It was a setup. The kind in which we could take some delight. And some delight this week surely is welcome. I refer to the artist “Banksy.” Banksy is a famed graffiti artist and prankster. He pranked bigtime this week. His picture of a girl reaching for a heart-shaped balloon was auctioned. When it sold for $1.4 million and was legalized, the art self-destructed. A shredder hidden inside the frame bottom remotely started up and destroyed most of the picture, its shreds hanging now below the frame. I can’t imagine what the new owner thought. I can imagine many meanings suggested by this contemporary artsy parable. Today I find resonance between the trickster’s art, todays societal trials, and the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees about divorce. As Banksy set-up the art world, so also Jesus set-up the Pharisees who came to him, even though they thought they were setting him up.
You know this familiar story. The religious establishment came to Jesus “to test him.” Jesus had become famous speaking and doing God’s healing justice to Jew and Gentile alike. He brought the radical news of God reaching out to every disrespected and discounted person in their world. And this greatly bothered those in power. The power brokers in fact claimed that they were the peoples’ people and they were not going to let Jesus’ new angry mob dislodge them. So they decide to “interview” Jesus about his “principles” regarding divorce. It was their set-up. Only one other person, John the Baptist, addressed divorce before, and he lost his head in the matter, because he had condemned the political elite of Herod and Herodias for their illicit marriage; he condemned the religious leaders too for accommodating it. These “Pharisees” investigating Jesus would have been very happy to get Rome to do their dirty work if they could get him on the wrong side of their divorce law.
But Jesus turned the tables. He shredded their shrewd politics. Instead of talking policy, he asked them, “What did Moses command you?” Accent the “you.” Instead of arguing abstract law or social theology, Jesus turned to the condition of the questioners’ hearts. “Because of your hardness of heart,” Jesus said, Moses allowed a man to divorce a woman. Because of “your heart condition,” your hard hearts, your…utter lack of compassion, Jesus said. He answered that the problem was not theory, but deeply personal and they had tried to cover up their deep personal cruelty with buffering legalese.
Then he turned to the theology that they should have known well already. He reminded them of why people join together in loving relationships. He addressed what had been distorted for so long and what we still misunderstand, about what we heard again from Genesis.
In the beginning God created a human being from the ground. That’s what “Adam” means, “from the ground.” Then, as the Jewish kind of comedy goes, God used trial and error to make a “helper” for the dust dude Adam. Men in telling this story have long shredded the real meaning of “helper,” claiming it means a servant, a slave, someone less, someone not an autonomous agent in one’s own right. But “helper” is part of the very image of God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find that the only other place the word shows up is as another name for God! That means God was looking for someone as noble and wonderful as God to fit the bill of companionship for God and for us made from the ground. All grounded humans have God’s own breath in us, God’s own hands having shaped our clay. When we leave the family compound, as it were, we bind with another for intimate companionship and find ourselves in that companion because the partner is bone of bone, flesh of flesh, God-breathed clay from God-breathed clay.
The distortion happened when men hard of hearts had come to treat others, women, and children too, as property, as mere objects, as if no dignity of divine breath were in them. Divorce was by a man’s mere whim. At least with the Romans a woman had the equal right of divorce. Not so for the hardened privileged hearts here questioning Jesus. So when Jesus speaks to divorce in the way his tricksters thought it, He means that they thus shred peoples’ hearts, their own hearts; they even deign to shred God’s heart.
This is the spiritual meaning of adultery. Fatally conjoined with this spiritual disaster is the pejorative meaning of the word “Pharisee;” the one whose entrenching self-privileging “policy” erases genuine respect and compassion for other people, in this story especially respect for women. Jesus brings it all to home when he commands the welcome of the children. Remember, Jesus still has in his arms that child whom two weeks ago we learned re-presented all the disrespected and abused of society. Into this new family of Christ are welcomed all the un-listened-to women, children, and men of every color, age and sexual orientation. All are welcomed because we all bear the earthy-spirit-breathed image of God. And so any social policy that would exclude and deny them their dignity defy God’s heart.
There’s much more to this than I can say now. But one further thing before the most important thing must be said. The irony is so great and tragic in this story, that the self-righteous and all who think they know the truth and so would put God on trial have forgotten or not even studied the deepest meanings of their own sacred scriptures. To ignore the heart of Christian life perpetuates the worst of personal discourse and social policies. So readily to press our biases rather than to open ourselves to God’s spirited counsel puts us individually and communally into spiritual agony.
I’ll make the point clearer this way. If I didn’t preach from this gospel text, you each would preach a different sermon in your own heads and you would be condemning yourselves or others. And where did you get that condemning interpretation? From the wolves who turn God’s words inside out for their purposes! Over 20 years ago Fr. Thomas Weston was the first to say that “you can tell you’ve created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you do.” Not attending to the image of God rather than the image of man, we miss out on the better side of life. We miss, too, the life-truth that not practicing the due process of love gets us into real trouble. Above all, we miss the good precious news that Jesus holds you close and blesses you, even when divorce was necessary because you were treated like crap and your life was on the edge. Do not let yourself be so marginalized. Do not define yourself by the entrapment tricks of the self-righteously hard of heart. By going to the heart of the matter by addressing their hardness of heart, Jesus opened to us all the blessing of God’s compassion, God’s soft heart, even with the prospect that self-righteous people themselves might be healed. What a holy word!
Good news: Banksy’s setup did not shred the whole picture. It left the most important thing, the heart, intact. Of infinite value, Jesus heartfully welcomes and holds in his arms those whose hearts have been hurt, if even by one’s own actions. Recognizing that we are held in our most desperate times by Christ, you know what? We then can live and act without desperation! We need not live in anger! We can reach out for heart balloons and grasp them. We do not have to hate, no matter that the present day Pharisees want us to do just that. We can clean sheets. We can over-tip. We can write letters. We can hear each other as if for the first time. We can seriously mine our faith for the beauty it so graciously informs. We can listen to each other! We can even sometimes change our minds. And, for all our differences yet bearing God’s image both deep and on our sleeves, we can even love each other more generously. Yes, amen. What a holy word. Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church, Houston, TX October 7, 2018