Saturday Night Theologian
3 July 2005

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

August is the top month for weddings, followed closely by June and July, according to Hallmark. It is appropriate, then, that we have two readings today that concern marriage. Both this reading from Genesis and the following one from the Psalms remind us of how far we are removed culturally from the pre-exilic setting of both these stories. Despite the cultural and chronological gap, however, these stories still have something to tell us about both marriage and commitment to God. In Genesis 24, Abraham has grown old, and he has not yet chosen a wife for his son Isaac. Because he doesn't want Isaac to be married to a Canaanite woman, he sends his servant to his homeland in Mesopotamia (or Northern Syria) to find a bride. The servant miraculously finds Rebekah, and she, with the blessing of her father and brother, agrees to return with the servant to marry Isaac. Rebekah journeys to Canaan, where she meets and marries Isaac. On the surface, this is a story about God's provision for his chosen family, but it raises a number of interesting points. Why was Abraham so concerned that his son not marry a Canaanite, among whom he had chosen to settle? The Sunday School answer is that he wanted a wife who would share his son's faith in Yahweh, but the text neither says nor implies that. Did Abraham's relatives in Mesopotamia worship Yahweh? If so, why didn't they go with Abraham to Canaan? And couldn't a Canaanite woman have chosen to follow her husband's religion? Jacob's sons all seem to have married Canaanite women (except Joseph, whose wife was Egyptian). There are many reasons for opposing a marriage between two people, including religious differences, socioeconomic differences, ethnic differences, and differences in culture. All of these differences are still a barrier to marriage to many people today, while others have a problem with one or another of them, and still others have no problem with any of them. I suspect that most people today would have a greater problem with a marriage between cousins (Isaac and Rebekah were first cousins, once removed) than between people of slightly different ethnic groups. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is found in verses 57-58, where Bethuel and Laban ask Rebekah whether she is willing to go with the servant to marry Isaac. In a strongly patriarchal culture, this consideration of a woman's wishes is remarkable. What lessons can we glean for today from this story? First, God does indeed take care of those who strive to be faithful. Second, God can work through a variety of cultural practices, and even biases, to accomplish the divine purpose. Third, marriage involves more than just the husband and wife: in-laws and other relations are part of the mix, for better or worse.

Psalm 45:10-17

The most talked-about royal wedding of the past 100 years was undoubtedly that of Charles and Diana in July of 1981, but the weddings of Elizabeth and Philip in 1947 and Edward VIII and Wallis Warfield Simpson in 1937 were also noteworthy events. In the U.S., the 1971 marriage of Tricia Nixon to Edward Cox at the White House received a considerable amount of coverage as well. People are enraptured by the weddings of members of ruling families, perhaps because they see the happy couples as representatives, or even embodiments, of the nation. The nation's welfare and happiness are wrapped up in the lives of its leaders, and a successful wedding is the harbinger of success for the entire country. Psalm 45 is a wedding song that was written for the wedding of the king of Israel or Judah to the daughter of the king of Tyre (a Canaanite! See above on Genesis). Weddings among the nobility in ancient times were generally arranged in order to cement political ties between two nations. Love had little if anything to do with such arrangements. The psalmist urges the new queen to forget her people and the life she lived as the daughter of the king and take up a new identity, wife of the king of Israel. The psalm speaks of the queen's beauty and the fabulous wealth that accompanies the marriage. It also talks about the joy and gladness that her attendants have on her wedding day. Her ultimate goal is to bear the king sons, who will rule as princes of the earth. The psalm was written as a festive piece for a joyous occasion, but I can't help wondering how the prospective queen felt about it. She was probably raised with the knowledge that she would one day be joined in marriage to a foreign king in order to seal a political alliance, but did doing her duty make her happy? It's certainly conceivable that in time the queen grew to love the king, but from what we know of royal marriages, she was likely just one among many wives that the king had. It is amazing to me that such marriages among royalty continued to be commonplace in Europe and elsewhere until fairly recently (albeit the marriages were monogamous), and they were accepted by the people as a matter of course. This week both Canada and Spain passed laws that legalized gay marriage, and many Christians are raising loud protests against these laws. I wonder how many Christians protested the arranged marriages of the royalty in times past, which were based not on love but on political expediency. Are gay marriages, which are based on love, really any worse than that?

Romans 7:15-25a

Alcoholism is a condition that affects millions of people worldwide. People who get hooked on alcohol find it difficult to function without it. Even if they manage to kick the habit, a single drink after years of sobriety can plunge them back into a self-destructive lifestyle. There are many other dangerous addictions besides alcohol, of course: drugs, sex, and food, for example. Those of us who are not -holics of some sort may look at those around us who suffer from these maladies and wonder why they can't just quit. Why can't they just say no? It may be possible to say no at the beginning, but many people find it impossible to say no after becoming involved with their addiction. Paul suggests that we all understand the alcoholic better than we sometimes let on, because we all have an addiction to sin. We begin to sin early in life, and we continue to sin throughout our lives. We're not all addicted to the same sins, but we all know the power that one or more particular sins hold over us. When we're confronted with temptation we can certainly say no, but we often find ourselves saying yes, much to our own disappointment. What is the solution to this dilemma? Paul says that it is our relationship with Jesus Christ, who gives us the strength to resist temptation. Does that mean that anyone who is a Christian can automatically resist temptation just by calling on Jesus for help? I don't think that's necessarily true. When we have a relationship with Jesus Christ, we also have a special relationship with other Christians, people whom God has given us to help us through times of crisis. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous understand the importance of alcoholics having a sponsor, someone they can call when the temptation gets really hard to resist. It is probably hard for many alcoholics to admit that they have a problem that they can't handle on their own, but to succeed in the struggle with alcoholism, they must learn to overcome the embarrassment of having to lean on someone else. Christians, too, need to learn to lean on others when we're in need of help, and we need to be willing to help others without judgment when they call on us. Life isn't always easy, and sin is always a tough competitor. There are times when we simply can't stand alone, and we need somebody to lean on.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

In The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, Christian is trudging along the path of life with a heavy burden on his shoulder. He struggles through the Slough of Despond with the burden, but when he sees the cross his burden falls off and rolls to the foot of the cross. The journey is far from over, and Christian will encounter many trials along the path of his life, but he will never have to confront them with the added weight of an unnecessary burden on his back. Jesus told his followers, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." It's easy enough to understand the concept of laying down our burdens--sin, guilt, the need to accomplish great things, pride, loneliness, fear--but what is the yoke that Jesus says is easy to carry? Sirach 51:26-27 speaks of the yoke of wisdom that is easy to bear but which affords great rewards. The Christian life is not without its burdens, for Jesus also told his disciples that they would have to take up their crosses and follow him. Are the cross and the easy yoke compatible? Yes, if we remember that a yoke is a device that shifts the weight and makes something easier to pull or carry. Our relationship with God through Jesus Christ enables us to follow the path that God lays before us, no matter where it leads. The cross we are called to carry may be heavy, and it may become heavier with time, but as we learn to carry the yoke of Christ, we will find that the weight of the cross becomes easier to bear, not harder.