Barefoot, Pregnant and Baking Bread
How many times can I say this before I start to bore myself? Scripture can be a fabulous conversation starter, but it should never be used as an argument settler. Sadly, though, many people seem unable to keep themselves from turning to the Bible when they need evidence to pile up in support of some point or another they’re wishing to advance. It’s as if they imagine God gave them the sacred texts to use as weapons whenever they get into a heated discussion!
A prodigious knowledge of the Bible would be very cold comfort to the one whose knowledge of God is sparse; and it’s knowledge of God that leads us to joy. A knowledge of scripture, without the blessing of faith, can only win us excellent grades in Religion class – and the right to look down on those whose marks aren’t as high.
And what sad recompense that would be!
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the terebinth of Mamre, as he sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot. Looking up, Abraham saw three men standing nearby.
When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, he said: “Sir, if I may ask you this favor, please do not go on past your servant. Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest yourselves under the tree. Now that you have come this close to your servant, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves; and afterward you may go on your way.”
The men replied, “Very well, do as you have said.”
Abraham hastened into the tent and told Sarah, “Quick, three measures of fine flour! Knead it and make rolls.” He ran to the herd, picked out a tender, choice steer, and gave it to a servant, who quickly prepared it. Then Abraham got some curds and milk, as well as the steer that had been prepared, and set these before the three men; and he waited on them under the tree while they ate.
They asked Abraham, “Where is your wife Sarah?”
He replied, “There in the tent.”
One of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son.”
Genesis 18, 1-10a
Abraham hastened into the tent and told Sarah,
“Quick, three measures of fine flour!
Knead it and make rolls.”
Genesis 18, 6
I have a friend, a woman who describes herself as a feminist and an atheist, with whom I discuss a number of contemporary issues — particularly the effect Christianity has had on the status of women. According to my friend’s analysis, religion (and she doesn’t seem to be a fan of any religion) is nothing but a gigantic sheet of cultural flypaper, collecting and retaining millennia of anti-woman biases. The very fact that I go to church at all virtually convicts me, in her eyes, of misogyny – because she’s seen innumerable instances of us males using religion to keep females under our control. Can you really fault her for her opinion?
The verse I selected from today’s reading isn’t nearly as offensive as any one of dozens of passages with which we are all familiar. I’m not pointing to it because it’s particularly egregious but because it’s completely and shamelessly effortless. We’re invited, not only to view a woman under subjugation, but to divorce ourselves from any thought that things could possibly be different for her. Another verse, this one in the New Testament, succeeds in the same effortless manner. If you can find the time, do a little reflecting on Mark 1, 31(b).
If the Bible were other than it is and contained stories depicting the behavior of human beings in their ‘perfected’ state (whatever that would mean), I don’t think it would do us a lot of good. If the Bible gave us a glimpse of people behaving in a consistently exemplary fashion and we were directed to strive to conform our conduct to theirs, it wouldn’t help anyone attain joy. Efforts directed at perfecting ourselves lead only to frustration, and frustration makes joy impossible.
We begin to walk the path of salvation, not when figure out who we could be, or who we want to be, or who we should be. That’s not how it works at all. There’s only one way to discover the path up Calvary Hill, and that’s to open your eyes to the reality of who we are. Notice that I said it’s necessary to see who we are. It’s fruitless to try and figure out who you are, you as an individual, because we humans don’t exist in isolation and our behavior doesn’t make sense until its understood within the context of everyone else’s behavior.
Here’s the conversation I want to initiate: I want to know what you see when you put yourself in mind of a man bursting into his wife’s living space without so much as a “pardon me” and commanding her to abandon whatever it is she might be doing at the time so she can make dinner for a group of strangers he’s trying to impress? While you’re sorting that out, I want to remind you that scripture isn’t about long ago, and far away, and somebody you never met. Scripture is about right here, right now, happening right to you.
I claim that if you could get a really clear look at this encounter and cultivate an understanding, not of a couple of legendary Semites in the extremity of old age, not of camels and tents in the desert, not of fantastic tales of angels appearing in shapes of men, but of your own life you could get some actual benefit out of reading the Bible.
Read this story and search for guidance about who it is God wants you to be. You’ll end up more confused than you were when you started. Read this story and look for yourself and the world in which you live. Now we’re talking!
You won’t be surprised to hear me say that it does no good to keep looking at what you’ve always looked at and seeing what you’ve always seen. The trick is to acquire new eyes. Wherever we cast our glance, our vision is colored by the judgments and biases we carry around with us. We’re oblivious to our own shortcomings and keenly aware of the nasty and petty behavior other people demonstrate.
The thing to keep in mind is that God is looking at the same thing we are, but She’s seeing something entirely different. We can see what Abraham is up to and it’s obvious to us what motivates him. We see a man who’s so anxious about securing his legacy that he makes other people, with the certain inclusion of his wife, mere pawns in his selfish game. Abraham has what we call an ‘agenda’ and he knows just whose arms to twist to get the things he’s aiming for. The entire enterprise is, as you might say, the “same old, same old”.
As easy as it is for us to ‘catch wise’ to Abraham, it remains a challenge to be candid with ourselves about our own actions. We’ve all got an agenda and we all know how to push each other’s buttons – and this is where I part company with my feminist friend because I believe that the impulse to use other people as pawns is as strong in women as it is in men. You might be able to convince me that men have been more successful in this area than women but women have more in common with men than you might realize.
It is a fortunate man who can hear this story and can identify with Abraham, who is willing to acknowledge that he’s not above running roughshod over a woman in order to get what he wants; but the woman who’s blessed by the great good gift of insight can see herself as she watches Abraham invade Sarah’s space and get her to do his bidding. The woman who can say, “I am Abraham too” is the woman who is ready to pick up her cross and follow Jesus.
The easy thing to do, when you notice the connivances of others, is to become repulsed by their behavior. It’s easy enough to decide that somebody else is ‘bad’. Trouble is, our judgments come back to trap us. If we punish others – even if the punishment is nothing worse than ‘thinking badly of them’ – we’ll live with the fear of punishment for our own shady behavior, and this fear will make it impossible for us to own up to who we really are.
God witnesses the same behavior that any of us do, but God is kind and merciful, patient and understanding. Where we condemn, God forgives; and as a result God can love the ones we despise. If you think the characters in the Bible are guilty of dirty deeds you’re right; but don’t make that a reason to discredit religion. The purpose of the Bible isn’t to tell us who we should be – it’s to show us who we are. Of course, we’ll never see ourselves until we open our eyes.