Yesterday’s Old Testament lesson was about the marriage of Jacob to Leah and Rachel which seemed like a wide-open invitation to me to knock down the notion that there's a "Biblical concept of marriage." Well, maybe there is, but I don't think it's one we should follow, as you will see. Here’s my sermon (taken from notes, so not exact--and probably better for writing it down):
So let’s talk about the Biblical basis of marriage...
It will probably not come as a shock to you that I support same-sex marriage and the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. This sermon is not really about that; it is more about how we use and abuse scripture to support our culturally held positions. But given how often people use the Bible as a basis for talking about what marriage ought to look like, this lesson seems a prime example for exploring that the Bible may not be as clear-cut as we would like it to be.
Leaving aside the issue of the two wives, let’s take a look at how this passage describes marriage.
First of all, if you look at the story, you will see that Laban, Jacob’s uncle, is giving Jacob one of his daughter as a payment. She is basically traded away for seven years worth of work.
Second, the woman involved apparently has no say whatsoever in whom she marries. At the last General Convention, I heard Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church who knows a thing or two about contentious issues, preach about the issue of the ordination of homosexuals, and she pointed out something interesting. She noted that until recently, all marriages were same-sex marriages, because they were contracts between a father and a groom.
Third, you will notice that Jacob doesn’t know who he is marrying. [From congregation: because it’s dark.] He marries someone and he doesn’t even know who it is.
Fourth: When Jacob complains to Laban that he has been duped, Laban, the girl’s father, says, just “finish out the week.” A week?! That’s what qualifies as sufficient time for an official marriage?
I’d also like to point out a parenthetical remark that may seem insignificant: it says, “(Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.)” Let’s be clear about this: he is giving his daughter this woman to be her slave. And we’re not just talking about someone to do the dishes, here. In the next chapter of Genesis, which you won’t hear, Rachel and Leah get into a child-bearing war that escalates rapidly as Rachel sends her “maid” to Jacob to bear children for her, and Leah sends her “maid” to Jacob to have further children.
And finally, and here is my favorite part, the line that echoes through history, when Jacob asks Laban why he has sent Jacob Leah instead of Rachel, Laban replied, "This is not done in our country--giving the younger before the firstborn.”
“This is not done in our country.” It’s not the done thing, it goes completely against the norms. I can just imagine how the rest of that conversation goes as Laban would explain that if he allowed Jacob to marry a younger daughter, then other men would want to marry younger daughters. And if that happened, then maybe the daughters would start to get ideas that they should have input in who they marry. And if that happened, then father might start getting cut out of the marrying-off process altogether. And you know what? He was absolutely right. And I don’t think any of us would want to go back to the way it used to be in their country.
In the Gospel for today, Jesus tells a series of parables, and unlike the previous two weeks, these parables are not explained with equivalents: “the sower is this, the seed is this, the wheat is this, the weeds are this...” Instead, we are left awash with images about the kingdom of heaven. In some of the parables, the kingdom of heaven is an object, like a treasure or a net. In some, the kingdom of heaven is an actor, like the merchant. In some, it’s kind of a mix: a seed that grows or yeast that spreads.
What it is not is a checklist: the kingdom of heaven is not something you can find by ticking off the proper boxes. Instead, Jesus gives us something far more tricky: AMBIGUITY
And that’s not easy. We want the Bible to give us clear-cut answers and straightforward directions and to tell us Exactly What To Do. But maybe it’s not as easy as that.
This series of parables ends with a final parable which, you will notice, is not describing the kingdom of God. Instead it says, “Every scribe...” It’s a parable about the readers and interpreters of Scripture. It says, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."
What is old and what is new. What this says to me is that we are called neither to get rid of all the old traditions in favor of what is the new wave of the future. Nor are we called to cling to our past and avoid strange new innovations. Instead, we need to be wise enough to find the treasure in them both and use them. It’s not as clear or clean as we would like it, but in the messy jumble of all the options, that is where we search diligently for the kingdom of heaven.