Matthew 11:16-19 and Song of Solomon 2:8-13
I can freely say something today that 30 years ago would have got me thrown out of Taiwan or landed me in jail. Here goes: “I’m in favor of Taiwan being an independent and sovereign nation.” We’ve been free to say things like this in Taiwan since the mid ‘90s. It’s wonderful progress. We can say anything here. Nearby, in Hong Kong, things are going the other direction. There are things that you can’t say there anymore.
There are things that you just can’t say in certain places, or among certain people…. Last Sunday the mens choir of a big Texan church debuted a new anthem: “Make American Great Again.” It combines Protestant Christian themes with certain political ideas that have become popular in the USA in the last 18 months. Here in Tainan, WE won’t be singing that song.
Marriage in Taiwan is a “civil” matter. It doesn’t matter how many priests or pastors of whatever religion you may have at a wedding ceremony, they aren’t the ones who “make it legal”. You become legally wed by signing documents at a lawyer’s office which the lawyer files with the court. Though Taiwan’s Supreme Court recently ruled that there’s nothing in the law here to prohibit same-sex marriage, don’t expect to see same-sex weddings in most churches soon, or even in the long run. Even holding an open meeting to discuss same-sex marriage among Christian people invites protest speeches from those who oppose. Last March there was one of those open meetings in the assembly hall at the theological college. It was no surprise to anyone, the event had been scheduled and publicly announced months in advance. It was also no surprise that several hundred protestors stood outside the venue. They didn’t want the topic discussed in a church-related setting. There are things that you just can’t say in church. Whether you’re on one side of any particular issue or the other, you’re bound to make some people unhappy.
I: The Unpopularity of John the Baptist with some of his contemporaries.
John the Baptist was born a few months before Jesus. In his 20s he began preaching in the wilderness between Jerusalem and the Jordan River. In his time, there were about 600,000 people in the land. A few were rich and powerful, some were religious and powerful, but the majority of the people were poor and “locked out of” most religious life.
The rich and powerful people tended to favor the colonial government from Rome, which kept things calm and allowed them to continue being rich, powerful and “prominent” in both their society and in its official religion. The “religious and powerful” people (there were about 6,000 of them) seemed to compete with each other to interpret their religion and the traditions that had grown up around it ever more strictly. In that way, they kept more and more people “out” and only themselves and their families “in”. To be “pure enough” to belong to this group, one had to prove his or her DNA to be unpolluted by foreign mixing back four generations.
If you belonged to the “priestly” part of the society (if your family was part of that ancestry) more than DNA was involved. It didn’t take a lot of priests to run the temple, and there were more than enough men with the proper ancestry, so only a few were “full-time.” MOST of the men in this family line took turns, going to do “priest stuff” in the temple in Jerusalem for two weeks every year. For a certain number of days before the 2-week duty, and all through it, they had to keep religiously clean, following a lot of rules about what they did with their bodies, what they touched, or even what they looked at.
OK, you’re a priest, and you put up with it for a few weeks a year in order to qualify for the guaranteed income. But the “very religious” people, many of whom were not of the right family to be priests, expanded on that. A good priest would stay that “clean” 52 weeks a year. And a good religious person (whether of the priestly ancestry or not) would try his hardest to be priestly-pure all year. Common people were basically shut out of having much to do with religious life, or to have much to do with God, whose standards were so high.
So here’s the diagram:
|Priests who have to be pure sometimes.||Have a hard time doing it, but manage for 2 weeks plus some days every year|
|Non-priestly but very religious people who strive to be priestly-pure all year||Consider themselves to be righteous and able to judge everyone else|
|Common people, neither priests, nor very religious||No Chance for you to be right with God|
Along comes John the Baptist, preaching “Turn away from your sins and be baptized and God will forgive your sins.” Basically he was offering everyone people a chance to get back into a right relationship with God and get their past records cleaned up. And People came to him from Jerusalem, from the whole province of Judaea, and from all the country near the River Jordan.
There’s a similar story in Chinese religious history. The emperor and royalty followed Confucianism, but it was too intellectual for the common people who couldn’t even read. The social leaders who were not royal followed Taoism, but it required too much study. All that was left for common people was animist folk religion, which met daily needs but didn’t offer anything long-term. Along came Buddhism, from India, promising mercy and salvation. People took to it like it was candy. They not only made it their own, they went as missionaries spreading it to Korea, Taiwan and Japan.
In John’s situation, when some social and religious leaders came to him asking for the same deal he was offering the common folks. He called them “snakes”. He demanded that they show by their behavior that they had turned from their sins. It’s easy to see that John was not well liked by the religious and social leaders. He said the kinds of things that “you can’t say in church.”
II: The Unpopularity of Jesus with some of his contemporaries
The leaders didn’t like John. He was a class traitor. Born into a priestly family, he didn’t do priest stuff. Instead, he became a prophet. He could have been rich and powerful, but he lived in the wilderness eating wild food and wearing rough clothes. He had not been trained. Nothing in the Bible indicates he could even read. But he was a powerful preacher. Common people liked: him; what he stood for; and how he made them feel.
Then along comes Jesus, who admired John but didn’t live like him. Jesus had a house in Capernaum. He wore decent clothes. He ate what other people ate. He didn’t seem to care with whom he shared a meal. He went to parties. He drank wine. He didn’t condemn people for breaking rules. Sometimes his words were harsh, but much of what he said was gentle and affirming. People gathered to hear him teach and preach. People came to him to be healed of diseases. Crowds followed him expecting a meal. He welcomed everyone, even those who were considered unclean by the religious standards of the day: women; sick people; foreigners, local people who had dealings with foreigners, people who handled dead bodies, crazy people, demon-possessed people; even dead people. Jesus was not “anti-John”; he admired John; he preached the same basic message as John (The kingdom of God is near. Turn away from your sins and believe the good news), but Jesus didn’t imitate John.
John had been too “rough” for the social and religious leaders of the time. They criticized him for that. Jesus came along and acted differently, he was too “soft” for the religious leaders, so like John, he, too, was criticized. He, too, said things that “you can’t say in church.”
The verses we read from Matthew today are part of a longer story in which some who followed John (who had been thrown into prison for saying rough things to a political leader) came to ask what they should do. Jesus praised John. Then he described the social and religious leaders of the society as being like children who wouldn’t play either weddings or funerals. Knowing only that they wanted things to continue as they were, they would not listen to either kind of preacher: John OR Jesus. They resisted change, because when you’re in charge, you like things to remain as they are, or you want to go “back”. When you’re in charge, you tell people that there are certain things that “you can’t say in church.”
III: The Unpopularity of the Song of Solomon with people in 2 religions
We read some love poetry this afternoon. It’s kind of surprising to do that in church, isn’t it? But it’s right there in our Bibles. Anybody who has ever heard this poetry read in church NOT at a wedding, raise your hand. None of us? Yeah, this is NOT something that is read in Sunday school or youth group or worship. Love poetry like this has been on the list of things “you can’t say in church” for a very long time.
Finding it in the Old Testament means that it is holy Bible in both Jewish and Christian religions. Leaders in BOTH religions have historically been embarrassed by it. If you read the entire book (it will take you about 30 to 40 minutes, maybe not even that long), you’ll find it full of images of love, food and sex. In the church we talk a lot about love, “love one another,” “Jesus loves me,” “God is love.” We have no trouble talking about food. We often have a problem, though, when in the Bible or in life as it is lived we encounter romance and sexuality. You can’t talk about these things in church. We’re not so sure that we even want them in our Bibles. There was a time in my own life when the book of Isaiah was my favorite part of the Old Testament. One day I noticed that it’s right next to the Song of Solomon, I was embarrassed that my spiritual favorite had such a wildly physical neighbor!
The good Jewish people who sorted and selected from among the many writings available to them and decided which ones would be included in the Hebrew Bible debated long and hard about letting this one in. They noted that there is NO mention of God anywhere in it. Some considered it little more than a drinking song. The conclusion of some was to let it in. Some interpreted it as about the relationship between the groom (God) and the bride (the Jewish nation). They made it out to be a retelling of the relationship between their people from the Exodus onward through the exilic experiences and the restoration of the people in the land. A mystical view saw the Song as representing the union of the active intellect with the passive. In general, the contents of the Song of Solomon were considered things you can’t say in church (or, in their case, the synagogue). After the 4th century CE they were banned from the synagogue but permitted for private reading at home once each year.
The good Christian people who, around the year 400 CE, sorted and debated from among the many writings available and decided which ones would be included in the Christian Bible (the New Testament) already accepted the Jewish decision about the Old Testament, so the Song is in the Bibles we use today. But they were embarrassed by it, too. Some interpreted it as an allegory of Christ as the groom and the bride as the church. For many Roman Catholic scholars the bride became the Virgin Mary. Martin Luther saw her as a symbol of the state, and according to this view, in the poem was Solomon thanking God for the loyalty of his people.
To get some perspective, I went to The Oxford Companion to the Bible. The article there, written by a Roman Catholic scholar from America, gives all the basics of the historical arguments about the book and an evaluation of its structure (scholarly stuff) and concludes as follows: it is “a collection of related lyrics, loosely united, composed NOT to teach, but to touch, to please, and to delight.” NO WONDER it’s not read in church.
Conclusion: Wisdom is shown to be true by its results
Jesus summed it up very well. “Wisdom is shown to be true by its results.”
Maybe romance endures, our misinterpretations and our embarrassment. Maybe we can conclude our thinking about that today with an affirmation of something that you can’t say in church.
Touching, pleasing, and delighting are gifts of God. After all, it’s in the Bible.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN