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Sermons > Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

(Domestic Violence Awareness Weekend)
4 Oct 2009

10/4/09                                                                                            EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Fr. Randy Calvo   2009

“‘Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.’” (Mk 10:15)   (+)

People who study language have long wondered about the power of metaphors.  When we say someone is a “warm person,” we don’t mean to imply that they’re running a fever.  But whether it be in Portuguese, English or Chinese, the metaphor of warmth carries the meaning of a kind and caring person.  We all use metaphors.  They’re not based on the English language; they’re based on our human nature.  Since the mind flows from the workings of the brain, and the brain is part of our bodies, it only makes sense that when our minds think abstract thoughts that we would do so with the help of concrete, physical objects - metaphors.


Since religious thoughts are some of the most abstract thoughts we encounter, we shouldn’t be surprised when metaphors abound.  Israel will number like the “sand of the sea,” Jesus is referred to as “the lamb of God,” baptism is to be “born again,” and the church is collectively known as “the body of Christ.”  None of these are meant to be literal; all of them are metaphors; and as metaphors their truth is unlocked with the help of our minds.  They let us enter into a conversation with the text.  This is what metaphors do all the time, and outside of religion there aren’t too many objections.  When kids in school come home and tell parents that they don’t have to study because the next day’s test is “a piece of cake,” no one who hears these words is actually thinking of dessert, but when it comes to the Bible, people’s reactions can be very different indeed.

Karen Armstrong is a biblical scholar who lives in London, and she was recently interviewed on the radio program Fresh Air.  The link is included with today’s sermon at our website.  (http://www.npr.org/templates/player/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=112968197&m=113026685) 

She stated that up until the 1600’s people of faith re-invented the creation story all the time because they were a people accustomed to stories.  They recognized stories as vehicles for teaching lessons, and they saw in the Genesis accounts creation stories.  When needed, they ad-libbed their own stories of creation to complement the ones in the Bible.  They weren’t challenging the biblical truth; they were re-telling the story so that the truth could remain.  It was when the church started to view science as a competitive source of knowledge that the creation stories began to become something other than a metaphor. This is when they became actual history, and we have been living with the tension ever since.

In today’s first reading from Genesis, we hear a story about the love and equality that should be a part of the marriage union.  According to the story, all other unions are inferior to that of marriage, even that of child to parent.  Marriage is based upon equals.  It is only when the two come together to form one in matrimony that they both find their purpose.  These are the inspiring ideals that the story relates to us, but all of this can be lost if we don’t read it as metaphor.  If we read it literally, if we read it as actual history, then we are stuck with the insupportable notion that the male existed before any other life forms on earth, and that his creation was followed by the emergence of “various wild animals and various birds of the air” (2:19).  These animals and birds were intended by God to be the man’s perfect companion, and then if we’re stuck with the literal story we have to admit that God got it wrong because none were sufficient. It is only with the creation of woman that man is satisfied.  In any other venue besides the Bible, we would read this as story without a second thought; we would read it as metaphor.  Again, it is only when science began to challenge the wisdom of the church that we moved from story to history.  But science has nothing to say about the love and equality that should be a part of all marriages, and that’s the real message of the story.  When we’re afraid of metaphor, we lose the importance of the story, by reading it literally we actually fall away from its intended truth.

And the same message is repeated by Jesus in today’s Gospel.  In ancient Israel, and I may be wrong but I think even in modern-day Israel where the Orthodox Rabbis define religious laws, it is simple for a husband to divorce his wife, but it is nearly impossible for a wife to divorce her husband.  This is a definite example of gender inequality and it goes back to the idea of woman as possession of man.  When Jesus was confronted with this situation, He turned the argument completely around from what was expected.  Jesus elevated the wife to full partner, not some possession that could be dismissed on a whim by the husband, and He did so by pointing to the purpose of the story, that what God hath joined together should be respected.  The story’s message was the sacred union of the marriage bond in love and equality.  Those ideas of union, love and equality are all ignored by a husband’s prerogative to simply say, “I divorce you.”  So Jesus restores the original meaning of the story by returning to the ideas that are found in the story.  Jesus reads the story as metaphor not as history, and only in this way does its importance remain.

When the church receives this tradition of equating matrimony with union, love and equality as the essential message of the story, it is then possible to talk about dissolving marriage when those fundamental qualities disappear, but like Jesus the church doesn’t first point to divorce, it first points to the original promises of union.  The church highly values the permanence of that union and does all she can to maintain the matrimonial union as sacred, but when its core values are compromised the church has to realize that the marriage has dissolved itself.  This is Domestic Violence Awareness Weekend.  Marriages that are filled with danger, hatred and violence have so violated the foundational values of the sacrament that the marriage has ceased to exist.  We, therefore, allow for re-marriage in the church.  We, therefore, allow for divorced couples to receive the sacraments because in their times of isolation and loss they most especially need the nearness and comfort of God.  We do not condone divorce, but we must recognize the reality that some marriage unions are no longer loving nor equal. 

This message of biblical metaphor is essential to the continued relevance and sanctity of the Word of God.  To read the Bible in this way is not to challenge its truthfulness, but to trust in it as the living Word of God.  This lets its revelation continue long past the lifetime of the stories it uses to teach these timeless lessons.  Children have always been receptive to learning through stories and maybe this is why Jesus follows His words on matrimony with the warning, “‘Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.’”  Maybe Jesus is letting us know about the power of metaphors if we are to ever fully understand the truths of religion.  That we may be open to this possibility, for this we pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen.  (+)


Fr. Randolph Calvo


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