Earlier today I had the pleasure of giving the guest sermon at a local congregation. This week’s readings are not of the warm and fuzzy variety! It was one of those lections that (while not full-on fire & brimstone) can still make us a bit squirmy when we hear about divisiveness and judgment. As a feminist, Jewish and bisexual woman, the supersessionism and patriarchy in some passages can rankle my sensibilities. But when I hear the words attributed to Jesus in today’s Gospel, that call for the division of families, it pushes a tender button. Many queer folk, myself included, have experienced what it means to be divided from our families because of who and how we love. Part of the disconnect (spiritually speaking), ultimately is because of the perceived tensions of being in relationship with a Loving Gd as opposed to a Judging Gd. Each of today’s readings have been used to control and subjugate others based in those dualistic ways of understanding the Divine and Scripture.
While I am an interfaith minister, my experience as a Jew by Choice, has provided me with a very different relationship with scripture than did the Catholicism of my youth. I’ve learned to wrestle with the inspired words of Scripture, and (like Abraham, Lot or Rebecca), to question Gd and Gd’s spokespersons.
Let’s start with Isaiah 5:1-7. The imagery of Isaiah’s words was intended to be a wake-up call as the nation of Israel neared annihilation from the Assyrians; which (when it came to pass) resulted in the end of the northern kingdom and the disappearance of 10 of the tribes, leaving only the tribes in the southern kingdom of Judah, in and around Jerusalem. The reading begins with a “song” about the Divine as owner of a vineyard. This is a lovesong turned sour; after planting, cultivating, and building protections in anticipations of a rich harvest, what is brought forth is rotten or wild fruit. In other words, that the corrupt and unruly tribes had devolved into a rotten society. Gd, despairing at what could have been done differently, takes away the hedge which served to protect the vineyard (Israel) determining to give the land over to wild animals (the Assyrians) – the land ravaged and the nation utterly destroyed. The story of Noah and the ark is not the only time Gd threatens to abandon or destroy the people. The Holy One, repeatedly calls the people (in their covenantal relationship with Gd) to be righteous and justice, not only for the sake of the powerful, but for the marginalized, the widow & the orphan. Failure to care for those who suffer, is why Gd threatens to abandon Israel and allow them to be destroyed. We’re given two opposing images in our readings – when in Gd’s good graces, we are Joshua miraculously destroying Jericho; conversely when disobeying, we face our own annihilation, at the hands of our enemies.
And yet, in a part of Psalm 80, it is the people who cry out in fear and despair, remembering that they were the choice vine which The Divine took out of Egypt and planted in the Holy Land; it is they who ask why Gd has abandoned them. They call out for Gd’s compassion and love; to be remembered and protected by their loving Gd instead of punished by the judging face of Gd. The image of the judging Gd in stark relief against that of a loving Gd.
While the Letter to the Hebrews is considered one of the most anti-Jewish sermons in the canon, one scholar has suggested that Hebrews was actually a synagogue homily delivered on the ninth of Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples, which (yet again) was perceived as Gd withholding love and punishing the people for not living up to the covenant. Hebrews then lifts up the righteous from earlier ages, but says that they did not merit their reward; implying that it is only through Jesus and not through their own Jewish experience of the Divine that rewards can be bestowed, thus negating the ongoing relationship with the Divine that non-Christian Jews continue to have with Gd. The first faithful ancestor that Hebrews lifts in today’s reading is the image of Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who hid Joshua’s spies in Jericho. Several commentaries consider hers a powerful conversion story; that she heard of the Gd of the Hebrews and knew this to be the one true Gd. Indeed, some traditions relate that Rahab married Joshua and that the two began a line of descendants that included kings, prophets, and priests. Rahab is included in the genealogy of Jesus. While many juxtapose her prostitution with her conversion, what the commentaries fail to note, is that as a Canaanite prostitute, she would herself have been part of the Canaanite religious cult – a type of priestess. Therefore, her recognition of the Divine would have been more akin to a natural progression in her spiritual journey rather than being viewed as a repentant sinner. She, like Abraham and Sarah welcomes the strangers (spies), and like Lot protects the visitors in spite of the power construct which would hunt them down. Rahab, whose people are soon to be colonized or killed, embodies the spirit of hospitality and devotion which are the central expressions of Abrahamic Judaism; the face of the loving Gd in juxtaposition to Joshua’s reflection of the judging Gd.
Jesus, in Luke, warns of division within each family, as the fate of the disciples and all who would follow his teachings. Telling them that he does not come to bring peace but fire. Both Isaiah and Luke speak of impending doom and ask why the people do not see the signs of the times. Hal Taussig’s The New New Testament points out that, while many scholars used to place Luke as having been written in the mid 80s CE, experts in the last twenty years have determined it more likely that it was written around 120 CE, late enough that the early followers of Jesus would have experienced not only the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans, but the subsequent revolts and further dispersion of the People of Israel. Jewish scholar, Amy-Jill Levine points out that at this time in history for Jews (and all Christians in this period were technically Jews either by birth or conversion), for Jews to tell pagan family members that they needed to stop worshipping their gds would put the whole local Jewish community in danger; to deny the local gds and turn to the Gd of Israel (or his proclaimed son) would be seen as traitorous to family, to city, to the very empire. Jesus is here voicing the reality of the paradigm in which his followers were living.
Where Hebrews historically is pointed to as the most supersessionist scripture in the cannon, Luke has the reputation as being the most inclusive and supportive of women and the poor. But, the Women’s Bible Commentary points out that in actuality, Luke may give a voice to more of the women in Jesus’ community, but he does so to show them as subordinate to the male leadership, (which was more in keeping with the Hellenized and Roman gentile churches of 120 CE than with the egalitarianism of the original Jesus community. Luke’s Jesus is suggesting the altering of the relationships of duty and obligation which can leave broken families, but he also invites space for another kind of order to emerge; a new church family made possible when obligations associated only with dutiful action are cast aside. Amy-Jill Levine counters that to regard Jesus, appropriately, as caring for women, children, the sick and the poor, embeds him within Judaism rather than separates him from it. By triumphally separating Jesus from his lived context, it created an us/them dichotomy on top of the erroneous trope of Loving Gd (as Christian) vs Judging Gd (as Jewish).
Perspective is everything. When we look with a fresh perspective at these readings, and invite new questions, what can they teach us about cultivating compassion and love? How do we reconcile our understanding of a loving Gd and a judging Gd in ways which help us heal our vineyard and cultivate healthy and beloved community?
The journal, Science noted a few years ago that there is a direct correlation between the rising temperatures of our planet and the rise in anger, violence and divisiveness in our world. The fevers of our society are a part of the fevered reality of our planet because we are not separate but part of Creation. To put this in terms of trauma informed practices, when we are caught up in our anxiety, fear, and tribalism (be it MAGA or Liberal Snowflake), we are not thinking with our compassionate hearts (not even capable of doing so), but instead reacting from our primitive lizard brains. We get stuck in dualistic thinking of us/them, right/wrong, good/bad, Loving Gd/Judging Gd… and forget that Jesus was trying to teach us a different way of relating to Gd and each other.
The theologian, Cynthia Bourgeault, points out that the Greek word metanoia, (what we translate as repent), literally means to go beyond mind, or into a bigger mind, much like eastern philosophy understands consciousness. She reminds us of yet another vineyard story; the parable Jesus taught about the vineyard owner who hires some laborers early in the morning and agrees to a specific wage for the day. Then throughout the day, the owner hires more and more laborers. At the end of the day, those who worked the full day are angry that the owner has paid those who only worked for an hour the same daily wage as those who worked a long day. Bourgeault points out that the reason the laborers (and we) have such a problem with this is because the dualistic, or binary mind operates from scarcity, so needs to keep track of the score. But when we look at this parable (and today’s readings) from unitive or heart mind, we see that Jesus was teaching us to let go of competition, hierarchical obligations and self-focused interests and instead enter into a participatory relationship for the good of the whole.
What happens to our assumptions when, instead of perceiving a judging Gd laying waste to the vineyard, we recognize that to be able to plant a healthy vine (or a beloved community), the soil of our reality needs to be reworked and healed; our systems of oppression must be exposed, and new constructs developed. That by recognizing and evolving the traditional family and gender role constructs of Jesus’ time (and ours), we can create chosen and birth families which are not bound by hierarchy, misogyny, or power over, but cultivates each person’s gifts and wisdoms. What can beloved community look like, when we examine our translations and traditions for triumphalism, racism and supersessionism to make space for other cultures’ experiences and expressions of spirit; to welcome what they can teach us about the fractal beauty of a Source of Life that is known by many names and no name.
Maybe Jesus was saying that the fire he was bringing was a transformation of how we viewed Gd, self and others. Instead of a limited binary view of gender, power, race, and even Gd’s self, when we open to a unitive understanding of the One Gd, (not as triumphal and Truer than someone else’s god), but instead come to recognize we are part of that Oneness with Gd, with our whole human family and with Creation herself, then together, we become the Living Unitive Commonwealth of the Divine’s multidimensional self.