May I speak in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I wonder if you have a nickname amongst your family or friends? Or maybe there are names for things you use in your family that wouldn’t make much sense to an outsider. My daughter has a totally favourite soft toy dog which has become known as Cold Finger… it’s a long story… but we all know that Cold Finger is hugely important and essential for a good night’s sleep.
In the Genesis reading, we heard of God creating and Adam naming. I can imagine the oral retelling of this story getting quite exciting, with all sorts of increasingly exotic animals taking the stage. It’s been pared back for the written version, but there is enough to realise that the naming was important. And finally, God creates a helper, a partner for man and her name is important enough to write down – woman. It has echoes of Isaiah – “I have called you by your name, you are mine.” Hold onto that thought.
The creation of woman from man in the Hebrew scriptures was always used to explain why, through marriage, husband and wife become one. By the time of Jesus, this was all tied up and complicated by legalities, and of course it is the legalities of the matter that the Pharisees are trying to trip Jesus up with. Jesus throws the question – that of whether divorce is lawful – back to the Pharisees, asking them what Moses commanded. This was entirely deliberate: the certificate of dismissal that the Pharisees refer to wasn’t just a means of divorce, it was a means of protecting the divorced woman. It freed her from her prior obligations. Jesus is actually reminding his listeners of his care and concern for the vulnerable. Whether the Pharisees understood this intent, we are none the wiser, although we could make an educated guess!
Of course, the verses we get really het up about are those in which Jesus says divorcees who remarry are committing adultery. I must say, for a first ever go at preaching, these readings have thrown me right in at the deep end! Where’s a straightforward Good Samaritan when you need one?!
So, what to say about this? Well, Jesus and the Gospel writers have form for making a point pretty boldly, and hyperbole is present throughout the Gospels as a literary device – just think of the passage about getting a camel through the eye of a needle, or the one where we’re told we must hate our parents if we are to able to love God properly… or indeed, the verses from Matthew that we heard last week telling us to pluck our eyes out and cut our arms off! If we look at how Jesus actually treats the woman caught in adultery, or the sort of people he invites into his close circle of friends, there you have your answer as to where his concerns lie, and ours should be. He’s not tied up with the legalities, he’s concerned with the marginalised and vulnerable. He knows them by their names. They are his.
The passage about Jesus blessing the little children is one we know so well, I was surprised when I realised it was “tagged on” to this section about divorce. But actually, it makes perfect sense. Jesus has just been decrying the hardness of heart of people… of the Pharisees who stick to the letter of the law but do not see the people behind it; he has reminded us of the certificate of dismissal, protecting the women and not the law-hungry men. And then the disciples illustrate that very hardness of heart themselves, speaking “sternly” to the people bringing their children, turning away the innocent and the vulnerable. Jesus once again shows through his actions that compassion and love are the be all and end all. He takes the children up in his arms and blesses them. I daresay he even got to know their names.
So, who are we going to be like? Are we going to be the Pharisees: sticklers for the law… tradition… respectability? Or are we going to embrace the vulnerable, to hold off judgement until we have the full picture, to show compassion at all times? We do, of course, say that all are welcome in this place. Let us make that true, of this place and of our lives, and let us learn the names of those we should be welcoming in.