Divorce Leading to Adultery

by Herb Montgomery

“Christians taking Jesus’ saying on divorce at face value have forced women to stay in untold situations of abuse. I want to argue this week that in the context of the 1st Century’s economic realities for women in Roman and Jewish patriarchal society, and in the context of the debate between the Pharisaical schools of Shammai and Hillel on divorce, Jesus’s saying about divorce did not judge women but was instead concerned with social justice for them.”

Featured Text:

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another‚ commits adultery, and the one who marries a divorcée commits adultery.” (Q 16:18)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 5:32: “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Luke 16:18: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Christians taking Jesus’ saying on divorce at face value have forced women to stay in untold situations of abuse. I want to argue this week that in the context of the 1st Century’s economic realities for women in Roman and Jewish patriarchal society, and in the context of the debate between the Pharisaical schools of Shammai and Hillel on divorce, Jesus’s saying about divorce did not judge women but was instead concerned with social justice for them.

Let’s unpack that a bit.

First, within at least Jewish society at the time of Jesus, divorce was the prerogative of the man. The laws were patriarchal:

Deuteronomy 22:13-18: “If a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her, dislikes her and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, ‘I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,’ then the young woman’s father and mother shall bring to the town elders at the gate proof that she was a virgin. Her father will say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her. Now he has slandered her and said,  “I did not find your daughter to be a virgin.” But here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity.’ Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, and the elders shall take the man and punish him. They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives.”

This passage is disturbing for multiple reasons, but this week  I’d like to focus on the fact that reparation for the unjust slander in the text would be paid “to the young woman’s father.” There is no reparation to the woman in that case and she would also have to remain married to her offender.

Another disturbing example is found a few verses further on in Deuteronomy 22:

Deuteronomy 22:23-24: “If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.”

Blaming the victim because “she didn’t scream for help” is sick. This law blames rape victims for their own rape. But also notice that the man is punished because he violated “another man’s wife.” The crime is against the other man, not against the woman who is simply “another man’s wife.”

The last deeply disturbing example to consider is just a few more verses even further:

Deuteronomy 22:28-29: “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”

This is sick on multiple levels, too! The victim of rape must marry her rapist, and without the option of divorce? Again the financial penalty is one that must be paid to the woman’s “father.”

Jesus’s saying must be interpreted in light of a culture where a women had few rights. She could not send her husband away with a certificate of divorce; only men were allowed to do that.

Also, the Torah’s criteria for divorce was problematic.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4: “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.”

Notice that within the Torah, the only prerequisite for divorce was if the woman “displeased” her husband in any way. Deuteronomy was at the heart of the debate between the Pharisaical schools of Shammai and Hillel. Hillel focused on the “displeasing” portion of this text and stated that a man could send his wife away, giving her a certificate of divorce, for any reason if he was “displeased” with her. Shammai, on the other hand, focused on the word “indecent” and said the permissible reason for a man to send his wife away was if she had committed an indecent act of infidelity, such as adultery. Notice that language. “Only if she” did. His adultery was not addressed because until Hellenistic influence, only men could issue a certificate of divorce. So you have two arguing factions. One said a man could divorce a woman for any reason he chose. And the other sought to limit the justification for divorce only to adultery.

Jesus and Hillel had so much in common in their teachings. Yes, Jesus and Hillel differed on the prozbul. Jesus called for the year of Jubilee where all debts would be forgiven and accumulated wealth redistributed to the poor. But in most every other area, Jesus interpreted the Torah in much the same way as Hillel. In the case of divorce, however, Jesus rejected the school of Hillel and sided either in the gospel of Matthew with Shammai, or in the gospel of Mark, a more stringent rejection of divorce than even Shammai (and Moses as well for that matter) would have been comfortable with.

Let’s look at each.

In Matthew, Jesus states that divorce in the Torah was a concession or an accommodation to male “hard-heartedness” within patriarchal marriages. Reasons could include something as minor as “finding something objectionable or unpleasing” about one’s wife (see Deuteronomy 24:1). In Matthew, Jesus goes beyond Torah and limits the reasons for a husband to divorce his wife to only infidelity.

Matthew 19:8-9: “He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’”

In Mark, we find a Jesus that is even more strident than in Matthew. There is no justification of divorce here, and even the reason of “infidelity” in Matthew is left out. “Whoever divorces his wife,” period.

Mark 10:5-10: “But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But 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.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” In the house, the disciples ask Jesus again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.*”[*Mark was written for a gentile audience, and within Roman culture women could divorce men as is seen here. In first-century Judaism it remained that only men could serve a certificate of divorce to a woman.]

I would argue that in each of these examples we see a Jesus who is living within the boundaries of his own Roman and Jewish patriarchal social order and marriage. His concern, within those constraints, is justice for women in a culture that disadvantages women, making women dependent on fathers and husbands for survival, with very few exceptions. In more egalitarian marriages, the principle would be the same: distributive justice for all parties involved.

I come from a long history of divorce on both my mother’s and my father’s sides of the family. I am the son of both my mother’s and father’s second marriages. My mother would go on to be married a total of four times and my father, three. I grew up with my mother living despite a physically and emotionally abusive situation, afraid to leave because there had been no case of marital infidelity on her or husband’s part. I see this as a gross misunderstanding of the cultural context of Jesus’ words. In Jesus’ culture, where Jesus speaks of divorce, we see a double standard where men didn’t commit adultery against their wives, but only against the husbands of the married women they may have had sex with. If woman was unmarried, the man paid a penalty to the father of the woman (cf. Deuteronomy 22:29), but it was not labeled as adultery, even if the man himself was married. This was a culture whose adultery laws were written when men were permitted to have multiple wives, as long as the rights of fathers in those wives’s lives were “respected.”

Jesus words in the gospels regarding divorce should not be shallowly interpreted and lifted out of their context to promote injustice and abuse toward women today. This would be to contradict the spirit of justice for women originally within those words.

Nor should they be used today to support patriarchal marriage as an ideal for human society. Speaking of Jesus’ words in the Temple debates (see Mark 12:24-27) where he unequivocally denounces patriarchal marriage as having a place in the world transformed, made just, safe and compassionate for all, Elizabeth Schüssel Fiorenza writes in In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins:

“[Jesus is not claiming] that sexual differentiation and sexuality do not exist in the ‘world’ of God, but that ‘patriarchal marriage is no more,’ because its function in maintaining and continuing patriarchal economic and religious structures is no longer necessary . . . [Mark 12:26-27] replies directly to the question of the continuation of the patriarchal family: in the burning bush God is revealed to Moses as the God of promise given to the patriarchs and their posterity. The ‘house’ of Israel is not guaranteed in and through patriarchal marriage structures, but through the promise and faithfulness of Israel’s powerful, life-giving God. While the God of the patriarchal systems and its securities is the ‘God of the dead,’ the God of Israel is the ‘God of the living.’ In God’s world women and men no longer relate to each other in terms of patriarchal dominance and dependence, but as persons who live in the presence of the living God . . . The Sadducees have ‘erred much’ in assuming that the structures of patriarchy are unquestionably a dimension of God’s world as well. So, too, all subsequent Christians have erred in maintaining oppressive patriarchal structures.” (pp. 144-145)

Today, I hear Jesus’ words this week calling us to prioritize the vulnerable within our societies. Whether that vulnerability is rooted in discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, gender identity, class, education, sexuality, ability, age, culture, language, and/or religion, we are called to put people and their well-being first, even if that means we going against traditional and popular interpretations of our sacred texts. This week’s saying speaks of women being more than disposable objects, easily discarded in consumer-style patriarchal marriages. People couldn’t simply discard or trade wives based on legal loopholes in the Torah without acknowledging the damage done to the women involved. In Spirit, it calls us to reject seeing anyone as a disposable means to our own pleasure and gratification. People matter.

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another‚ commits adultery, and the one who marries a divorcée commits adultery.” (Q 16:18)

HeartGroup Application

Our saying this week has been used to harm spouses in abusive marriages.

  1. How have you witnessed our saying this week used to keep people in abusive relationships?
  2. Does seeing this week’s saying through the lens of a call for social justice toward women in a patriarchal society make a difference for you?
  3. Discuss as a group which other sectors of society are presently being objectified, used for another sector’s benefit, or scapegoated in the name of community integrity and unity? Brainstorm things your group can do to make a change.

People matter. They aren’t disposable. They aren’t means to another person’s ends. We are worthy of more than being cogs in other people’s machinery.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Where you are, keep living in love. Keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Change is possible. The moral arc of the universe can bend toward justice if we choose to bend it that way.

Thank you, also, to each of you who are supporting our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries. We have multiple events coming up this fall. If you’d like to support our work you can do so by giving on our Donate page.

Please consider becoming one of our monthly donors. Together we are making a difference! This month an attendee of one of our events contacted us via our website and shared:

“I heard Herb speak today for the first time and was deeply moved by his presentation. I came away understanding The Lord’s Prayer from a new perspective and committed to become more involved in social justice. Thank you for your honesty and ability to shed new light on basis truths.”—Attendee in Arizona

If you prefer, you can also mail your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Thank you in advance for your partnership in the work of making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for us all.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Orphan-Maker or Advocate by Herb Montgomery

Advocacy

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate. — Jesus (John 14.16)

I find it interesting that within John’s version of the Jesus story, the word here used for the One who will be given is parakletos. A parakletos in the first century was what we would call today an advocate. It was someone who would plead another’s cause, someone who would defend the rights of another.

From the Sermon on the Mount all the way to Jesus’ use of parakletos here in John, Jesus meets our human systemic evil of sacrifice and oppression head on. Sacrifice (or as some refer to it, scapegoating) and oppression are rooted in the accusation of an innocent victim, either an individual or a group, that those in positions of privilege within society unite their community against. This can be done for a multitude of sociological reasons, yet the benefit is always stability and cohesiveness for communities threatened by their own internal rivalries (for more on the way of sacrifice or scapegoating, see https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/06-23-2014 and https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/06-02-2014).

The kingdom that Jesus came to establish was to be “good news to the poor,” “release for the captives,” “sight to the blind,” and that which would let the “oppressed go free” (see Luke 4.18; Matthew 5.3-11; Luke 6.20-26). Notice that word “oppressed.” Jesus’ kingdom is, in every generation, about advocacy for the “oppressed” within our societies. This is made evident in Jesus’ next statement in John. Just a few verses later, Jesus states, “I will not leave you orphaned” (John 14.18).

Jesus was not referring to his followers being orphaned by their families. Many of Jesus’ followers had parents still living, and though I’m quite sure that some parents had become distant to a few of Jesus’ followers because of their following Jesus, this can’t be assumed to be the same narrative for every disciple. Jesus’ words have a much broader societal meaning than that which could be derived by privatizing the definition of “orphan” within one’s personal family units.  Nor are they referring to becoming orphaned by God or by Jesus.  What Jesus is referring to here is a practice called “societal orphaning.”

Within our communities, a societal “orphan” can be anyone who has been deserted by the larger group, anyone without the protective affiliation of those in positions of privilege, or anyone who has become alone. These are people whose stories become “not authorized.” They are not supported by or part of the larger community that everyone else seems to belong to. They have become isolated, abandoned—“orphaned.” (Jeremiah 5.28)

These are the very ones Jesus became the advocate for. These are the ones that we find Jesus speaking up for. Over and over, through parable and argument, Jesus urges his exclusive religious community to embrace a much more inclusive way of seeing “God,” as well as a much more inclusive way of founding human societies. Jesus was the ultimate advocate, pleading on behalf of those who had been excluded by the community he found himself in.

He was the incarnation of Proverbs 31.8: “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute.”

Jesus, being a mirror image of God (John 14.9; John 5.19), was the original advocate. Jesus reveals God to be an advocate for the oppressed in every society. The resurrection proves it! God is not at the heart of religious, political, economic, or social systems that sacrifice the most vulnerable. The resurrection proclaims that God is in the One (and ones) being suspended shamefully on crosses by those systems.

What I find beautiful in Jesus’ departing discourses in John’s story, is that, before he leaves, he assures his disciples that another advocate will come to take his place (John 14.26; John 15.26; John 16.7).

Within today’s systemically evil way of orchestrating our societies, which is rooted in the way of the accuser, there are many who have been orphaned. Yet what concerns me the most are communities that claim to carry the name of Jesus; they claim to be “following Jesus,” the original advocate, yet they too, too many times, are guilty of “orphaning” others on the basis of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, economic class, marital status, or physical/mental abilities.

Today, we are also seeing an ever-growing number of Jesus followers who are waking up to this contradiction, waking up to this disconnect and choosing to walk away from the practice of societal-orphan-making into the beautiful world of advocacy. Advocacy means to make room for the voices and stories of those who have been orphaned by their communities. Advocacy is the way of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And, through Jesus, we come to embrace that advocacy too is a core element of the character of the God we see revealed through Jesus.

Paul, who turned from religious-orphan-maker to an advocate of gentile believers in the early church wrote, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any accusation against those whom God has embraced? It is God who acquits. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed advocates for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.31-39).

Whatever it is, dear reader, that has made you feel orphaned, the advocate God in Jesus has embraced you, and nothing, NOTHING, can separate you from that God’s love. Not race, not gender, not age, not sexual orientation, not ethnicity, not economic class, not your marital status, and certainly not your physical or mental abilities. NOTHING, can separate you from the love of God we see revealed in the advocate Jesus.

The best part is that Jesus has begun re-founding this world. Jesus is Lord, and although this Kingdom is open to all who will embrace it, it has started by giving a place to belong, a place to call home, to a group of orphans.

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week I’d like you to spend some time in contemplation, sitting with Jesus, considering the difference between being the kind of “Christian” that makes orphans versus being a “Jesus follower” who follows Jesus’ example of being an advocate.
  1. Prayerfully meditate on this passage: “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute” (Proverbs 31.8). Ask Jesus whom he would have you speak out for and whose rights you should defend.
  1. Share what Jesus shows you with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

On November 5,, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before his congregation at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA and preached these words:

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand for some great principle, some great issue, or some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid.

You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab or shoot or bomb your house. So you refuse to take a stand.

Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at ninety.

And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.

You died when you refused to stand up for right.

You died when you refused to stand up for truth.

You died when you refused to stand up for justice.”

In the words of David Hayward, who last week posted on his blog at nakedpastor.com, “There is a line that separates discrimination from affirmation. We can talk and progress while on the discrimination side until the cows come home. We can nudge up as close as possible to that line, but we will still be on the side of injustice. Justice doesn’t begin until that line is crossed. Period.”

Let’s follow Jesus together, making room for the orphaned voices of those whose stories have been brushed aside simply because they challenge the positions of the privilege. Let’s become advocates like Jesus till the only world that remains, is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

Keep living in love—Loving like Jesus.

I love each of you, and remember, the advocate God does too.

See you next week,

Herb

The Non-normative Jesus

eunuchicon

His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:10-12)

This week I want to consider Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 19. But to understand why these words are relevant, we have to go all the way back to a seemingly bizarre statement Moses makes in the book of Deuteronomy. When you see the connection between Deuteronomy 23 and Matthew 19, you will be blown away, just as I was.

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:1)

I’ll bet you didn’t think we would be looking at this verse in this week’s eSight! But this verse is not random, and it’s not marginal. When we explore this verse together with Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, a new and beautiful understanding of Jesus begins to emerge.

The “assembly of the Lord” refers to when Israel assembled for religious ceremonies. Eunuchs (men who had been castrated or were otherwise unable to reproduce) were considered non-normative within this society. Among the Hebrews, the carrying on of a man’s name through his male offspring was the only way to ensure that his name and nation would endure forever. Passing that name down through generations was the ancient Hebrews’ idea of eternal life.

What about the women? When it came to reproduction, ancient Hebrew culture considered the woman little more than an incubation chamber for the baby that was being passed down from the male. I know, I know, extremely patriarchal! At this stage they didn’t have the faintest idea about the zygote being the combination of the female ovum and the male sperm. For the Hebrew, the male seed contained everything needed for a human to be produced. All that was required was the fertile soil (the woman) for the seed to planted in and to grow. It’s no wonder that many women in this culture were treated like dirt!

Being a eunuch within Hebrew society, by birth or otherwise, placed a man in the “non-normative” category. “Normative” simply refers to that which has been established by the majority in a society as normal, or standard. The opposite of “normative,” academically speaking, is the word queer. Today, “queer” too often is used in an offensive and negative sense, typically as a slur toward someone who is non-normative in matters of sexuality or gender. But in an academic sense, the term “queer” carries no negative connotation. It simply refers to something that is non-normative or non-majoritive. For example, in a world designed for right-handed people, left-handedness (a trait my eldest daughter possesses) is non-normative. In matters of dexterity, left-handed people might labeled as dexterously queer. All of this is to say that eunuchs in Hebrew society during the time of Moses were considered non-normative, and therefore were not admitted to the assembly of the Lord. (Maybe my left-handed daughter would have been excluded from the assembly as well!)

Notice what Moses has to say about normativity in this passage from Leviticus.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles […] that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the LORD; I sanctify them. Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel. (Leviticus 21:16-24)

What’s fascinating is to observe in the book of Isaiah how God begins to change everything, moving Israel further along a trajectory from where they have been toward what we are about to discover in Jesus.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56:3-8)

Here is the question I want you consider. How is God going to give the eunuchs an everlasting name when that, within a Hebrew context, can only be accomplished by producing a long line of male children?

Let’s listen in on a private conversation Jesus had with his disciples and see if we can find the answer.

His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:10-12)

Who is Jesus referring to when he says, “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven”? In this context, voluntarily becoming a eunuch did not refer to self-mutilation. Jesus is referring to young Hebrew males who chose to abandon the patriarchal expectations of their society — taking a wife, having children, and propagating the nation of Israel through male offspring — to embrace a life of celibacy instead. Who had done this? Who is Jesus referring to? He was standing right in front of them! Jesus is referring to HIMSELF! He included himself in the eunuchs’ “tribe,” saying, in effect, “I’m choosing to stand in solidarity with you, voluntarily becoming one of you!” The eunuchs would now have an everlasting name, a name that would never be cut off. Moses had excluded them, but now they were being made holy by Jesus’ solidarity with them.

Celibacy is still considered “non-normative” in many of today’s hetero-normative cultures. The cultural pressure for a single person to marry and have children is often immense. But according to Jesus, whether a person is a eunuch by birth, is made so by others, or has simply chosen to live a life of celibacy for the Kingdom’s sake, they have been made not merely acceptable, but holy, special, unique. They have been given a place at Jesus’ table alongside everyone else by virtue of Jesus’ embrace of them…by Jesus’ becoming one of them.

As a side note for those who are non-celibate, you’re included, too. No one is left out.  Jesus is quick to say that choosing a life of celibacy, while still non-normative, no longer holds negative connotations; after all, Jesus was celibate, too. Celibacy is to be strictly voluntary, according to Jesus. Further, only those who have been given the spiritual gift of celibacy are called to be celibate. For those who have not been given this gift, Paul would say, “if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:9)

But let’s get back to this non-normative eunuch, Jesus, who, standing in the prophetic lineage of Isaiah, calls for the radical inclusion of those once excluded under Moses.

Radical inclusion is a trend in Jesus’ ministry. Speaking to Israel, Jesus announces that the favor of God is now available for the Greeks as well. (Luke 4:25-29) Addressing the Jews, Jesus calls for the inclusion of the Romans. (Matthew 5:43-48) With the Pharisees, Jesus calls for the inclusion of Jews not living according to the Torah (i.e., “sinners,” Luke 19:7-9). Addressing the rich and healthy (wealth and health being socially constructed indications of “God’s favor” in Jesus’ day), Jesus calls for the inclusion of the poor, the blind, and the lame. (Luke 14:13-14; cf. Luke 6:20, 24) Addressing men within a patriarchal society (and women with a Stockholm-syndrome like support of partriarchy), Jesus calls for the inclusion of women. (Luke 10:39-41) Jesus calls to all who are benefiting from society’s arrangements to make room for those who are being oppressed. It was this radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ kingdom that led his early followers who were circumcised to begin including the uncircumcised among them as well. (Acts 10:47)

What I want you to ponder this week is what it must have meant for those non-normative eunuchs of Jesus’ day to be embraced by Jesus, to be called His new “tribe.” Just imagine it:  after years of being excluded from the “assembly of God,” they were not merely accepted by their long-awaited Messiah; he had actually chosen to live as one of them. This is the non-normative Jesus, choosing the life of a eunuch as a Hebrew male and Rabbi who refused to marry and have children. This non-normative Jesus chose to stand in solidarity with a group considered non-normative in his day. What did it mean to them that Jesus, through his identification with them, could give them a name that would now last forever?

It is no accident that the first individual conversion story Luke records in the Book of Acts is that of an Ethiopian eunuch. Luke purposely chooses to tell the conversion story of a person who, under Mosaic law, would have been excluded from the Hebrews’ religious assemblies. Luke knows exactly what he is communicating when he begins the many individual conversion narratives of Jesus’ Kingdom with Philip’s baptism of a eunuch.

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. (Acts 8:38)

Societies today, ours included, can still be divided into the normative/majoritive and the non-normative/non-majoritive. There will always be a majority and a minority. (Again, think of my left-handed daughter.) But when those considered “normative” fail to recognize those considered “non-normative” as their brothers and sisters in Christ, every bit as deserving of a place at Jesus’ table, something monstrously un-Jesus-like is being perpetuated — something that looks very different from the example we are given in the non-normative Jesus. When normativity is wedded to exclusivity it produces hierarchical privilege for the normative and, by definition, an oppressed minority composed of anyone non-normative. When the preservation of normativity is the Moral concern, rather than the deeper non-objectification, non-dehumanization, and anti-degradation of those who are considered non-normative as the Ethical concern, in the name of “standing up for what is right,” the non-normative minority will always be objectified, dehumanized and degraded, becoming themselves the recipients of attempts at being purged from society by the normative majority. This is exactly the opposite of what we see the non-normative Jesus doing with the eunuchs of his day.

HeartGroup Application

1. The early followers of Jesus embraced the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ kingdom.  I’d like you to spend time this week with Jesus, contemplating Paul’s words in Acts 17:24-31.

“The God who made the world and everything in it, this God who is sovereign of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is this God served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since this God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for this God and perhaps grope for this God and find this God—though indeed this God is not far from every one of us. For ‘In God we [all] live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’ Since we [all] are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now God commands all people everywhere to [rethink everything we have assumed about God, ourselves and the world around us], because this God has fixed a day on which [the injustice, oppression and violence of this world will be put to right] in justice by a man whom this God has appointed, and of this God has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

2. As you contemplate this passage, journal what Jesus reveals to you through these words.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what Jesus shows you this upcoming week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Jesus’ love reigns. Keep loving like the sun shines and the rain falls, restoring one human heart at a time.

I love each and every one of you. And remember, whether in today’s world you are considered normative or considered non-normative, God loves you, too.

I’ll see you next week.

Part 3 of 3 – Jesus and the Living Water

womanatwell

Jesus and the Living Water

Part 3 of 3

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” (John 4:16)

Stop, and consider.

A woman comes for water every day in the middle of the day, instead of the early morning when she would be with the rest of the women in her town.

Why?

In a society where women found their place beneath men, some women found themselves lower still. This woman was held in lower esteem than even her female peers. Why? This woman had a story.

She had been married five times. Try to consider this not from the perspective our gender-egalitarian culture today but from the patriarchal social constructs of her time. Remember that marriage then was in some regards similar to marriage today, but within first-century Judaism, the social construction of marriage was significantly different. Women belonged to their husbands as little more than property. This was most apparent in divorce. Women could not divorce a man, but men, in this male-dominated hierarchical construction of marriage, could divorce a woman, under the Torah for any reason they so choose. Granted, a woman could not be passed back and forth between husbands, but her present husband could pass her to another if for any reason he deemed her no longer desirable (for faults as simple as burning the food or being less desirable than younger options).

This woman whom we find this day at the well had been sent away by five men. She had been told five times, “You are not desirable. You are not wanted.” We are not told what her present arrangement was, but suffice it to say, she was with a man now simply so that she could have some type of existence in that culture that required her to be connected to a man.

Jesus does not hold her responsible for any of this. There is no “go and sin no more” talk between then. There is no “love the sinner hate the sin” mantra that Christians today are so famous for touting. There is simply the understanding that this woman has been the victim of a marriage institution gone completely wrong. Yes, it was monogamous, but it was no more than serial monogamy. The kind of marriage this woman had experienced only served to objectify, dehumanized, and degrade women to a status lower than men.

Next, we encounter Jesus’ offer to her of “living water.”

What Jesus offers this woman would answer her heart’s desperate cry to love and be loved: a water that would so satisfy her basic, inmost needs that it would not only fill the deep void insider her but overflow into a beautiful force toward others, flowing from her as a source of healing for others.

However, there was a catch. When she responds favorably and asks Jesus for this water, He cannot simply give it to her. No, the water Jesus offers this woman can be only experienced within the context of complete honesty and authenticity. She must come to a place where she is herself, regardless of what the other Torah–observing women might say. If she is going to truly experience what Jesus extends to her, she must be given a safe space with Him to be who and what she is, no longer hiding, even if that means facing her past of begin repeatedly told, time after time, there was something wrong with her.

Jesus draws her into this safe space.

“Go get your husband.”

The woman scrambles. ‘My husband?’ she thinks. ‘There’s something different about this man in front of me, yes, but the last thing I want this strange Jewish man to know is how many times I have been rejected, labeled as unwanted, sent away by one man after another. I know what I’ll say.’

“I have no husband,” she says.

Jesus, with a look that subtly tells her that she can trust Him, says, “I know. I know you’ve been married five times, and the man you’re with now is just keeping you around.”

There is something different that she sees in this man’s eyes.

She changes the subject, though. Jesus will bring it back around.

What is Jesus saying to this woman?

The same thing He is saying right now to you, too.

“My love is not blind. I know everything about you there is to know. My love is not diminished by this knowledge. I love you AND I already know everything there is to know about you. Honestly, I knew you before you even did—even the things you are still in denial about. I know everything there is to know about you, and My offer to you is still on the table.”

We do not need water that will leave us thirsty (conditional love). We need the living water for which we were made. We must not settle for less. We must have the water that satisfies the deepest human thirst. We need Jesus’ living water of unconditional love, a love in which we are simultaneously fully known and fully embraced, loved and accepted. A love that knows all there is to know about us and loves us all the more still.

Who are you reading this right now? What are you hiding? What are you not being honest about, not with others but with yourself and possibly with God? Would you like this living water, too? Then it is time to enter the dangerous honesty of this radically inclusive Kingdom Jesus came to bring. Whatever you are hiding, He won’t turn away from it, and He won’t turn you away, either. You might feel like you have to come to the well at midday to protect yourself from others’ opinions, but you don’t have to with Jesus. As a matter of fact, He is already at the well right now, waiting for you to arrive.

In the past two decades, I have met many people who have come to a place where they can be honest with God about who they are. Some I find to be still hiding. Others are very much on this journey of deep introspection. All these stages are okay. What Jesus would have us all know, first and foremost is that, regardless of who we are, we don’t have to hide from Him. His love is unconditional. He already knows, even before you do, and His offer is still on the table. His hand still extends to you a cup. Are you thirsty for this water? Come. Drink. You will never be the same again.

The lady at the well did not fit in well with the religiously valued, normative social constructs of her day, either. Look at how Jesus relates to her. If you hear nothing else, hear Jesus’ words to you right now:

“My dear daughter, my dear son, I already know everything about you there is to know. And I’m still here. I won’t abandon you. I love you. I’ve come to extend to you, too, the invitation to a world where worship on ‘this mountain’ or ‘that mountain’ is irrelevant. I’m offering you a way into a radically different world, with a river of living, wet, soul-thirst-satisfying, radically inclusive love, not just for you but also, through you, to all those around you who were made for this kind of water, too.”

Do you have the courage to be honest with Jesus?

The first step is to believe that Jesus really does give us space to be honest without the fear of losing Him. The next step is to believe what Jesus said to Philip: “If you have seen Me, you’ve also seen God” (cf. John 14:7–10).

HeartGroup Application

1. This week, I want you to spend some time in contemplation with Jesus. What might you be hiding? Consider if there remains in you a door to that most private room of your heart that you have kept locked.

2. Invite Jesus into this, whatever it is. Watch what He does next. Journal what He shows you.

3. In the context of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at Jacob’s well, share what Jesus shows you with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Keep living in this love. Allow it to also flow out to others around you until the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

I love you guys.

See you next week.

Jesus Stops A Lynching and the LGBTQ Community

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery . . . (John 8.2-3)

This week I want to address a story from which most have only heard very conventional explanations and a traditional expounding. In my opinion, how this story is spoken of normally, does little more than allow us to continue on in our culturally conditioned lives unchanged. This story is most often used today (although there are exceptions) by one of two groups. It’s used by behaviorists, who say, “Yes, Jesus forgave, but he also said ‘go sin no more.’” And therefore this story serves to do little more than confirm them in their already-in-motion behaviorism. And this story is also used by those who have been deeply wounded by behaviorists as a treatise on how behaviorists are to not “judge,” reminding behaviorists that Jesus also said, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.” On this side, this story also serves little more than to simply confirm where someone already is.

I want to suggest this week that if these are our only two options in our search for understanding this story, then we miss the underlying point entirely. Something much deeper is going on in this story than what we see on the surface. This “something deeper” is what all of us (behaviorists as well as anti-judgmentalists alike) may be trying to avoid with our surface explanations, fearing that the deeper narrative could implicate us all.

Scapegoating

This story is neither about “anti-judgementalism,” nor is it about “loving the sinner, but hating the sin.” Instead, it’s about “scapegoating.” René Girard, whom some regard today as a veritable “Einstein” of sociology and theology, in his work on violence and the sacred, has discovered that societies, in times of crisis throughout human history, time and time again, are reunited by society unifying around a hatred for a common enemy. This enemy is selected as 1) different from “us,” 2) a minority whose absence would least affect the overall society, and 3) those upon whom the blame for society’s problems can be placed and whose presence must be removed. Various methods can be used (political, economic or religious) to characterize this minority as the “threat” to society. But they must be vilified. Scapegoating will not work to unify a society if that minority is seen as being victimized instead. Those being scapegoated must become villains or of moral disrepute. They must not be seen as victims, but as enemies of what is just and good and therefore they must be opposed. Thus, the society now possesses a common enemy. And the unity within that society, which was previously being threatened, is restored as they now rally together around this common enemy. (A great example of this is seen in Luke 23.12)

What led Girard to become a Christian was his discovery that the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is uniquely different. This Jesus uniquely sought to expose human society’s scapegoating mechanism. He sought to create a human community centered on love for our enemies (removing the exclusive lines of “us” and “them,”) rather than hatred for a common enemy. And finally, this Jesus became the ultimate scapegoat (politically, economically, and religiously) within the narratives of human history in order to, through his unjust death and then resurrection, put an end, once and for all, to our practice of “sacrificing scapegoats.” This is not only seen simply in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus spent His entire life pulling back the layers beneath which we hide the morally, monstrous ugliness of humanity’s continual sacrifice of innocent victims for the protection, advancement, and/or well being of the much larger population.

“The Gospels not only disclose the hidden scapegoat mechanism of human cultures, but witness to the God . . . who stands with the Innocent Victim and is revealed through him.” – René Girard, The Girard Reader

“The most important of these we find in the Gospel of Luke, the famous prayer of Jesus during the Crucifixion: ‘Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing’ (23:34) . . . Persecutors think they are doing good, the right thing; they believe they are working for justice and truth; they believe they are saving their community.” – René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning

Jesus called this the way of “sacrifice” rather than the way of “mercy.” It was to open our eyes and call us away from the way of sacrifice to the way of mercy that Jesus set all his energy in His teachings, His death, and His resurrection.

Jesus stops a lynching.

This is where we need to pick up our story in John 8.

The teachers of the Torah along with the Pharisees are feeling threatened by Jesus. Their place within their society is as risk. They must remove this threat (think Cain and Abel). But in order for it not to back fire, Jesus must not be seen as innocent. The sacrifice of Jesus must be justifiable. Jesus must been seen as a “sinner,” someone who disregards the “Law of Moses.” So they lay a trap—a woman caught in the very act of adultery.

What I find most appalling about adultery in the first century is that adultery laws did not apply to men unless the woman they were having an extramarital affair with was also married. The adultery laws of the Torah applied to both the man and the woman only if the woman involved was married. The culture was patriarchal, and the chief concern expressed in the underlying moral logic of their law was protecting the property rights of the man to whom the woman involved in the adultery “belonged.” We are not given the details of how this tragic mistake was made by the woman in this story. We are not told if she was lured by some pretense, or if this was rape. Either was possible within the patriarchal environment of first-century Palestine. Obviously, it was a trap set for Jesus, however the woman came to be there. She was now the chief, expendable pawn in their scheme.

The trap was then set: “In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” It is at this point the story takes an unexpected turn. Jesus bends down and begins writing on the ground.

I’ve heard (and read) so many try in one convoluted attempt after another to show what Jesus was actually writing on the ground that day. All are guesses at best. My favorite is Shane Claiborne’s: “If this doesn’t work . . . run, woman!” Claiming to know what Jesus wrote that day is to miss the point. To get caught up in trying to figure it out, though, is the point itself. Let me explain. Jesus must get their attention off of being centered on this woman. He must draw all attention to Himself. He comes along side this woman and draws the attention of everyone away from her to Him. You see, scapegoating only works if the scapegoat (in this case, the woman) is “the center” around which everyone else can unite. Jesus begins disrupting this mechanism by doing something brilliant. He bends down and begins writing mysteriously, drawing the attention of everyone away from this woman to Himself. He slowly trades places with her, placing Himself now at the center of their attention as they each, one by one, begin to look down and try to see what Jesus is writing. We must not miss this. Jesus begins by slowly drawing their attention away from her to Himself.

If John had wanted us to know what Jesus wrote, he would have told us. John purposefully leaves the words out for a dramatic reason. John, in beautiful form, preserves this action in the manner in which he records the story for future readers as well. By leaving what Jesus wrote unrecorded, your attention, even right now as you read this, if you can be self-aware for just a moment, is on trying to figure out what Jesus wrote rather than focusing on the woman. Jesus, that day and in the beautiful way John has preserved this story, comes alongside the woman and draws our attention off her and onto Himself. If you’ll notice, you weren’t thinking about that woman at all until I mentioned her again. You were trying desperately, especially if you are OCD like me, to figure out instead “What is He writing.” We can focus only on one or the other, and Jesus knows it.

Jesus then takes a chance. This could have gone the other way very quickly. They could have chosen to stone them both: She as an adulteress, and Jesus as a blasphemer. But Jesus took the risk and stood in solidarity with this woman who was being sacrificed, scapegoated, or in reality, victimized. With one contemplative statement to the oppressors, (“You who are without sin cast the first stone”) He not only saved this woman from what was about to happen, He also won what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called a “double victory.” Jesus not only saves the woman, but He saves the perpetrators too of this act of violence. Jesus saw two sets of victims present, the woman and her accusers. Two parties were held captive to whatever you want to label it, systemic injustice, systemic scapegoating, systemic violence, or systemic “sacrifice.” And He saved both! Scapegoating, or “sacrifice” is the way of the satan, the accuser; Mercy is the way of God, the God we see in Jesus. Jesus interrupted the proceedings of the path of the accuser and set the entire group on the path of God. This story calls us to look at “scapegoating” from the perspective of the victim and of Jesus. The story ends in redemption rather than victimization. “Mercy rather than sacrifice.”

Go And Sin No More

Last, I want to address the much-misunderstood statement by Jesus, “Go and Sin No More.”

The word for sin here that John uses is hamartano, which is the verb form of the noun hamartia. In the ancient Greek world, hamartia was the term Aristotle used in Poetics. One of the ancient Greek story genres was tragedy. In a story classified as tragedy, a mistake, or error in judgment is made by the main character (the hero’s “tragic flaw”). This error in judgment is what leads to the hero’s/heroine’s tragic downfall. This definition fits extremely well with our story. If it were not for Jesus, this story would have been classified as a “tragedy” with the woman as our central character.

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood, hamartia can refer specifically to the tragic mistake itself. BUT DON’T MISS THIS. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words states that hamartia can refer to the “guilt of wrong doing” as well as the wrong doing itself. Hamartia can go way beyond the behavioral aspect of an action to the guilt or stigma associated with that action as well. In these next passages, John’s use of hamartia, which is very unique to the way other authors of the New Testament, is not talking about a behavior but guilt for that behavior; not the committing of the wrongdoing itself, but the guilt for committing a wrongdoing. This distinction is important if we are going to see how it ties back into our story. All of these examples are from John, who is the only gospel writer to use the phrase “go and sin no more.”

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned [Harmatia] this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9.2-3)

It would make no sense to look at hamartia as purely “behavioral” in this passage, for how could this man commit “hamartia” as a behavior before he was even born? If we take Mounce’s definition of the word as also being able to refer to guilt for behavior and not merely the committing of certain behavior, the text makes more sense. The apostles are asking, “Rabbi, who is guilty of sin? This man or his parents since he was born blind?”

These passages are from John as well:

“Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they CANNOT sin, because they have been born of God.” (1 John 3.9, emphasis added)

“We know that those who are born of God do not sin.” (1 John 5.18, emphasis added)

No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. (1 John 3.6, emphasis added)

In 1 John 3.9, John says, “cannot sin?” Really? Paul would never have said that followers of Jesus are incapable of hamartia! Because Paul uses hamartia behaviorally. John goes much deeper, using hamartia to refer to the guilt that is associated with certain behaviors. I’ve seen this verse cause much heartache and damage when “hamartia,” here used by John, is defined behaviorally rather than as guilt over one’s behavior. I’ve seen it rob multitudes of any assurance every time they make a mistake, leaving them to wonder if they were ever genuinely born again at all. On the other side of the spectrum I’ve seen gross sins being perpetrated against others while those committing such actions say, “This can’t be sin because I’ve been born again!” Is John saying that if you abide in Jesus you no longer make moral mistakes? Not only that you don’t, but that you CAN’T? Is John really teaching that when you choose to follow Jesus you achieve over-night, undefeatable moral perfection?

These verses are dangerous if you interpret them as meaning that a Jesus follower cannot ever sin again. BUT, if what John is saying is that once you are born of God the accuser loses his ability to entrap you with overwhelming feelings of GUILT over your sins then this passage from John becomes blessed good news of freedom from guilt, shame, and stigma. John’s use of hamartia (and John’s use, again, is unique in the New Testament) goes way beyond the behavior of sinning. John is saying in all of these passages that if you have been born of God, if you know Him, if you’ve seen Him, you are no longer enslaved by feelings of GUILT over your behaviors, and you cannot be. If God looks like Jesus, guilt loses its power over us to control our futures. To the degree that we believe that God looks like Jesus, to that same degree we will be free from guilt, shame and stigma over our mistakes. Paul actually says the same exact thing in Romans 8.1, “There is therefore no more condemnation to those who are in Christ.” (emphasis added.)

Now let’s return to our story.

“Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from this point forward sin no more.’” (John 8.9-11, emphasis added)

Here is the million-dollar question. Is Jesus siding with the accusers now implying that this woman really is to blame for all that took place that day? Is Jesus saying, “Yes, I don’t condemn you, but they are right, don’t do this anymore?” Having barely escaped with her life, do you think she would even need to be told this? Or on another note, is Jesus telling her to never sin again, setting her up for questioning her sincerity as a Jesus follower every time she failed from that day forward? Is Jesus really expecting this woman to never sin again? From this point, this initial point forward? Don’t get me wrong; Jesus DOES radically change the direction of our lives! But which of us after meeting Jesus for the very first time “sinned no more?” Which of us never sinned again? Yes, the direction of our life dramatically changed when we met Jesus, but haven’t we all still made moral mistakes here and there, from time to time, after our first encounters with Jesus? Following Jesus is much like learning how to walk. Following Jesus is an adventure in learning how to live a radically different life. It’s about being mentored by Jesus, not being perfect from an initial moment onward. None of us become Olympic-gold-medalists in our behavior after our first encounter with Jesus. Which one of us achieved overnight, “sin-no-more” moral perfection after meeting Jesus the very first time?

What John is showing us here is that Jesus is saying something to this woman that is much, much deeper. Jesus is saying go and be guilty of this tragic mistake no more? Certainly her life direction was changed that day. But Jesus wasn’t siding with her accusers here and he wasn’t setting her up for continually doubting her own sincerity either. He was setting her free, free from the guilt, the shame, and the stigma of what she had been involved with that day. Jesus was saying, “Woman, from this point forward, go forth, be guilty of this mistake [John’s use of hamartia] no more. You are free. I don’t condemn you, and I don’t want you to condemn yourself either. Don’t define yourself by this mistake this day, go and be guilty of this tragic failure no more! You don’t have to define yourself the way these people have defined you here today. You are not what they call a ‘sinner.’ You are a daughter of Abraham too!” (cf. Luke 19.9) Jesus looked at this woman and gave her a fresh start; “Go and be guilty of this sin . . . no more.”

Far from looking at this story through the lens of behaviorism or anti-judgmentalism, this is a story that contrasts the way of sacrifice with the way of mercy, the way of scapegoating with the way of redemption. We see Jesus coming along side this woman about to be scapegoated/stoned by His own religious community and Jesus turns the tables on us all and calls all of us to two new realities:

1) If you have been religiously scapegoated, you no longer have to define yourself according to the moral inferiority of how the majority has made you feel.

2) If you have taken part in religiously scapegoating others, it’s time to humbly submit to Jesus’ radically different way of looking at those we are presently rallying together against, calling them “sinners,” using Torah, once again, as our justification.

This was what converted the early apostles, especially the apostle Paul. And it’s what converts each of us. It is at least one of the central points of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection if not the center itself. Jesus has revealed God as being with those whom we are politically, economically, or religiously scapegoating, and we must come to terms with the reality that we are with God, when we with them.

The Jesus story calls us to recognize where we are participating in the way of sacrifice rather than mercy, the way of scapegoating minorities, for the certitude of the greater populous. It calls us away from arranging our lives where a “common enemy” is always needed. And it beckons us to, from this point forward, stand in solidarity with those we once scapegoated. Jesus calls us to abandon whatever sacrificial system we’ve stood in solidarity with up to this point, and to now stand in solidarity with those who are being victimized by those systems instead. We are to be like Jesus, coming along side of those about to be stoned, saying, “If you’re going stone them, then you’re going to have to stone me, too. But know this, whoever among you who is truly innocent in all of this, let them cast the first stone.” As followers of Jesus, we follow Him into the hope of a new world where the continual tides of sacrifice can be turned, and waves of mercy, rather than sacrifice, can wash over our human societies as the waters cover the sea.

HeartGroup Application

Actually, more than an application, it’s time for some confession. I’ve been asking you to sit with Jesus over the past few weeks, asking Him to show you a people group that is on His heart. The reason I’ve asked you to do this is because this is what He has, inescapably, done to me.

For me, this is really where the rubber meets the road. If the story of the Resurrection teaches us anything, it teaches us that the way of sacrificial systems that justify scapegoating innocent victims has come to an end. The Resurrections puts on display that the Presence of God is no longer to be sought within the most exclusive, most holy places belonging to those systems. The true dwelling place of God is now to be found in the ones shamefully suspended on crosses at the demand of those religious sacrificial systems. The Resurrection is the start of a whole new world where we don’t need to fear the consequences our nonviolent engagement with those systems either. We stand in the Victory of the Christ over all injustice, a victory that has already been won. So here goes.

My Confession

I’ve taken a lot of heat over what I’m about to write here over the past few months. I’ve even had a few of my meetings cancel over this. I’ve had those who have been my friends for years now shun me as I begin to take my place alongside those I believe are being scapegoated today. Rather than perusing dialogue and discussion, I have simply been written off. Yet there is a beauty in the pain of rejection when you are now standing along side those you yourself used to reject. Being on the receiving end myself of religious scapegoating now, it’s my prayer that Jesus uses it deep inside me to change me first and foremost.

Here are the responses I’ve gotten so far:

“But I cannot endorse their choice of lifestyle.”

Justin Lee’s continued passion to define the terms we are using is much needed in our discussions. Justin asks the question, “Would you agree with me that sex outside of marriage is wrong?” His audience responds, “Yes.” Justin continues, “Then would you also agree that heterosexuality before marriage is also wrong?” The audience scratches their heads. Heterosexuality is not about whom one has sex with. It’s about whom one feels attracted to. And we don’t choose whom we are attracted to, we just are. Attraction is not something one chooses, it’s what someone experiences whether they want those attractions or not. In the same way, homosexuality cannot be reduced to a sexual act. Homosexuality is defined as feelings of attraction, whether those feelings are wanted or not, to the same gender. I don’t know one of my gay or lesbian friends who chose to feel attracted to their same gender. For them, this is not a lifestyle that they chose. It is something they experience inside of them for which they cannot find an explanation. It would be most helpful if we stopped referring to homosexuality as a “choice of lifestyle.” Just as with heterosexuality, there are expressions of sexuality (both hetero and homo) that are very unhealthy. But it is unjust to group all homosexuals under one sweeping characterization. (Or heterosexuals for that matter.) The struggle for my Christian LGBTQ friends is to find the difference between what is a healthy expression of these same gender attractions that they are feeling and what is an unhealthy expression. And there is just as much debate on this subject among them as there is among my straight friends. Yet my friends in the LGBTQ community are left to struggle with this alone, being shut out from the support of their Christian communities, for even having these un-chosen attractions to begin with.

I have to humbly confess that I think we are completely missing the point of the Jesus story. We claim that this story is the center of all we are about. Yet this story is about a Jesus who met scapegoating in His religious community head on, and it cost Him his life for it. This is the story of a Jesus who encountered those who were being labeled as “sinner” according to the Torah, marginalized, and in John 8 even lynched, by the religious community of His day. This is the story of how Jesus loved these people, how He stood in solidarity with them, and having called them His own, He stood in solidarity with them all the way to the end.

As Girard said, those who scapegoat others “think they are doing good, the right thing; they believe they are working for justice and truth; they believe they are saving their community.” Jesus prayed, “They don’t know what they are really doing.” Scapegoating in the Jesus story appears in the form of giving greater value to a definition of Torah observance (even if they had to sacrifice a few among their community for that observance) over and above the value of those who were being sacrificed. (Scapegoating always picks an individual or a group that is a minority whose absence would least diminish the overall whole. Their absence really won’t cost us a thing. Scapegoating then finds a justifiable reason to unite together in sacrificing them.)

Scapegoating in the Jesus story possessed an air of “holiness,” but it was a kind of holiness that caused those who were being sacrificed to steer clear, and to keep their distance. Jesus, on the other hand, stood in solidarity with those being sacrificed. He valued people and the way of mercy, over and above the way of sacrifice, EVEN WHEN IT WAS ENDORSED BY THE TORAH. Jesus possessed a kind of holiness that actually attracted those whom the religious culture of His day, with the Torah in their hands, were scapegoating.

“But the Bible clearly condemns Homosexuality.”

Again, homosexuality refers to whom you find yourself attracted to, not whom you are having sex with. Whether or not the Bible addresses same gender attraction at all, or what exactly was the moral logic that undergirded the Biblical statements concerning same-gender sexual acts are topics that are hotly debated among scholars today. (See The Bible, Gender and Sexuality by James V. Brownson) And although I believe we need more discussions about these topics given the onslaught of such massive misinformation that is being promoted, to stop here also misses the point of the Jesus story. Even IF one does deem the act of same-gender sex as condemned by the Bible, a grave reality is staring back at us in the face. Why are our reactions to those within LGBTQ community so governed by our amygdala (fight or flight) and not Jesus? Why are my friends in the LGBTQ community, not being strangely attracted to us as they were to Jesus? We may claim to be following Jesus, but then why are our results almost identical to the results of those who were doing the scapegoating in the Jesus story? Why are our results so similar to those who actually crucified Jesus too? Why do we find ourselves getting caught up senselessly with the crowd, crying, “Crucify them, and anyone who stands with them!” We must let this contradiction confront us. Deeming same-gender sex as contrary to the Bible may make us feel more secure as Biblicists, but it gets us nowhere as followers of Jesus. We still have to confront the life of Jesus and how he taught us to relate to those whom any religious community in our day deems as living contrary to their sacred texts. We must be suspicious of any activity that blanket labels a minority as “sinners,” and then unites to rally against them. Scapegoaters never realize they are actually scapegoating until it’s too late. (Acts 2.37)

We have to let the Jesus story confront us.

“Jesus said, ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin.’”

Actually, Jesus never said that. What He actually said was that we are to get the log out of own eye before we can even hope to help others as they are trying to see through the dust that is in theirs. Until someone feels that we truly are their brother, sister, friend, until we’ve stopped and actually listened to their stories, it’s not that we don’t have the right to speak into their lives (which we don’t); it’s that we don’t even have the ability. Without first entering into relationship with those from the LGBTQ community, without entering into their struggles, their stories, until we stop talking about them and start listening to them and along side with them, even when we mean no harm and our intentions are pure, we will continue to do damage that we don’t even realize we are doing.

Here in West Virginia, we used to use canaries in the coalmines to warn the coal miners when the air had become toxic. When the canary died, it was time to run to the surface for purer air. Walter Brueggemann, the world’s foremost Old Testament scholar, has gone on record saying that those from the LGBTQ community are the canaries in our religious coalmines today. The way we as Christians have historically treated even Christian young people who begin experiencing same gender attraction has created an eight times higher rate of suicide among them than any other category of Christian or LGBTQ youth. This screams to us that in all our piety and holiness we have to be open to the possibility that we might have imbibed more of the spirit of scapegoating than we have the spirit of Christ. Seeing this only as a matter of whether this is sin or not sin grossly misses the point entirely. If sin is supposed to produce death, and how we are relating to those involved IS producing higher rates of death, we have to ask, where is the greater death-producing sin in actuality? Where is the greater sin? Is it in an orientation we are so deathly afraid of, or the way we are relating to those who posses this orientation regardless of how they got it? First, we must get the log of scapegoating out of our own eye, and only then will we be able to see clearly to be a source of life, a source of hope, mercy and redemption rather than death and greater damage as we try and “fix” them. (The percentage of people who have been irreparably damaged by reorientation therapy is significantly greater than any percentage of those who, by their own admission, say they now live lives that, on the outside, match the lives of straight people, even though they still experience same gender attraction.)

For the sake of every young person who is struggling with this right now as I write, for the sake of every phone call I will receive at 3 a.m. to talk someone back down off the ledge, it is time for change. If we are following Jesus, WHY IS OUR STORY SO DIFFERENT THAN HIS? I wonder if this is why Jesus was crucified by the teachers of the Torah in His day. Was it because He chose to stand in solidarity with those who were being scapegoated around him, too?

Stanley Hauerwas, for me, summed up what may be the underlying basis of our scapegoating of the LGBTQ community today. Notice the part I’ve italicized: “As a society we have no general agreement about what constitutes marriage and/or what goods marriage ought to serve. We allegedly live in a monogamous culture, but we are at best in fact serially polygamous. We are confused about sex, why and with whom we have it, and about our reasons for having children. This moral confusion leads to a need for the illusion of certainty. If nothing is wrong with homosexuality then it seems everything is up for grabs. Of course, everything is already up for grabs, but the condemnation of gays hides that fact from our lives. So the moral ‘no’ to gays becomes the necessary symbolic commitment to show that we really do believe in something.

If this isn’t scapegoating (gaining security, certitude and unity about our own moral “okayness” by the way we justify treating a minority), then I have to confess I am at a loss to know what scapegoating even is.

I know we feel as if we are simply standing up for what is right. Remember, those unknowingly caught up in the wave of scapegoating always do (cf. Mark 15.15). But it’s really not much different from a modern day lynching. (Even if we do it socially instead of physically.) Jesus stood in solidarity with and defended those who were being damaged by those who were “standing up for what is right.” And the servant is not greater than the master.

I know this will be misunderstood by many. I will be accused of throwing out the Bible, as well as other accusations. But I’m actually taking the Bible seriously. I’m leaning into the narratives of the scriptures not further away from them. I’m taking a hard look at what the central story of our scriptures (the Jesus story) is saying, and making the decision to stand in solidarity with my Christian LGBTQ brothers, sisters and friends. What identifies us, defines us, and binds me to them is our mutual love for Jesus, and our desire, together, to follow Him (not which gender we find ourselves being attracted to.) Granted, that discussion is always on the table given the culture wars that are always just circling above our heads. But I, like so many others, are leaving the culture war behind to follow Jesus instead. I know I may lose support, for standing up for them, my brothers, sisters, and friends (especially the younger ones) in the LGBTQ community. And honestly, that part has caused me to lose more sleep than I’ve gotten over the past few months. I’m banking on the hope that somehow God will provide and that there will be more manna tomorrow for my family. But I cannot, in good conscience, remain silent any longer about the abuse I’ve watched my friends endure at the hands of those who carry the name “Christian.” Brian Zahnd wrote recently, “You can’t un-know what you now know and still be true to yourself.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also said, “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.” Dr. King also said, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I can’t stay silent any more. God please help me, “the servant is not greater than the Master.”

If you would like to further contemplate how, as a Jesus follower, we can learn to relate to those within the LGBTQ community, without throwing away our Bibles, the following resources are my top recommendations to aid you in helping you find your way. I cannot recommend these resources highly enough.

Seventh Gay Adventist, a documentary about faith on the margins by Daneen Akers and Stephen Eyer

Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee

Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community by Andrew Marin

God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines

Bible, Gender, Sexuality by James V. Brownson