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Family Values

A Homily from Hosea 1:2-10

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

July 25, 2004 (17th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

It’s about time someone got into this pulpit and preached on family values. The news has been saturated lately with Christian leaders proclaiming the need for us to return to “biblical” values and “biblical” marriage. They want the government to protect the “biblical” definition of the family.

What better place to start than the Bible? Conveniently, in our readings today we not only have a marriage text, but a text where God orders someone to get married, and even tells him what kind of spouse to choose. To use the language from our NRSV, God says, “Hosea, go and find a wife of whoredom.”

Although there are several ways to nuance the Hebrew word there, none of them would be considered favorable. Based on the context and the chapters that follow, it appears that the best interpretation of “wife of whoredom” here is that God tells Hosea to go and find a wife that he is absolutely certain will find other sexual partners after they are married. So much for traditional family values.

Why would God say such a thing? The text clarifies that for us as well, but even that clarification carries some theological problems of its own. God tells Hosea, “for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.” Hosea’s marriage, therefore, is intended to be a living, visual metaphor for God’s relationship to the chosen people of God.

Before we can explore the significance of that metaphor, there are several cultural and interpretive hurdles that we have to face. The first is what it meant to have a promiscuous wife in Israel 800 years before the arrival of Jesus. Despite the claims of the so-called “family” values movement, “biblical” marriages of that era were not the equal partnerships that we strive for today.

A strong double-standard existed, particularly in the area of sexuality. Men could visit prostitutes without being dishonored. The women who were the prostitutes, however, were figures of scorn. A man could acquire many wives, but each of those wives was subject to the absolute authority of her one husband. For men, infidelity in many circumstances could be an act of conquest, acquisition, and power. A woman who took a lover, however, became an object of derision. Her husband could publicly humiliate and abuse her.

We don’t think about marriage that way any more. This church, in particular, has taken strong stands on equality and inclusiveness. We look with horror on any system that so subjugated women, particularly in the ways that it encouraged psychological and physical abuse. While preserving the uniqueness of the marriage covenant, we do not buy into the stereotype of the “fallen woman.”

So how are we to take it when God says to us, “I am like a husband who has married a slut.” – and says it with all of the shameful, patriarchal, possessive undertones which that statement implies? How are we to take it when, in the next chapter, Hosea speaks of publicly stripping his wife naked – the wife who represents us and all of God’s people – and sending her out to be brutalized by the elements?

Well, the short answer is that we’re not meant to take it very well. There isn’t an interpretation of this text that is complimentary towards us as followers of God. On the other hand, the Bible shouldn’t be an instrument of psychological torture. We can learn what Hosea wants to teach us about ourselves and the nature of God without pretending that God endorses abusive marriages; or believing that God has a double standard for men and women, or buying into stereotypical gender roles.

Just to make that clear, let me make a list of the lessons we should not learn from this text. The focus of the text is not teaching us about marriage. This text is not an excuse to subjugate women, or to ridicule female sexuality. This text is absolutely not an excuse for spousal abuse, or an endorsement of violent chastisement of any kind. Finally, this text is not about assigning a gender identity to God. The fact that God is a husband in this metaphor does not mean that God is male; just as Jesus is neither a door nor a vine despite using those metaphors elsewhere in Scripture.

What this text does teach us, vividly, is how God sees us. We are the girl that God always wanted to invite to the prom; and God secretly stared at her across the room every day in Algebra class. We are the man that knelt down before God one day at their favorite restaurant, and pulled a ring out of his vest pocket. We are the woman who held God’s hand, walking beside the ocean on a honeymoon. We are the man who, simply by entering the room and smiling, causes God’s face to light up like the sun.

These are almost shockingly intimate images of God; but that is exactly the purpose of this text. Even though we often relegate God to abstract philosophy; God views us in much more personal terms. There is no relationship more beautiful or more close than that of two lovers who have dedicated their lives to each other; and that is the relationship that God has with us.

Please note that it is not the relationship that God wants with us, but the relationship God has with us. However we choose to respond, when we talk about God’s love for us it is not a theoretical sentiment like when a politician or a pageant contestant says that they “love America.” God loves us with the kind of heart-wrenching, time-stopping passion that causes teenagers to forget their own names. God loves us with the kind of unshakeable faithfulness that turns a honeymoon into a golden wedding anniversary (and that convinces my wife to keep proofreading my sermons after all these years).

Whether or not we’ve experienced that kind of love from a fellow human being; Hosea reminds us that God loves us in just that way.

Of course, Hosea isn’t reminding us to make us feel good. If Hosea models the love of God, Gomer – his wife – models our response. Hosea marries someone who is incapable of returning his love. Time and again, Hosea’s lover violates the trust and intimacy of their marriage.

Hosea’s marriage took place in a vastly different culture with very different understandings of sex, marriage, and love; but I don’t think that we need to recreate that context to appreciate the significance of that infidelity. Living in a time when a man’s honor could be tarnished by his inability to control his wife; Hosea was deeply wounded by Gomer’s unfaithfulness.

For different reasons, that kind of pain still resonates with us today. As humans, we are wired to translate our thoughts into our actions; and how we touch each other is a language we use to express the words of our hearts. Physical infidelity is more than just an act of reckless abandon; it represents a fracturing of a trust, a lack of commitment, an unwillingness to sacrifice, and a cheapening of a unique and precious bond.

As humans, that’s how we treat our relationship with God all the time. We know the things we should do. We know that we should set aside time simply to pray. We know that we should set aside time to meditate on the scriptures. We know that we should set aside time to celebrate the love of God. We know that we should seek sharing over selfishness.

We know all of these things, and still we choose what is easy or feels good or is “practical”. We know that our time is limited, but we spend it as if we have forever. I am no less guilty of that than anyone else.

Somehow, though, I think it’s easier for me to let myself off the hook when I think of God as some distant bureaucracy, like the government. We all know the government tells us not to speed, but – when there don’t seem to be any immediate consequences – it’s hard to resist putting the pedal down at least a bit.

Hosea reminds us that God is not sitting behind a desk absently skimming reports of our faithlessness. God is standing in the door at 3 a.m. with bleary eyes looking at the lipstick on our collar.

That’s a heavy metaphor, and one that can’t help being uncomfortable for those of us who have experienced infidelity – on either side of that door. But God, through Hosea – is not pulling any punches with this text. If thinking along these lines makes you uncomfortable, please know that I share that discomfort. I hope you’ll ride it out with me until the end.

But we still have some rough ground to cover before we get there. As if Hosea’s marriage wasn’t a strong enough message for us; God also sends a message with the names of Hosea’s children.

The first – a boy – is named Jezreel. Jezreel was the sight of a terrible massacre, and the child’s name is a reminder that God remembers the violence of Israel’s king, Jehu. One commentator [Limburg] points out that the name would have struck Hosea’s listeners the way naming a child “Auschwitz” or “Hiroshima” would strike us. His name is a glaring reminder of humanity’s ability to be appallingly cruel.

The second child – a girl – carries an even more ominous name. She is called “Lo-ruhamah” – “not pitied.” A person who has been unfaithful to anyone – a friend, a co-worker, a lover – has no right to expect the treatment they once enjoyed. God says to the children of Israel, to God’s own beloved, “I will pity and protect you no longer.”

The third child – a boy – confirms that. He is named “Lo-ammi” – “not my people.” The covenant that has defined God’s people since their Exodus from slavery is over. It has no meaning if we humans cannot keep our end of the bargain.
Through Hosea, God speaks as a wronged lover, and God warns us that the consequences of our infidelities and weaknesses are great. As much fun as it might be to watch that kind of dialogue on a soap opera or in a movie, we tend to protect ourselves from such raw, passionate, righteous anger in our theological lives. Yet the words practically launch themselves off the page. However far above our petty emotions the full divinity of our Creator may be, the prophets of God remind us that our pettiness and weakness can wound and even anger God.

Harsh words indeed, but thankfully not the end of God’s message to Hosea. You see, as much guilt as the text can heap on us – and that’s quite a bit – it’s not really about us. It’s about God, and God forgives.

God says, “But…In the place where it was said ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said [you are] ‘Children of the living God.” That sounds almost schizophrenic – unless you’ve loved someone who has hurt you. I think that it is generally dangerous to project our frail emotions onto God; but our ancestors in the faith clearly understood God in a very personal, emotional way; and I don’t want to edit the power of this text. God reacts like a betrayed lover, both in anger and in mercy.

Just as there can be painful consequences for unfaithfulness, there are also consequences of being loved; and one of those consequences is forgiveness. The mercy of God is meaningless if we’re just trying to make ourselves feel better for things that we don’t really think matter. Hurting someone who loves us deeply, however, matters; and Hosea reminds us that no matter how deeply we hurt God; God is waiting to forgive us and give us another chance.

I already said that there is plenty of guilt in this text to go around; and it is unwise of us to assume that we’ll make the best of that second chance. We probably won’t, and I don’t think God expects us to. Remember, God told the prophet to marry someone incapable of fidelity. That’s humans for you.

I don’t mean to be flippant about that. One of the messages of this text is clearly that our mistakes matter – far more than we generally let ourselves admit. That’s why Christianity isn’t a generic spirituality movement, or interchangeable with all of the other world’s religions. Our actions don’t just matter because they mess up our karma or mis-align our chakras. They matter because our loving Creator sees them as a betrayal.

But just as the text pulls no punches in that regard, it’s honest about who we are; so don’t leave here carrying buckets-full of angst and self-criticism. God made us this way and expects no more from us.

Instead, leave here knowing that there’s someone who wants to carry those buckets for us, someone who sees how they can break us down; and agonizes to see our pain. That someone, our Creator loves us, and will never – for any reason – leave our side. Those are real family values.