Looking for a Loophole

a sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost

W.C. Fields was a popular comedian of the 1930s and ’40s who had a reputation for hating children, loving booze, and being pretty cynical about life in general. He also didn’t have much use for religion. One day, as W.C. Fields lay dying in a hospital bed, a visitor actually caught him reading the Bible. When the friend asked him what he was doing, the dying comedian replied, “looking for a loophole.”

a loophole in a castle wall

A loophole is a small detail in a rule or law that can sometimes be used to get around a law’s intent. Back in the 1970’s, when this country started importing a lot of foreign vehicles, congress passed a law adding an extra tax on trucks and farm equipment coming into the United States from overseas, but not family cars. The intent of the law was to protect the manufacturing of commercial vehicles from foreign competition. But one company found a loophole. They bolted extra seats into the bed of the truck. Legally, this meant that they were actually family vehicles, and could avoid the tax. Of course, when the trucks got to the dealer’s lot, the seats were easily removed so that the trucks could be used for hauling stuff.

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees ask Jesus about a loophole in the law: Can a man divorce his wife? They knew that according to the law of Moses, divorce was permissible; it was legal. All a man had to do was get one of the temple elders to write a certificate, something that was pretty easy to get, especially for a man with means. But they wanted to see if Jesus interpreted the law as Moses wrote it, preserving a man’s right to divorce his wife. Or would he find some loophole, some tiny detail that would deny them that right.

Of course, Jesus didn’t see things the same way. The way he saw it, the Pharisees were the ones looking for a loophole – not in Jewish law, but in God’s intention behind that law.

It seems that some folks are always looking for loopholes. Back in the 1930s and ’40s, W.C. Fields was a popular comedian who had a reputation for hating children, loving booze, and being pretty cynical about life in general. He also didn’t have much use for religion. One day, as W.C. Fields lay dying in a hospital bed, a visitor actually caught him reading the Bible. When the friend asked him what he was doing, the dying comedian replied, “looking for a loophole.”

Today’s Gospel lesson and the Old Testament reading have gotten a lot of scrutiny over recent years. Some folks look at them as a claim for “traditional” marriage. Others look at them as a way to understand same-sex marriage. Others try to interpret them as a way to understand divorce. Still others look for clues about what Jesus thought about gender equality and inclusion. These are all pretty big questions in our culture today and we should “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the Scriptures to try to understand how they might apply to these and other issues. But too often, through all of our searching and pondering of the Scriptures, we tend to read them looking for loopholes. By focusing so much on the words in the Bible, sometimes we forget God’s intention for us.

This is what the Pharisees are doing; looking at the words instead of the meaning behind the words. So Jesus shifts the argument. “Instead of looking for loopholes in human law,” he says, “let’s take a look at what God wants for human kind.”

First of all, God created us to live in relationship and intimacy. The story of Adam and Eve is about how two people join together and form a relationship that is greater than either one of them separately. Two committed people joined in heart, mind, and body. This doesn’t mean that everyone must have a partner. Nor does it mean that all partnerships look the same. Genesis doesn’t really talk about either of these; it’s not about biology. Instead, the Genesis story is about how two people are are bound together so intimately in life that they literally become one flesh, so that they can share the journey of life together.

Second, while God does not intend for us to suffer the pain and agony of divorce, the fact of the matter is that divorce is a reality of human existence, and has been since at least the time of Moses. Two weeks ago, I was in a small group at a clergy conference where we studied this passage. There were seven of us in the small group, all ordained clergy. As we wrestled with this text, I asked how many members of our small group had experienced divorce, and 3 of the 7 raised their hands. Our small group reflected society at large: in the United States today, 45% of marriages end up in divorce within 15 years. That means that if this congregation is typical, and I believe that it is, about every 3rd person sitting in this room has been, or will be, divorced in their lives. Something happens and the marriage is in trouble. The relationship that we all intend to last forever comes to an end. The two who became one flesh rip themselves apart, and are left with nothing but pain and bitterness where they once shared love.

Jesus makes it pretty clear that divorce isn’t what God wants for us, but he’s also realistic about human relationships. Either side can fall short of God’s intention for us. Both stand in need of forgiveness and redemption.

This is where the children come in. Of course, children were considered the primary reason for marriage in Jesus’ day, and they are obviously the most vulnerable ones in a divorce even today. In those days, they were not the clean faced, adorable children we heard singing at the beginning of worship today. They probably looked more like the children you see waiting in a doctor’s office or at a homeless shelter – dirty, runny noses, hungry, crying and whining that just won’t stop. No wonder the disciples tried to shoo them away.

Yet Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who approach God like children do. They are our role models of discipleship. We may be the hungry or sickly, or broken, or unloved. We may be abused, or cheated, or betrayed, or divorced, or married, or even committed single people. Still we receive the wholeness, the completeness, that God intends for us when we become like children. Not as adults, who strive to control our own destinies, or who rip ourselves and our partners apart, or who struggle to find some clever loophole in our relationships with each other. But as children, who have set aside our cleverness and our striving for advantage over each other. We are children who depend on God so totally and completely that we can’t help ourselves. We reach for the only relationship that completes us, a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Most of us have been to enough weddings to know that everything looks perfect on a couple’s wedding day. The groom in his tux, the bride in her gown, the flowers and music and cake – all perfect. Then we take pictures and stick them in an album and hope that that feeling will last forever. And I pray that it will be so. But perfect human love is beyond us; human relationships are far from the vision we have on our wedding day. We cannot return to the Garden of Eden.

But God’s perfect love surrounds and enfolds us. It is through God’s love that we are able to love each other – not because we deserve it, but because God’s love is more powerful than anything we can ever possibly deserve.

And that’s a loophole we can all take advantage of.

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