Texts: Song of Songs 2:8-13 James 1:17-27 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Sep. 2, 2018
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your head tells you one thing and your heart tells you something different? How did you handle it? Did your head win out? Did your heart? If you had to do it all over again would you have chosen differently? Why?
We feel this tension all the time don’t we. Certainly, it is present in our intimate relationships with family and friends. It is there at work and sometimes at play. The tension can even surface within a worshiping community.
We can frame the question like this: “Should we be guided more by our emotions and our feelings or should discipline, self-control, and moderation be our guiding lig hts?” In seeking to live life as a Christian, should we follow our head or follow our heart?
If passion always prevails would there be more marital affairs? More divorce? Would there be more on-the-spot job resignations or more road rage? If reason alone called the shots would we all become like Mr. Spock of “Star Trek” fame?
Love tends to be about extremes. When should love throw prudence to the wind and be lavish? When should it put on the tough-love boots of reason, establish boundaries, withhold forgiveness until true repentance and change of behavior take place?
This morning’s lectionary readings help us find some answers to those questions. Normally, the readings tend to reinforce a central emphasis. Today, however, they take different points of view. They show that different contexts demand different responses–suggesting that even in ancient times, situational ethics was indeed the biblical view. Let’s look at our readings each in turn. First the Old Testament.
The Song of Songs
When it comes to the Song of Songs our Revised Common Lectionary is quite bashful. In its three-year cycle some texts, like the Beatitudes, are read every year. As I complained a couple of weeks ago, John, chapter 6 where Jesus said, I am the bread of Life,” was the gospel reading five weeks in a row. But of more than 150 Sundays plus all the special holy days, today is the only day that you will hear from the Song of Songs also known as the Song of Solomon. Had I chosen, I could have used an alternative reading from the book of Deuteronomy. You might be surprised to learn that in my research on early Pentecostalism, I found more commentaries written on this book than any other book in the Bible. They believed it was an allegory of Christ’s love for His bride, the Church.
It is a wonder that it wasn’t banned as pornographic. It is by far the most erotic book of the Bible. Let me quote a verse that didn’t make it into today’s reading. “Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth.” I can assure you, as a Pentecostal, I was not asked to memorize that verse in Sunday School. I suspect they thought I had taken seriously their teaching about the Bible: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” I can’t help but wonder if we had more readings from this book, we might have more young people coming to Church.
I have always found the Pentecostal interpretation a bit of a stretch. I have found John Hayes, a former Old Testament colleague of mine more to the point when he wrote.
The consistent theme of the book is human love, and human sexual love. For the most part, the book contains a series of songs in which the woman and the man in praising the physical beauty of each other. The language is highly metaphorical, but is also very graphic and sensual, especially as each lover describes the body of each other.1
Today’s reading celebrates the gift of romantic attraction: the longing, the waiting, the impatience, the imagination, the invitation. A woman describes her male lover watching from afar. When he speaks, he links his love to the change in seasons: “For the winter is now past, the rain is over, the flowers appear, the voice of the turtle dove is heard in the land.”
Probably these are allusions to the ancient fertility cults, but they also speak beyond that, linking romantic love to creation’s goodness. Indeed, the time for singing has come. If this were the only book in the Bible one might conclude that life is to be lived by passion alone. Because it is in the Bible we can assume that our emotions and passion are to be embraced and celebrated, but that is not all of life as our other readings make clear.
When we turn to today’s epistle, the emphasis is on disciple and restraint. James, our Lord’s younger brother, speaks to Christians living on the layered landscape of desire and discipline. He focuses on the need to acknowledge the power of human impulses and keeps in mind the importance of restraint. His letter was probably used as an early catechism to instruct new converts getting ready for baptism.
James uses the tongue as a metaphor of how passion-filled thoughts transfer into words that damage both the individual and the community. Remember the proverb: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s absolute nonsense. As a pastor I have witnessed countless occasions and counseled dozens of persons who were victims of thoughtless words spoken in anger. Words are far more powerful than rocks and wood. James has a word for us. “Bridle your tongue!”
So, which is right: King Solomon or James? Which text best describes the texture of a faithful life? Passion or discipline?
Our Lord encountered this quandary frequently in his ministry. The Gospels often show the tension of his liberating words and actions and the strict interpretation of the Torah, Israel’s law.
The Pharisees and scribes are often described as the guardians of its rules and regulations. They began with the noblest of intentions. They wanted to build a hedge around the Torah’s wall so that God’s laws would never be ignored again. Layers and layers of hedges were added. From our Lord’s perspective, these protective layers quenched the spirit and grace the law was intended convey.
The Pharisees would have been excellent neighbors. Their lawns would have been well manicured. They would have no late-night parties with loud music. But it wouldn’t be long before you felt you were living in a glass house and your every move being observed and criticized.
“Why is it that your disciples...?” they ask, circling Jesus in today’s Gospel, bringing their questions of rigidity. Their focus was on ceremonial purity–handwashing and leaning pots and pans. All procedures had to be just right. This was the tradition.
Our Lord’s response did not focus on the rules, but what the rules sought to convey–a life of integrity before God. What defiles a person, he said is not what comes from without, but what comes from within. In making such a statement Jesus affirms both sides of the tension. He stands with his brother James in affirming the need for the bridled tongue–but disciplined in such a way that it does not snuff out the passion and the emotional joy of living. His call is for a balanced life.
When I was a seminary student, I read a book written by a Lebanese writer, Kahlil Gibran, called The Prophet. He put the parameters of this tension in terms I will never forget. He spoke of the tensions as rudders and sails.
Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.
If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or be held
to a standstill in mid sea. For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and
passion, unattended is a flame that burns to its own destruction.2
Both are equally important. The heart and the head, freedom and boundaries, rudders and sails. Jesus knew this and lived it. When he left the table on the night he was betrayed, he prayed passionately, “Let this cup pass from me. The passion was followed by obedience, “Never-the-less, not my will but thy will be done. Amen.
1John H. Hayes, Preaching Through the Christian Year A (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1992): 392
2Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Random House, 1968): 50.