’s life is vulnerable dependence. Children require food, shelter, clothes, education, good example, and unconditional affection. They are connected to others in ways they never consented to and to a degree their parents never imagined.

The bodily union of man and woman leads to more dependence, not less. As animals, humans are more clearly dependent than rational, but dependence and vulnerability are embodied realities we prefer not to see in ourselves.

Which brings us to the supposedly safe reading from Hebrews:

…but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, (Hebrews 2:9-11).

It is through Jesus’ entrance into the human condition of embodiment, dependence, and suffering that we come to know God as true Father and one another as brother and sister. We might have been excused for not knowing this before the Incarnation, but not anymore. Interdependence is carved into our flesh. Bodies wither and communities splinter when we forget this. Witness our lamentable church divisions. Lord, have mercy.

The Father made visible in Jesus is the font of all mercy. The Father is also righteous and just. In the embodied community to which God calls us, “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” (Psalm 85:10)

Balancing mercy and justice in everyday life is always miraculous, a grace we pray for. In W H Auden’s long poetic work, The Sea and the Mirror, the actor who plays Caliban in a staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest addresses the audience directly at the close of a thoroughly disastrous performance. The speaker admits, “…there was not a single aspect of our whole production…for which a kind word could, however patronizingly, be said.”

Yet it is in that moment of realization, and enlightened what Auden tellingly calls, “the real Word,” that the cast members see themselves as they really are, “…so that all our meanings are reversed and it is precisely in its negative image of Judgment that we can positively envisage Mercy; it is just here, among the ruins and the bones, that we may rejoice in the perfected Work that is not ours.”

If you’ve read this far hoping to learn what I think about marriage and divorce, I leave you disappointed. That’s for the Body to wrestle with. I suspect any new disciplines adopted by the Body’s various factions still won’t get things fully and finally right. Wrestling with the Word, however, is our shared duty, and the proper place to grapple with it is where mercy and justice meet. There, we may struggle properly, trusting that when morning comes, our dependent, vulnerable bodies will rise, limping and blessed.

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