Monday, October 12, 2015

Divorce and Advocacy for the Vulnerable

Proper 22B, 2015
A Preferential Option for the Poor
Readings Found Here

It’s the rare family that has not in some ways been impacted by divorce...and so I am careful with these words. I have to hold them gently and honor them fully lest we do ourselves harm in their interpretation.  I have to listen, to my pain and yours, before I begin to letter after another...seeking the grace within a text that has no loopholes.  I have to put on what I think of as my “grace goggles” in order to see the gift that this particular text so wonderfully offers when we read it with an eye towards liberation.  

So, I begin with the recognition of the damage that this text has done to the countless folk who have been impacted by divorce.  There are those for whom divorce was the best option and the right thing, those for whom it was a tragic necessity, and those for whom divorce was its own liberation. And, I move from that recognition to another reality--this text is not about divorce in the 21st century. And, this is a text that demands that we not only encounter the scripture through our own life experience

But, also through what we know about the socio-political context of the time.  

In ancient Mediterranean culture, marriage was not about the individual--it was about the joining of economic and social resources of two families.  The individuals in the marriage allowed two extended families to be joined  in what was hopefully an economically advantageous situation for the entire extended clan.  

So, divorce, brought shame upon the entire family system AND could result in feuding.  

So, the debate about divorce isn’t about individual rights--it’s about the entire extended family system.  And, not only about the family system but also the rights of a vulnerable population in the social context of ancient Mediterranea...


Divorce was not a mutually agreed upon arrangement in which the goods and rights of each person were considered as terms of the separation.  There was no divorce court, counsel or mediators on hand to protect the rights of both parties.  Judge Judy wouldn’t even exist for another 2000 years...

So, divorce was a means by which a man could dismiss his wife.  And, the dismissed woman would not only suffer the shame of being “unwanted” but would also lose goods, protections, financial and social security (as would her extended family).  

So, in a world in which women’s rights were based on their marriageability and procreative power--the injunction against divorce becomes a means of honoring the personhood of women.  

This may seem counter-intuitive in our context--but, within the context of the world in which Jesus and the disciples lived--divorce was something which disadvantaged an already vulnerable population.

This injunction against divorce precedes the welcoming of another vulnerable population--Children.  

As we discussed two weeks ago, children held little status beyond their hoped for potential.  And, in a world which lacked vaccinations and antibiotics--and where germ theory had not yes been theorized...

Potential had to be proven through survival beyond infancy and early childhood. 

First Jesus advocates for the vulnerable, women, and then he refocuses the entire conversation on the vulnerable, children.  Putting children in the center.

In a world where women and children are vulnerable, Jesus prioritizes their care.  

“People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

It is from texts like these that the Christian social teaching of the Preferential Option for the Poor emerged. The theologian who first outlined this interpretive approach was Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez O.P., the first to articulate what was to become the major theological movement of Latin America--Liberation Theology. Using his study of these texts, Father Gutierrez wrote “To make an option for the poor is to make an option for Jesus”. (“A Theology of Liberation”, 1971)  

So, in caring for the marginalized, we care for Jesus.  But, perhaps we’ve become too accustomed to this message and no longer see in it the power it holds to transform the unjust systems which perpetuate poverty.   

Gutierrez writes, 

“the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” 

Jesus recognized this and draws our attention in the Gospel, in the GOOD NEWS, to those who have been marginalized by their social and cultural world. The injunction against divorce in the ancient Mediterranean was Jesus’ demand that his followers build a different social order.  

What then, does the body of Christ demand of us? In our different and diverse contexts we are called to recognize those who have been marginalized in our culture and move beyond noticing into action.  

We gather here, in order to change the world out there...our faith demands our action.  Or, as my colleague, the Reverend Winnie Vargese stated boldly in her response to the latest mass shooting, “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough” 

Our thoughts and prayers are not enough...these are hard words but honest ones.  She goes on, 

“It is hard to stand up for gun control in every state in this nation, but faith is hard. One of the roles of religious communities is to hold a vision of justice larger than might be politically reasonable, a vision worthy of the Creator.”

And, this heartens me, that we as the church are called to hold up a vision of justice larger than might be politically reasonable!  

So, let us consider being unreasonable!  Let us embrace the irrational, and the audacious, the impossible and the prophetic. 

And, from that audacious place of Good News and grace, let us consider how we might hold up a vision that will be somebody else’s liberation.  

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