The Burden is Lite:  Proper 9

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 45:10-17; Psalm 145:8-14; Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

After all the heavy-duty theological argument of the past three weeks, we are rewarded with romance.  Abraham’s servant finds Rebecca as a bride for Isaac, and the two of them become one of the love stories of the ages.  Psalm 45 is an Ode to a Royal Wedding; Psalm 145 is a Psalm of David, praising God; while the Song of Solomon celebrates Spring, fertility, and the pagan rite of Sacred Marriage.  The only sour note is old Paul, grousing on about how his “member” is at war with his mind, “making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”  What a curmudgeonly post-script to love, sex, and destiny!  Those pious Elves probably think the Song of Solomon is an allegory of God’s Love for Israel, or Christ’s Love for the Church!  

Meanwhile, Matthew’s Jesus complains that “this generation” reminds him of “children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to others: ‘We played the flute for you but you wouldn’t dance; we sang a dirge, but you wouldn’t mourn.’” He whines on: “Just remember, John appeared on the scene neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is demented.’  The son of Adam came both eating and drinking, and they say, ‘There’s a glutton and a drunk, a crony of toll collectors and sinners!’”  Too bad we’re studying Matthew’s Gospel instead of John.  If it were John’s Jesus, he’d be attending the Wedding at Cana, and turning the water into wine instead of complaining about not making a difference.

Including a portion of Zechariah in Proper 9 seems another non-sequitur.  Here we are, three months after Easter, revisiting the aria from Handel’s Easter portion of The Messiah: “Rejoice, daughter of Zion; behold your king comes triumphant and victorious, . . . humble and riding on a donkey.”  However, a clue is found in the Revised Common Lectionary edition of 1992.  There is an asterisk beside this reading in the second Index, indicating that the alternative readings refer to a pair of readings in which the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading are related.  

Looking at the cherry-picked portion of Matthew’s Gospel, verses 25-30, Jesus is saying, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me . . . for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  Singers will find their minds going on in Handel’s Messiah to the Mezzo Aria, and the accompanying chorus.  Going back to last week’s reading in Jeremiah, clearly the reference is to the yoke Jeremiah put on his own neck, and the false prophet Hananiah, who destroyed it.  However, the traditional view tells us that Jesus redeems and actualizes the metaphor by declaring that unlike the yoke that Jeremiah took upon himself, the yoke that Jesus offers is easy.

Is this a stretch or what?  Especially given the fact that the Elves cherry-picked last week’s Jeremiah to such an extent that the yoke is never mentioned in the prescribed reading.  Nevertheless, look at Paul’s lament in Romans 7:24b-25:  “Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  

Piety is easy, and the burden is indeed lite.  Surely the point of the recommended readings is not that sex outside of marriage (defined strictly as between a man and a woman of course) is a sin.  Wedding parties rule!  Have a church picnic in the park instead of a service in the sanctuary!  Read love poetry, including ee cummings and the entire Song of Songs!  Thank God/dess for The Supreme Court of California!

For the purposes of liberal commentary, however, I owe it to Paul to reclaim Romans 7.

John Shelby Spong has theorized that the Apostle Paul was gay.  In Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (Harper SanFrancisco 1991, pp. 116-120), Spong lays out an argument that Paul’s homosexuality drove him to seek salvation in Jewish law.  Seeing that the new Christianity was beginning to overthrow that law, Paul became a zealous prosecutor, trying to stamp out a movement that threatened to overturn the very law (Torah) that “only by the most herculean efforts was holding Paul just above the abyss . . . .”  But then like a bolt from the sky, he realized God’s free gift of justice-compassion – grace – given to all those who participate with the risen Christ in establishing God’s realm in this life and this time.  This grace brought forgiveness of even the sin of murdering Jesus himself.  Spong writes, “The being of Paul, a being he did not understand, a being he could not control, a being that all of the wisdom of his world and all of his sacred tradition condemned as worthy only of death, that being of Paul met the grace of God in the person of Jesus the Christ” p. 122.  If Paul could experience this liberation, then everyone could.

Did Paul stop being who he was – whether a homosexual person or not?  I would suggest that he became even more truly who he really was.  If participation with the risen Christ means the radical abandonment of one’s self-interest, the Grace that is the free gift of God then is radical acceptance of one’s own condition, and the conditions of others – or, as the Unitarian Universalists put it in their First Principle: “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  Reading from the beginning of Romans 7, instead of cherry-picking the most scandalous portion, Paul says, “But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code, but in the new life of the Spirit” Romans 7:6.  Further, to take a sneak peak at next week’s theme, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” Romans 8:1.

Whatever one might surmise about Paul’s sexuality, and the liberating interpretation Spong presents, it is important to return to the guiding principles of context, and the integrity of the story (getting it straight).   Paul is continuing his impassioned debate regarding works, faith, grace, and the law.  He uses every trick of the trade, including hyperbole, and finally in chapter 7 resorts to the time-honored use of sex as a way to get his readers to listen to the radicality of his proposition.  He starts with an anology of marriage, reminding people that according to the law, a woman is only married to her husband so long as he is alive.  “If her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man, she is not an adulteress.”  If that doesn’t get their attention, nothing will.  He is saying that participation in the kingdom as begun by the life and teachings of Jesus makes everyone who signs onto the program “dead to the law” that results in sin; or, in John Dominic Crossan’s words, the law that inevitably leads to injustice – the normalcy of civilization.  Is the law itself sin?  No, rants Paul.  But if not for the law, we would not know sin.  This argument gets very close to the idea that we as humans cannot know good unless we have evil to compare it with – a subject for a much wider debate.  For now, suffice to say that these commentaries take the view that the nature of the known universe is good at best, neutral at worst.  Humanity is the species that brought “evil” into the world because of our consciousness of consequences.  Perhaps– for post-modern people – that is as close as we can come to Paul’s point.

Paul then in desperation confesses his own personal weakness.  The law is spiritual, he says, but I am trapped in a physical body.  Even thought the law mandates a particular behavior, and even though I may greatly desire to comply with that mandate, I cannot.  This is the inner conflict – the personal jihad the personal struggle to not only accept Jesus’s invitation to participate in God’s Kingdom of justice-compassion, but to commit to that program, and stick to it.

We shall see if Paul does discover in the end that the yoke is easy, and the burden is light.