This was the sermon preached on October 4 at Holy Trinity. The text was Mark 10:2-16.
Will Kim Davis ever go away? She’s the clerk of courts in Kentucky who refuses to marry same sex couples, even though it’s her job to do so. She’s gone to jail for what she believes. She’s convinced she’s right about marriage being only between a man and a woman, and there are a whole lot of Christians who agree with her. When we argue that Jesus never said anything about this topic, they will insist that, in fact, he did, and this is the text they go to: “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
Now, I would argue that Jesus was answering a question about divorce here, and in the course of his answer, he described the way marriage was in his day. Of course, in his context, he never would have said, “A person shall leave their parents and be joined to another person, according to their sexual orientation, and the two shall become one flesh.” That’s absurd. Given the context of Jesus’ world, he never would have said anything like that.
It’s hard to argue with a fundamentalist about the scriptures. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that we meet them on their level. They clobber us with Bible verses and we clobber them back with some Bible verses of our own. That never works. And it’s not the way we Lutherans read the Bible. The Bible is not a weapon, or a rule book, or a collection of ideas that come straight from God so we need to accept them unquestionably. That’s just not how we read it. We question the Bible, we wrestle with it, and we’re okay with disagreeing with it at times. We struggle to understand the original intent of passages from the Bible and how that intent might translate into our present context. In other words, we don’t read the Bible the way conservative Christians do, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever agree. I don’t know what we can do about that.
There’s more than just a different way of interpreting scripture going on. We’re not reading the words with the same eyes, hearing the words with the same ears. Recently, among people who make it their life’s work to study the scriptures, a new field of study has emerged called polyvalence. Polyvalence, refers to the way a text means different things to different people and many of those different meanings can be predicted based on things like gender, age, nationality. In other words, we cannot assume that we all draw the same meaning out of a text.
The Biblical scholar Mark Alan Powell has done some mind-blowing research in this area. He’ll do something like take a Biblical text and find out what it means to one audience and then compare that to what it means to another audience. For instance, he looked at the story of the Good Samaritan where Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” and told a story to answer the question. A guy was robbed, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Then some good religious types were traveling that same road, they saw the half dead man, and they walked on by. Finally, it was an outsider, a Samaritan, who stopped to help. As Americans, the meaning for us is generally that we should stop and help people who are in trouble, we should be like the Good Samaritan in the story.
However, Powell spent some time in Tanzania, and he learned that this is not the meaning Tanzanians pull from the story. For them, the main point of the story is that people who’ve been robbed, beaten and left for dead can’t afford the luxury of prejudice. They should accept help from whoever offers it. God can work through anyone, including those we might regard as heretics. So, for us, the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” is, my neighbor is “anyone who needs my help.” For a Tanzanian, the answer is “anyone who helps me.” For the Tanzanian, the Good Samaritan is not just a moral story about how we need to help those less fortunate. It’s about empathizing with the marginalized and the powerless. This difference in meanings across cultures is an example of polyvalence.
It seems to me that Jesus’ teaching on divorce in the first part of today’s gospel is a text rich with polyvalence.
- Think about what this text means to Kim Davis.
- Think about what this text means to those of us who have never been married.
- Think about what this text means to those of us who are married to someone of the same gender.
- Think about what this text means to those of us who have been married to the same person forever.
- Think about what this text means to those of us who are divorced or separated.
- Think about what this text means to those of us who have been married, divorced, and are now married to someone else.
- Think about what this text means to those of us who have been married, divorced, married, divorced, married, divorced, married… Oh wait, we’re back to Kim Davis, aren’t we?
Why is this important? Because it’s not just a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong when we read the Bible. The circumstances of our lives affect the meaning we draw from a text like the one we have today, just as surely as the circumstances of her life affect the meaning Kim Davis draws from this text.
I can make an educated guess about the meaning of today's gospel by considering it in context. I can look at the way women and children were treated as property to be discarded by men without a second thought in Jesus’ world. And I can look at the literary context of this teaching about divorce, particularly in light of what follows about welcoming and blessing children. And I can say with confidence that Jesus' teaching is about protecting those who have no rights and no power in society. So, at its heart, this passage isn’t about divorce at all, but it’s about the value of those the dominant culture sees no value in protecting. I can make a pretty strong case for that, based on the evidence. Ironically, I also could make a case for protecting the rights and well-being of LGBT folks, based on the deeper meaning of this text! But that doesn’t change the meaning others will draw from it.
We need to recognize that and somehow deal with it. How do we do that? I wish I could tell you, but I’m still working it out, too. I do know it’s important that the perspective of progressive Christians be heard as we wrestle with how to apply the truths we find in the Bible to life in our contemporary context. We can’t allow conservative Christians to speak for us. But we also need to recognize that not all Christians understand the Scriptures the way we do. It’s a challenge—one I pray we will meet with love.