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18th Sunday after Trinity

01 October 2021

3 October, Proper 22: Genesis 2.18-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 1.1-4; 2.5-12; Mark 10.2-16

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THE psalmist asks God, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (8.4). Each reading contributes something to answering that question. No less a student of the human condition than Hamlet has a stab at it, exclaiming: “What a piece of work is a man!” It could be punctuated as a question.

The readings tackle the question by indirect routes, not logical method. The author/editor of Genesis uses a story. When God has made the first human he declares, “It is not good for man to dwell alone,”,and makes a “help meet”: another being to fit, or suit, him. NRSV translates the word ‘ezer as “helper”, as if the creation of male and female is designed to be complementary — one leading, the other assisting. An exegesis by Phyllis Trible skewered this approach back in 1978 (in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality).

In order not to be alone, the human whom God has made needs to find something that is both like and unlike itself. And so it has been ever since. Two are joined together and become one flesh. In our liturgy, we call matrimony a “holy mystery”, and rightly so: for matrimony exhibits some of the qualities that we associate more readily with the mystery of the Trinity. It brings about a “new life” in which the two are truly two, but also truly one. Whoever the author of Genesis may have been, we can be sure he was not an English lawyer. Yet his understanding of the bond between the man and the woman in the garden is not dissimilar. God is the creator of them both, but they effect their own marriage bond between themselves.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that Christianity has held out so tenaciously against accepting the splitting into two of what has been made one. Only something as harmful as the unholy trinity of an adulterous liaison could bring about such a fissure. We do not need to be told how damaging and painful divorce can be, necessary though it sometimes is. Either by experience or by observation, all of us are well aware of the fact.

One answer to the question “What are human beings?” has been found by looking at the creation of humankind. We are made for life — but life together, not life in isolation. This model is not a prescription binding on every person; but it is a pattern that millennia of use have authenticated as a good way to live life with integrity.

The author of Hebrews answers the question another way. The psalm had referred to “the son of man”, meaning humanity in general. In Hebrews, it appears to be a specific prophecy about the (onlybegotten) “son of man”. As a result of a small discrepancy between the Hebrew and Greek, this messianic meaning is emphasised: instead of humankind being made “a little lower than God”, now the “son of man” was made lower “for a little while”.

So Hebrews begins with the culmination — not the origin — of humanity. Paul had shown the way when he contrasted the first man, Adam (adam in Genesis was a noun meaning “human being”, which came to be read as a personal name), with the last man, Christ (1 Corinthians 15.21-22; Romans 5). Hebrews gives a solemn assurance that God’s Son is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being”. The Son is “glory . . . glory . . . glory”. What we might not have expected is that the Son is bringing us to a glory like his own.

Like and unlike God. And like and unlike one another. Such is our humanity. It is not good for us to dwell alone; so those who marry create a different kind of One. Yet the glory that awaits us will not come to those with distorted understanding of that “oneness”, who obliterate the otherness of those they love, cajoling and coercing them to suppress their true selves.

One final thought comes from the Gospel. If you have made your life a quest for independence and autonomy, outgrowing the need for others, think again. Think what your adult life has been focused on outgrowing. You have been trying to make yourself a “quintessence of dust”. So stop. Take back the you that you have been sloughing off, and learn to be that person once again.

Forthcoming Events

25 January 2022
Preaching Lament and Hope
A Durham workshop from the College of Preachers.

More events

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