Carlos Wilton, September 2, 2012 – Non-Lectionary Sermon; Genesis 19:1-12, 24-25; John 8:2-11
“When they kept on questioning Jesus, he straightened up
and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you
who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’”
Jesus and his disciples heard the commotion before the small, angry crowd burst upon them. It was early in the morning. They had just arrived in the Temple courtyard. Jesus was preparing himself to begin teaching the scriptures, when a crowd of Pharisees and scribes, accompanied by a raucous mob of bystanders, loudly interrupted him. They were pushing a woman before them: a woman so shocked and terrified, her eyes displayed the look of a hunted animal.
For that is what she was. She had been caught in the very act of adultery, these eminent scholars of the law explained. “What should we do with her, O great Rabbi?” they say to him. “You know what it says in the law of Moses – that sinners like her deserve to be stoned to death.” Jesus can see some of them already holding jagged rocks in their hands. Like lynch mobs everywhere, they’re in a little too much of a hurry to proceed to the execution.
In reality, the whole thing was staged – to a certain degree. These pious moralists don’t need Jesus’ say-so to smash this woman’s skull with the rocks in their hands. Yet, they know Jesus is renowned for his love and mercy. They know his ragtag band of followers includes repentant sinners very much like this disgusting woman. Jesus seems to pride himself in being able to speak to the likes of her – now, they think, let’s see him speak to her the sentence of condemnation that will end her life!
Jesus knows it’s a set-up. But there’s something else he also knows. The law by which this mob is trying to kill this woman is Leviticus 20:10: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.”
What’s missing here? Jesus surely noticed it immediately. Where is this woman’s partner in crime? If they discovered her in the very act of adultery, surely he was right there. Where is the man?
A situation pertained in first-century Judea that was very much like the sad situation today in our own country, by which our prisons are disproportionately filled with African-Americans and other people of color. The truth is, the full, crushing weight of Leviticus 20, verse 10 was – more often than not – reserved for women, rather than men.
Women, you see, were considered to be the property of their husbands – and everyone knew the real sin behind adultery was that a man’s property rights were being infringed upon. Of course, the adulterous man was at fault, too – but, could you blame him, when faced with such an enchanting young temptress as this? He let his lower nature get the better of him, so – make no mistake – he’s going to pay. Yes, a heavy fine, paid out to his injured neighbor, ought to be sufficient, as long as he promises never to do it again.
But as for her – without her, this couldn’t have happened. Besides, she’s damaged goods now: what husband would want her back, after what she’s done? What husband will stand up for her, pleading for mercy? No, give her to the mob. A good stoning is just what we need. Make an example of her! Isn’t that right, O wise rabbi from Nazareth?
Jesus says nothing for a very long time. He’s squatting down on the dusty, hard-packed earth of the Temple courtyard, doodling absent-mindedly with the tip of his finger.
What will he say, the Pharisees wonder, gleefully? They think they have him, either way. If he says, “Spare her,” it will prove what we knew about him all along: that he’s soft on sin. And if he says, “Stone her,” he’ll lose his support from his adoring crowds – for surely all his talk of love and mercy and forgiveness is, to them, nothing more than a license to sin!
They really did think they had him: until he opened his mouth to speak. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.”
Suddenly, it is not her who’s the prisoner, standing in the dock: but they. One by one, the clenched fists open. The stones fall to the ground. First, the older and the wiser among them, and then, at last, the young zealots.
Finally, she’s the only one left: barefoot, hair disheveled, battered and bruised – clothing torn, and likely revealing more of her body than any Jewish woman would display to the world. The tracks of tears are traced in the dirt and dust caked on her face. “So, who’s condemning you now?” asks Jesus.
“No one, sir.”
“Nor do I. Go in peace. Sin no more.”
So, why do I tell you this story, at the start of a sermon on what the Bible says about homosexuality? I tell it to you because I hope you will feel, deep within, the irrational hatred similar to that in this story: a rage so often directed at those among us who find they were born with an unchangeable attraction to those of the same sex.
Picture Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old college student, whom a passing cyclist discovered one morning, lashed to a wire fence in the Wyoming countryside. The cyclist thought, at first, he was a scarecrow. He was still alive, but barely: in a coma, his skull fractured in several places, with such severe damage to his brainstem that the doctors in the Emergency Room knew they could do nothing. Matthew Shepard’s injuries, in other words, were not unlike those of a person stoned to death.
Yes, traditional morality says homosexuality is wrong. Yet, there’s often more behind it – isn’t there? – than a dispassionate moral judgment. Often, there is the same irrational anger and fear that cast the woman caught in adultery – but not the man, who was equally complicit – into the hands of a lynch mob.
On what biblical basis was one such as Matthew Shepard condemned to die? As it turns out, on a foundation not nearly so strong as the biblical teachings against adultery (which is, after all – unlike homosexuality – explicitly forbidden in the Ten Commandments).
What does the Bible say about homosexuality? The short answer is “Nothing,” or, at the very least, not much – if, by homosexuality we mean what nearly all psychologists now understand it to be: an inborn, same-sex attraction so powerful, that nearly everyone who feels it and tries to change is ultimately unsuccessful. There are gay and lesbian people who ask: “Do you think I would choose to be the way I am, and undergo the hatred and discrimination I so often feel? Do you seriously think I would choose that?” Sadly, some of those who say such things have entered into marriages, against their nature. They imagined this would change them. But, in the end, they left behind a trail of deeply wounded spouses and children. They came to understand, at last, that being gay or lesbian was part of their God-created nature.
Yes, I know the Bible is the Bible. I know it’s meant to be our ultimate authority, trumping all others. Yet, I also know the greatest commandment, as Jesus says, is to love God and love one another (Mark 12:29-31). And if we apply this “love test” as a method of scriptural interpretation to the very small number of biblical texts that mention homosexuality – at the same time critically examining how they’ve traditionally been interpreted – we find they’re not the rock-solid foundation we once imagined them to be.
To begin with, Jesus says not a word, for or against homosexuality. It’s conspicuously absent from his recorded ethical teachings. One behavior Jesus does have something to say about is remarriage after divorce. In two different places in the Gospels, he’s recorded as teaching that a man who divorces his wife and remarries another commits adultery (Matthew 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12). It appears to be an absolute, unequivocal moral pronouncement.
Yet, the rule of love says otherwise. Is a person in a truly abusive relationship tied to their partner for life – sort of like that old dueling method, that tied two antagonist’s left wrists together and put a sharp knife in their other hand? Must we abandon the authority of scripture in order to allow for what common sense tells us is the only truly moral thing to do: to free abused spouses from such deadly relationships, and allow them to seek love anew?
Fortunately, we don’t have to abandon the authority of scripture: because a deep analysis of first-century Jewish society reveals that the divorce Jesus is forbidding is not the same divorce we know today.
Jesus speaks only of men divorcing their wives for a very good reason: because that was the only type of divorce there was. In that society, wives were the property of their husbands, and husbands were given broad discretion to discard their marital partners whenever it suited them. For the woman, it was hard to imagine a more disastrous outcome. Unless she could return to the house of her father, she only had two options. Both involved living on the streets. She could either hold out a begging-bowl or she could sell her body. Neither one made for a very long life expectancy.
It’s no wonder the rule of love leads Jesus to tell his male disciples they are not to follow the law of Moses when it comes to the time-honored instant divorce, but rather to live by a higher standard.
The divorce Jesus is forbidding is not the same as divorce today. While it’s hard to recommend divorce to anyone – it’s a miserable affair, in which everyone loses – at least the civil law provides certain basic safeguards, so neither party is utterly ruined.
We can say much the same thing about the Bible’s teachings against homosexuality: that the homosexuality that’s being condemned – which is, essentially, heterosexual people going against their God-given nature – is not the same as the way our best behavioral scientists now understand same-sex attraction.
We don’t have nearly enough time, today, to give each of these biblical texts the careful study they deserve – but trust me on this, I’ve studied them plenty, for years – and I just don’t see them speaking in such a way as to condemn all committed, same-sex relationships as sinful. Let me give you a whirlwind tour of the five biblical texts most often cited.
First is the one we read as our Old Testament lesson today: the destruction of the city of Sodom in Genesis chapter 19 (a colorful tale, to put it mildly!). At the outset, we learn that Sodom is a very sinful place. Even before the celebrated incident of Lot and his angelic visitors, Abraham is seen negotiating with God to try to spare the lives of the few innocent people who live within its walls. So, that means the city’s destruction is not the result of just this one incident.
The incident is that Lot is sheltering two mysterious strangers within his house. They appear to be angelic messengers. The men of Sodom are pounding on his doors, demanding that Lot turn his guests over to them so they can rape them.
For Lot to do so would be to betray one of the deepest, most honored obligations of his culture: the law of hospitality. So strongly does Lot feel this moral obligation that – very strangely to our modern ears – he offers up his two daughters as substitutes. Fortunately for them, the men of Sodom aren’t interested.
Is that because each and every man in the city is a sex-crazed homosexual libertine? Not likely. In that brutal age, it was a common thing for a victorious army to rape all the female inhabitants of a city they had conquered – and, having done that, they would, more often than not, go on to the men. It wasn’t about sex, but about power – and humiliation. It was also about fear and loathing of the stranger. These two mysterious guests Lot is harboring within his house meet that definition.
No, despite the way the word “sodomy” has come to be defined, the sin of the men of Sodom was not homosexuality per se, but brutal cruelty perpetrated on guests, whose protection was meant to be their sacred obligation.
That’s one out of the five texts. The second is actually two different verses from the book of Leviticus, that say pretty much the same thing.
Quote these out of context, and they do sound pretty convincing. Leviticus 18:22 says:
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
And, two chapters later, Leviticus 20:13 says:
“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.”
Again, these sound convincing – yanked out of their context. Yet, if you examine the verses around them, you’ll find all sorts of things labeled as “abominations” that we have no problem with today. For instance, later in that chapter it says, in favor of following Jewish dietary laws: “you shall not bring abomination on yourselves by animal or by bird or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean.” Since the eating of shellfish is forbidden by Jewish dietary laws, that would mean the last time you ate shrimp, you were committing an abomination (20:25).
There are a host of other things forbidden in these chapters of Leviticus, known as the “Holiness Code.” Breaking the sacrificial regulations, by eating the barbecued meat a day late, is likewise an abomination (19:6). Sowing a field with two kinds of seed, or wearing clothing made of any sort of blended material is a big no-no (19:19). So is men shaving their beards (19:27). And if a husband and wife have sexual relations during her so-called “time of the month,” they are both to be banished (20:18). Not incidentally, this Holiness Code of Leviticus also contains the law under which the woman caught in adultery would have been stoned to death.
Suffice it to say, you can’t pick and choose from this sort of list at will; either the whole thing speaks to us with all the authority of God’s law in the Ten Commandments, or none of it does.
Turning to the New Testament – and remember, Jesus has nothing to say on the subject – in Romans 1:26-27, Paul has this to say:
“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
Sounds pretty convincing, until you really think about that word “natural” Paul uses – in condemning those who give up “natural intercourse” with the opposite sex, turning instead to those of the same sex. What Paul is really condemning, here, is heterosexual people going against their nature. He had no category in his mind for people other than heterosexuals. He couldn’t imagine there could be such a thing as people born with an attraction for the same sex. If such people express their desires with a like-minded person in a committed relationship, is that truly unnatural? We could debate that one a long time, but at the very least, I think we all have to admit it’s not the slam-dunk proof-text many have thought it to be.
Two more New Testament texts remain. Number four on the list is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Here, Paul puts forth a long list of moral failures:
“Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers — none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Quite apart from the fact that “the greedy” are numbered in this list (which ought to give all of us something to think about), the words the NRSV translates as “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” are notoriously difficult to render into English. Many Bible scholars think they refer to nothing close to a committed, loving relationship, but in fact describe some form of prostitution.
Much the same is true of our fifth biblical text, 1 Timothy 1:9-10. The Greek words, here, are similar to those in the 1 Corinthians passage. They imply a relationship of exploitation – as in prostitution – rather than anything resembling a covenant relationship marked by love and mutual commitment. You could, in fact, substitute words for heterosexual promiscuity or prostitution, in both these lists: to much the same result. It’s the exploitation that’s the problem: the same-sex element is incidental.
Now, I’m not trying to imply that loving, committed same-sex relationships were anywhere on Paul’s radar screen. For a man of his times, that possibility wouldn’t have entered the imagination. Yet, the point is, with all these passages – just as with Jesus’ prohibition of remarriage after divorce – the homosexuality being forbidden is not the same homosexuality we as a culture are beginning to know and understand for the first time, in our own day.
We’re in a fearful, tender time, in the church. We’re being asked, as a society, to reconcile ourselves with behaviors most of us have long been taught are sinful – even “an abomination.” Yet, there are those who have long been living silently among us, who have always felt nothing but same-sex attraction, despite their fervent efforts to change. Some of these people are starting to live their love lives more publicly, and many of us are coming to realize this is nothing to fear. For some people we care about (including members of some of our families), it’s even something to celebrate.
Now, I don’t imagine the insights I’ve shared with you in this brief time today are going to end any debates on this complex and difficult subject. But maybe, in some small way, it will give us something to talk about, as we struggle to discern together, as Christ’s church, the meaning of the scriptures.
At the very least, here’s what I hope. I hope that, should anyone (metaphorically speaking) haul a gay or lesbian person into our presence and place a stone in our hands, we will let the stone fall to the ground. Instead, however fearfully or hesitantly, I hope we’ll feel secure enough in who we are to open our hearts and listen to that person’s story.
Let us pray:
Lord, you have made us all different:
as unique as snowflakes.
Some of those differences are hard to understand.
Some of them challenge things we have always been taught,
or assumed to be true.
Give us open hearts, discerning minds and loving spirits,
that we may be attentive to the diversity of your creation:
remembering that everything you have made you have called “good.”
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.