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9th July 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
7 July 2017

Readings

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

Abraham didn’t want Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman so he sent his servant back to where he had come from to find a wife for Isaac. 

The servant did that and met Rebekah at the well, who was the daughter of Abraham’s brother, and he tells her of his mission and she goes back to her mother and her brothers.  Her brother Laban comes and meets Abraham’s brother and we pick up the story as the negotiations begin.

Chapter 24 is the longest of the stories in this part of the Bible and different because, instead of acting directly, or through angels, God is seen acting though everyday events.[1]

Susan Niditch notes that in this story ‘women are valuable commodities as precious as the water with which they are associated, but commodities nevertheless’[2]

Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

The children in the market place might represent a court setting at the centre of a city or town just as a market is the centre or children playing make-believe courts.

We are reminded that the courts condemn John and Jesus but they marginalise themselves by excluding themselves from God’s purpose.[3]  

God’s purpose is hidden from the traditional leadership but revealed to the small band of ordinary people who are Jesus’ disciples.

Sermon

Our Gospel reading begins by Jesus comparing his generation with children playing in the market place and complaining that other children won’t play with them

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn (Matthew 11:17) 

When I was a kid I was never allowed to play on the road but lots of other kids were and it was upsetting that I missed out on the fun.  Fortunately we never had a section less than half an acre and my mother’s compromise was that other kids were allowed to come to our place to play.  Raewyn and I never had sections quite that big but we continued the ‘everyone welcome’ rule.  We were, in fact, quite surprised that one of the neighbours was not allowed to play with friends at his place because it spoiled the lawn.  Most of the time when Geoff and Craig were growing we lived in a short dead end street with a turning space so it was quite good for games that needed a ball to bounce.  It was also reasonably safe until one of the older kids got a Mazda RX7 sports car.  Then nobody was safe.     

Apart from the parental concern to keep children safe one of the frustrations a neighbourhood’s children face is that they have to reach a consensus on what they choose to play.  They might not call to each other as they did in Jesus’ time; We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn (Matthew 11:17) but the statement ‘I don’t like this game so I’m going to take my ball and go home’ elicits similar sentiments from the rest of the gang. 

However the main point of this small passage is that Jesus is using the squabbles that erupt in childrens games as a metaphor for the way he saw the society that they lived in.  Verse 16 begins ‘But to what will I compare this generation?’ (Matthew 11:16a) In other words what is the way this community functions like?

Jesus then expounds on his children’s games metaphor by expressing his frustration about the contrasting reception people had given to both John the Baptist and himself.  For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘he has a demon’: the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. (Matthew 11:19,19) 

We should note that it has the same structure as his example of the children playing and both are examples of people avoiding being involved.  John was a weirdo and Jesus parties with the wrong crowd. Those are the excuses for ignoring both of them.

The key phrase comes at the end of verse 19. Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.  (Matthew 11:19b) 

Although people, both oppressor and oppressed, might choose to ignore both the warnings of John the Baptist and the teaching of Jesus the wisdom of what they say will be recognised in the deeds of the small group that chose to follow Jesus and live as Jesus to others. 

That is the story of the church.  The teaching of Jesus, and the structure of the church, have been co-opted by kings, queens, emperors and others who seek to dominate others in order to enhance their own wealth and power.  However the church survives by the wisdom of Jesus’ message that has been proven time and time again by individuals who live as Jesus calls people to live. People who have been Christ to others and transformed lives by the way they themselves are transformed. 

Cerezo Barredo's illustration expresses the frustration of Jesus’ market metaphor visually.  We can imagine the people in the background are seeking out wisdom.  One man is in a library pouring though ancient texts with a magnifying glass while the other is Googling wisdom on a computer.  Meanwhile the group in the foreground are actually with Jesus or more precisely the Risen Christ is with them.  The woman has her Bible open discovering who Jesus is for her and the Christ figure is expressing the frustration that comes across in Jesus’ market metaphor.   The two in the immediate foreground have hand gestures that indicate they are ready to revive Christ in their lives and thereby live as Christ to others.  It is through them that wisdom will be vindicated by her deeds. 

But it is a long process, 2000 years and counting and a journey filled with failings, damaged relationships and exploitation of one group by another.  It is the human journey where fear regularly overpowers love.  It is also a journey where love is found in the most unexpected places. 

That is what we learn from the Abraham saga with all its child abuse, dysfunctional families and sibling rivalries.  The Abraham saga is written by Abraham’s descendants with the benefit of hindsight so they can show Gods hands in the events that the narrative takes us through.   But I doubt that Isaac felt God was with him when he was tied to a bundle of sticks and his father was about to murder him in search of divine favour. 

Now in today’s episode we still see Abraham focused on his own plans for his patriarchal legacy by sending a servant back to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac.  However that might be judging Abraham harshly and from the point of view of our Pākehā culture nurtured by our ‘happy ever after fairy stories.  In this week’s bulletin I mentioned my Kiwi Chinese friend who was given three photos of young women living in Hong Kong and told to pick one as his wife.  He resented that marriage for many years until I think he finally realised what a gorgeous women and wonderful wife she really was.  Not that he would admit that because what he told me was that he finally realised that Chinese do not divide property. 

Keeping the family enterprise in the family I suspect was also an issue for Abraham and the saga of my Chinese friend was very similar with his ancestor as a single man coming to the Otago gold fields in a desperate effort to gain enough wealth to have a life in a China strongly divided between opulence and extreme poverty. 

That ancestor would eventually send home for a wife and move into the monopoly of market gardens and fruit and vegetable retailing that was only recently challenged my multi-national supermarkets. 

As my friend demonstrated arranged marriages were part of that particular community of Kiwis for several generations without those of us of British descent really noticing.  I have not had contact with that friend for many years but the last irony of that family saga I was told about was that his son’s first job was as a surgeon in Hong Kong so by now he may well have chosen his own wife from the land of his mother. 

There was a delightful interview on the Graham Norton show where Nadiya Hussain flabbergasted the other guests by saying that she had only met her husband once before they were married.  The marriage was arranged by their fathers and happened in Bangladesh because their fathers thought that would be cheaper. 

At the time of the interview she was planning to get married again because at the time she got married she thought the man her father had chosen for he looked worth a try but now she discovered she actually quite liked him.  Therefore this very British woman of Bangladesh ethnicity wanted to celebrate the marriage with her friends in her own country. 

Her other achievements included winning the great British Bake Off, baking the official cake for the queens 90th birthday and, in 2016, being named as one of Debrett's 500 most influential people in the United Kingdom.  She has also presented her own BBC documentary called with a nod to C.S. Lewis, ‘The Chronicles of Nadiya’.  Although very happy with her arranged marriage she told Graham Norton that she wasn’t doing that for her children because she couldn’t be bothered.  They could go to university and find somebody for themselves like everybody else.

Those are both examples of arranged marriages in non European ethnic groups but I will never forget the opening scene of Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano where Holly Hunter, as Ada, and her daughter Anna Paquin are left on a deserted beach in colonial New Zealand.  That stressed the stark reality of Ada’s journey from Scotland for an arranged marriage to Sam Neil, who plays the role of stoic settler Alasdair Stewart.  That marriage does not go well and Anna Paquin becomes a vampire. 

However The Piano is a story not a documentary but nevertheless based on the reality of single men, just like in my Chinese friend’s ancestor, seeking a new life in a new land and, by arrangement, marrying women who are equally unwanted in the land of their birth.

Also connecting with the story of Rebekah’s arranged marriage is an incident historian James Belich quotes of an early settler going to buy some chickens and the maid is so expert at rounding up the chickens that he proposes to her on the spot.  Although she did not accept the proposal the story illustrates that skills like watering camels and rounding up chickens are highly valued by men struggling to make a life in the wilderness.

All those examples bring the story of Rebekah into the reality of our own history. They not only highlight the fact that God moves in mysterious ways but in each generation life can be like a childrens game where the participants cry to each other ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’ (Matthew 11:17) 

Yet within that confusion of life, that contrast of agendas and participants and non participants, wisdom is indeed vindicated by her deeds.   

The church came into being by a small band of Christ filled people living as Christ in their chaotic world.

Despite the chaos and struggles of the past our world will find its way to the future through the deeds of Christ we bring to our world



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.69

[2] Susan Niditch ‘Genesis’, The Woman’s Bible Commentary, p.16. as quoted in Andrew op.cit.,p.69.

[3] Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) pp.254-260. 

 

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