Sex, Prayer, and Sodom: The Lectionary for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sex, Prayer, and Sodom: The Lectionary for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost July 18, 2016
Hosea and Gomer, from the Bible Historiale, 1372. Image in the public domain, taken from Wikipedia.
Hosea and Gomer, from the Bible Historiale, 1372. Image in the public domain, taken from Wikipedia.

Hosea 1:2-10

What It’s About: Hosea has perhaps the most memorable opening section of any of the minor prophets, because it is there that the conceit of the whole book is introduced. Israel (the northern kingdom, to which Hosea’s prophecy is addressed) and its relationship to God is likened to Hosea’s relationship with his wife Gomer. Gomer, “a wife of whoredom,” was unfaithful to Hosea, in the same way (we are to understand) that Israel was unfaithful to God. This image is jarring and more than a little strange, particularly to our 21st-century ears. But the comparison serves Hosea’s message well, as he is able to put into immediate and visceral terms the kind of apostasy that Israel has been committing against God. To add to the effect, Gomer bears three children who are named in this passage, and they all bear symbolic names, meant to convey something about Israel’s apostasy. “God Sows,” “Not-Pitied,” and “Not-My-People” are living symbols and reminders of God’s judgment on Israel.

What It’s Really About: Although Hosea’s medium (marriage and family) is pretty…um…innovative, his message is pretty standard for the Hebrew prophets. Hosea is accusing the nation of falling away from their covenantal obligations to God, and forsaking their true partner. The overarching argument of the book (hinted at but not fully developed here) is that Israel must turn back toward God, and away from various idolatries and distractions, and re-engage with God as a faithful partner. For God’s part, God seems to be standing ready to reconcile, but grows angry at Israel’s ongoing infidelity.

What It’s Not About: There is much to critique about this passage, and indeed the whole book of Hosea, from a contemporary viewpoint. The book plays on misogynistic and androcentric notions of marriage and family, and even the NRSV’s “wife of whoredom” translation fails to be imbued with the slightest touch of feminism. (Several other translations use this phrase, while others use “prostitute,” and the KJV, somewhat ominously, pluralizes it to “wife of whoredoms”). The point of the comparison is not to understand Gomer or her motivations, difficult choices, or understandings of her sex work. Gomer is not meant to be understood; she is simply meant as infidelity personified. This is undoubtedly unfair to the historical Gomer (if there ever was such a person) and to other people forced into sex work by circumstance or other persons. Understanding Gomer might well have been a worthwhile thing for Hosea to do.

But beyond that, understanding Gomer and her motivations has important exegetical possibilities. If Gomer and her “whoredom” are meant to stand in for Israel and its infidelity, then shouldn’t we follow that trail all the way down? Gomer didn’t just wake up one day as a sex worker; a series of events led her to that place, and it’s very likely that it wasn’t an existence that she chose. If her situation is supposed to be structurally analogous to Israel’s, then might it be worthwhile to understand Israel’s apostasy in more three-dimensional terms? Did Gomer even want Hosea in her life? Did she and Hosea understand their relationship in the same terms, or did Hosea think one thing was going on and Gomer another? In the 21st century, “a wife of whoredom” is not nearly the uncomplicated metaphor that it must have seemed so many millennia ago.

Maybe You Should Think About: Religion is not a fidelity/infidelity calculation. We can’t really understand it as a binary condition, where people are either faithful to God or not. This, in addition to the misogynistic comparison, is where Hosea’s words fall flat. But it’s also why they are so compelling; we like to see things in binary, black-and-white ways. It might be worthwhile to play with this tension; what did Israel’s infidelity look like from Israel’s point of view? How did Hosea see it differently than the average Israelite did? And what does it mean to be faithful today?

 

Genesis 18:20-32

What It’s About: What a marvelous, marvelous story–and what an insight into the theological mindset of the biblical authors. Here is the story of Abraham and God negotiating–in essence–over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. God has resolved to destroy it, because of its wickedness (This was before the incident in which the people of Sodom violated hospitality customs by asking to rape the visitors; the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah had more to do with garden-variety wickedness, and wasn’t predicated on homosexuality, as is often and erroneously assumed). From this opening negotiating position–“I will destroy it”–Abraham began to talk God down. First 50 righteous people, and then 45, and then 40, until God has agreed not to smite the city if as few as ten righteous people can be found there. Abraham seems to have intervened successfully with God, and we have here an important insight into the God who is being revealed in the Hebrew Bible: this God can be convinced of things.

What It’s Really About: This story is best viewed as an insight into the differences between how most 21st-century Christians see God, and the way biblical authors saw God. The God of Abraham was understood in terms that don’t quite mesh with our own theological views. Like many other deities in the ancient near east, the God of the Hebrew Bible was strikingly anthropomorphic; this God could feel human-like emotions, experience human events like surprise, and be deceived (see the Garden of Eden). In this story, we see God being convinced; God is initially angry and vows to destroy the place and its inhabitants. But Abraham reasons with God, appealing to God’s sense of justice and mercy, and in the end God relents to Abraham’s point of view. This is quite at odds with common 21st century understandings of God, in which God is all-knowing and all-powerful, and the will of God is a set thing which can either be known or not known, but not necessarily influenced.

What It’s Not About: This conversation comes before the infamous incident in which the Sodomites want to rape the visitors to Lot’s house (who were really angels). But, the “wickedness” of Sodom and Gomorrah are still in view here. It bears repeating here that most scholars now reject the characterization of the “sin of Sodom” as homosexuality; that is a poor reading of the text and an anachronistic one at that. The sin of Sodom was inhospitality; it was the violation of the norms that governed the way people were supposed to welcome guests. This has been said better elsewhere, but it is worth keeping in mind here.

Maybe You Should Think About: This story is an interesting way to think about intercessory prayer. What is it for? Does it work? How might it work? Does it work here in this story because Abraham is Abraham, or could anyone do this? And of course the flip side of that is theodicy: why is Abraham more merciful than God? Is God really like this, prone to punishment and capricious acts of violence? Or is this the ancient world-view expressing itself?

 

Colossians 2:6-19

What It’s About: These words were addressed to people who were clearly living as a minority religious community within a much larger and more powerful cultural system. The tension between the small, nascent Christian community and the broader context of Roman Asia Minor is apparent; the author (scholars are divided over whether Paul wrote this letter) knows about threats from outside influences like philosophy, festivals, dietary habits, sabbath observance, angels and demons, and visions as competing religious options, and he (or she) is adjuring the congregation in Colossae to resist such influences.

What It’s Really About: The context seems to be one in which there is a distinctive Christian identity, but not one that has taken root sufficiently deeply to stand easily on its own. This is likely a late first-century context, either from Paul’s pen or someone else’s who wished to appropriate Paul’s authority to have his message heard. But in either case it is likely a very early glimpse into the kind of world Christians lived in, and the pressures they must have felt from family and friends to conform to the norms of the time. This was a major concern of the first generation or two of Christians: how to live in the world as distinctively Christian without alienating everyone. They didn’t always do this very well; Christians were the subject of several rumors over their secretive and strange behavior, and they were accused of being cannibals (eucharist doesn’t look too good to outsiders), committing incest (greeting their brothers and sisters with a kiss), and general secretiveness and oddness. It must have been a fine line to walk, to blend in while still maintaining identity.

What It’s Not About: The largest part of the warnings here come against what appear to be Jewish practices, not pagan ones. The festivals, sabbaths, moons, and so forth, and of course the talk of a spiritual circumcision (whatever that means) all point to a context where Judaism presents a strong rival to Christianity. Of course, many people wouldn’t have understood Judaism and Christianity to be different things in this period, but the author of the letter is trying to define Christian identity by opposing it to Jewish identity and its markers. The take-away is “don’t be like everyone else, but especially don’t be like the Jews.” This was a common message in early Christianity, but it’s a perilous one for people in the 21st century to mimic uncritically. Our circumstances are very different, starting with the fact that Christianity is not a small, isolated, and weak religious community, but a very large and strong one. The relationship between Judaism and Christianity is, and ought to be, very different today.

Maybe You Should Think About: How is living as a Christian person within society different than it was in the days this letter was written? In very, very many ways. It might be useful to reflect on those differences, as a way to contextualize Christianity in our own time and place–particularly as we continue to wring our hands about the decline of mainline Christianity in North America.

 

Luke 11:1-13

What It’s About: This is one of two places (the other being in Matthew) in the New Testament where Jesus institutes what is now known as the Lord’s Prayer. Here in Luke, it isn’t given any particular emphasis, but it leads right into more sayings about the graciousness of God, who, like a parent, wants to give us good things. It is followed by the “ask, seek, knock” saying, and then after that the teaching about parents wanting to give their children good things. Together, these passages form a unit on supplication and prayer, the effect of which is to lead us to think of God as gracious, giving, and receptive to our requests through prayer.

What It’s Really About: From the context of this story, it doesn’t seem that Jesus was intending to set liturgy that would hold for two thousand years, but that’s what he did. The character of the prayer, both here and in Matthew, has always struck me as offhand, and not really very grand. Jesus didn’t clear his throat, climb to a high place, and tell everybody to write this down. Instead, he was simply offering a template for prayer. I think Jesus would probably have been pretty surprised at how durable these particular words have been, and even at the tresspasses/sins/debts debate that seems to never go away. Jesus was probably more interested in instituting a mode of prayer than a particular, prescribed prayer.

What It’s Not About: Careful readers will note that this is not quite the version that you say in church. That version comes from the Didache, a later (but still early) non-canonical Christian document. That version, with its doxology, is a little better suited to worship, and it has reigned as the liturgical version for a long time.

Maybe You Should Think About: The Lord’s Prayer is one of the most familiar pieces of Christian scripture, so one of the best strategies for preaching it might be to de-familiarize it. Find an odd translation, or rearrange the order, or do something that causes people to stop and pay attention to what it’s saying rather than just following along in a rote way. Try, in other words, to help people hear this prayer again for the first time.

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  • Frank

    Jude 1:7

    In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    It bears repeating here that most scholars now reject the characterization of the “sin of Sodom” as homosexuality; that is a poor reading of the text and an anachronistic one at that. The sin of Sodom was inhospitality; it was the violation of the norms that governed the way people were supposed to welcome guests.

    The destruction of Sodom had nothing to do with that incident with the angels. The destruction of Sodom was already going to happen before that. In fact, that is why the angels were sent there in the first place – to destroy it. So the destruction was not based on how they were treated when they got there.

    Ezekiel tells us clearly why Sodom was destroyed. “”‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”

    The only extent to which this is “inhospitality” is that they are inhospitable to the poor and needy. Says nothing about not treating visitors according to local customs.

    Inhospitable is just as inconsistent with the bible as is homosexuality.