Adam and Eve had an ideal marriage. He didn’t have to hear about all the men she could have married, and she didn’t have to hear about the way his mother cooked. “My husband and I divorced over religious differences. He thought he was God and I didn’t.” A lot of people think it’s tough to keep one’s values when one is having a tough time. We’re down on our luck, we’re suffering financially, or we’re emotionally drained, and it can be a challenge to keep our standards, to maintain our ethics, such as not cheating or stealing or resenting. While this is hard, the truth is it’s still harder to keep hearts and our morals in the right place when we’re doing very well. When we’re on top, we fall prey to making sure we stay there. When we taste a bit of power, it’s tough to let it go. Too often we keep a hold of it and exercise it for our benefit and not for others. But this is wrong. Scripture says it in a number of different ways. It commands, “Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.” It says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.” It says, “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns.” And it says, “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate.” Having power means having responsibility. Having the freedom to do doesn’t mean having the right to do. When someone has power they’re susceptible to using it for their advantage, and to the disadvantage of others. Actually, scripture is very sure when we have power we’re tempted to lift ourselves up and put other down, to exalt our needs and dismiss those of others. The Bible is certain that too often we fail the test. Sometimes we don’t know we’re doing this. We might not even be aware we’re the one who has more influence in that moment. The important thing is to be quicker to understand you’re the one who is in some sense in charge. Realize the other person is in a vulnerable position. Refuse to take advantage of it. Instead, draw someone closer rather than pushing them down.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus called his disciples together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. It shall not be this way among you.” It’s so easy to fall into that lording over others trap. So someone might say, “I hear what you’re saying. But I don’t think I do that. Perhaps you’re just a little too sensitive.” Perhaps. But this stuff happens all the time, in small ways, in a conversation when all of a sudden someone says something and you realize now you’re got something, when you say something and you can see that look in someone’s eyes that their hurting, when someone hasn’t lived up to some agreement and now you’re in the driver’s seat and can make them pay for it. We show we’re in the better position of an unequal relationship when we push another a little if we think we can get away with it. We’re doing it when we give ourselves the freedom to sound tougher, make snap decisions, refuse to consult, act impulsively against another fairly sure we won’t pay a price, that they can’t do anything in return or retaliation. We can do poorly with power. We may act foolishly with freedom. It’s like a dog that’s set off its leash may start to run around wild, knocking into kids and people. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Just because you’ve achieved a level of importance or strength doesn’t mean you act as if someone else doesn’t matter. In fact, when you’re in that position it’s such a great feeling to take Christ’s approach, to extend grace, to empty oneself of one’s position and reach out to others as sisters or brothers. The Hebrew Scriptures reminds the Israelites that they must remember they were once slaves and aliens in another land. They were powerless. There only hope was in the mercy and goodness of the Egyptians, the powerful. It was a struggle they didn’t always rise to and succeed against. Our journeys are often difficult. When things go well, even if for a moment the temptation is to jump on that opportunity. Don’t take the moments when the planets have aligned and the Lord has put you in a place of power to forget the soul and beauty of the person across from you. See them not as objects to be manipulated but as one like you. Remember what it’s like to hope to be respected, to be granted honor, to be shown equality when someone doesn’t have to do so.
Resist the temptation to make sure others know their place. Be filled with real strength, the power to lift up those who are down and extend grace to one in need. Henri Nouwen asked, “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible?” And he responded, “Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people.” I think this is what Jesus was thinking when some Pharisees asked him about divorce. When Jesus talks about divorce, he’s really interested in making a statement against the divorce as it was in his day and age. We need to see his context and understand he is talking mostly about it. I would say in general he believed that two people who get married are meant to stay together, naming only one exception to this. In this he disagreed with other Jewish leaders. Whether this one exception, unchastity or adultery, would be the one and only reason he would hold to today, or whether he would include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse can only be a matter of conjecture. But since he was well aware of the unequal position of women in his society, my thought is that he would consider such reasons as potentially legitimate. In Jesus’ time and from the beginning, only the husband can initiate a divorce, and the wife cannot prevent him from divorcing her. Under Jewish law, a man can divorce a woman for any reason or no reason. The Talmud specifically says that a man can divorce a woman because she spoiled his dinner or simply because he finds another woman more attractive, and the woman’s consent to the divorce is not required. Later rabbinical authorities took steps to ease the harshness of these rules by prohibiting a man from divorcing a woman without her consent. In addition, a rabbinical court can compel a husband to divorce his wife under certain circumstances: when he is physically repulsive because of some medical condition or other characteristic, when he violates or neglects his marital obligations (food, clothing and sexual intercourse), or, according to some views, when there is sexual incompatibility. When Jesus said, “But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity (adultery), causes her to commit adultery” he was looking through the lens of divorce at something that was even more important and relevant to God’s kingdom: Powerful men doing as they chose without regard for powerless women. And Christ was against it.
We’re against it today also. But divorces can get messy these days. One divorce lawyer says, “During a very heated divorce, it came as somewhat of a surprise when the wife, who had been fighting for the contents of the house, quickly agreed to give up the living room furniture set to her husband, who had moved to a new place. When the movers delivered the furniture, the husband start wheezing and sneezing within minutes. He was allergic to cats, something his former wife knew. Turns out that right after he moved out, she bought three longhaired Persian kitties. Their favorite place to sleep and shed? You guessed it…all over the velvety, soft living room furniture.” Scripture asks us again and again to understand when we’re in a strong position, and not to take advantage of it. It tells us God blesses those who look after those who are powerless. Can I tell you a story that Christopher de Vinck first wrote in 1985? He calls it the power of the powerless. It could also be called the goodness of the powerful. It’s a true story. Are you ready? Christopher says, “I grew up in the house where my brother was on his back in his bed for almost 33 years, in the same corner of his room, under the same window, beside the same yellow walls. Oliver was blind, mute. His legs were twisted. He didn’t have the strength to lift his head nor the intelligence to learn anything. Today I am an English teacher, and each time I introduce my class to the play about Helen Keller, “The Miracle Worker,” I tell my students about Oliver. One day, during my first year teaching, a boy in the last row raised his hand and said, “Oh, Mr. de Vinck. You mean he was a vegetable.” I stammered for a few seconds. My family and I fed Oliver. We changed his diapers, hung his clothes and bed linen on the basement line in winter, and spread them out white and clean on the lawn in the summer. I always liked to watch the grasshoppers jump on the pillowcases. We bathed Oliver. Tickled his chest to make him laugh. Sometimes we left the radio on in his room. We pulled the shade down over his bed in the morning to keep the sun from burning his tender skin. We listened to him laugh as we watched television downstairs. We listened to him rock his arms up and down to make the bed squeak. We listened to him cough in the middle of the night. “Well, I guess you could call him a vegetable. I called him Oliver, my brother. You would have liked him.”
One October day in 1946, when my mother was pregnant with Oliver, her second son, she was overcome by fumes from a leaking coal-burning stove. My oldest brother was sleeping in his crib, which was quite high off the ground so the gas didn’t affect him, My father pulled them outside, where my mother revived quickly. On April 20, 1947, Oliver was born. A healthy looking, plump, beautiful boy. One afternoon, a few months later, my mother brought Oliver to a window. She held him there in the sun, the bright good sun, and there Oliver looked and looked directly into the sunlight, which was the first moment my mother realized that Oliver was blind. My parents, the true heroes of this story, learned with the passing months, that blindness was only part of the problem. So they brought Oliver to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York for tests to determine the extent of his condition. The doctor said that he wanted to make it very clear to both my mother and father that there was absolutely nothing that could be done for Oliver. He didn’t want my parents to grasp at false hope. “You could place him in an institution,” he said. “But,” my parents replied, “He is our son. We will take Oliver home of course.” The good doctor answered, “Then take him home and love him.” Oliver grew to the size of a 10-year-old. He had a big chest, a large head. His hands and feet were those of a five-year-old, small and soft. We’d wrap a box of baby cereal for him at Christmas and place it under the tree; pat his head with a damp cloth in the middle of a July heat wave. His baptismal certificate hung on the wall above his head. A bishop came to the house and confirmed him. Even now, five years after his death from pneumonia on March 12, 1980, Oliver still remains the weakest, most helpless human being I ever met, and yet he was one of the most powerful human beings I ever met. He could do absolutely nothing except breathe, sleep, eat, and yet he was responsible for action, love, courage, insight. When I was small my mother would say, “Isn’t it wonderful that you can see?” And once she said, “When you go to heaven, Oliver will run to you, embrace you, and the first thing he will say is ‘Thank you.”‘ I remember, too, my mother explaining to me that we were blessed with Oliver in ways that were not clear to her at first. So often parents are faced with a child who is severely retarded, but who is also hyperactive, demanding or wild, who needs constant care. So
many people have little choice but to place their child in an Institution. We were fortunate that Oliver didn’t need us to be in his room all day. He never knew what his condition was. We were blessed with his presence, a true presence of peace. When I was in my early 20s, I met a girl and fell in love. After a few months I brought her home to meet my family. When my mother went to the kitchen to prepare dinner, I asked the girl, “Would you like to see Oliver?” for I had told her about my brother. “No,” she answered. Soon after, I met Roe, a lovely girl. She asked me the names of my brothers and sisters. She loved children. I thought she was wonderful. I brought her home after a few months to meet my family. Soon it was time for me to feed Oliver. I remember sheepishly asking Roe if she’d like to see him. “Sure,” she said. I sat at Oliver’s bedside as Roe watched over my shoulder. I gave him his first spoonful, his second. “Can I do that?” Roe asked with ease, with freedom, with compassion, so I gave her the bowl and she fed Oliver one spoonful at a time. Today Roe and I have three children. The goodness of the powerful builds love and life for others, especially for the powerless. The powerful have the responsibility to share God’s blessings. The powerful don’t have the right to keep them to themselves. The goodness of the powerful has the ability to transform the world in so many ways. We need to see honestly when we are the powerful. When it’s our turn may we choose to lift up, when it’s our time may we share, when it’s our chance may we follow Christ’s way. Can the church say Amen?
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