Many Christians heard a rather odd collection of biblical texts this morning (Genesis 24, Song of Solomon 2:8-15, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30). As I reflected on each of these texts to prepare to preach on them, I kept coming back to this: the world-changing power of love.
Yes, it’s a cliché, and it still matters. The following are some observations about those texts and why Christians gathering at the Eucharistic Table still matters, and why churches trying to live a life-changing gospel still matters, and why love itself matters, now more than ever.
The passage in Genesis presents the story of Rebekah drawing water from a well, a providential sign from God (as the story goes) that this woman would be Isaac’s wife. There’s something like a Hollywood-worthy moment in this story when Rebekah sees Isaac for the first time and leaps from her camel, and when Isaac sees her, and – as the storyteller says – he loved her, and she comforted him as he mourned the death of his mother, Sarah.
Rebekah eventually gives birth to twins – Jacob and Esau – and Jacob becomes the father of twelve sons, the twelve tribes of Israel. So this is not just a tender story of young romance, but a life-changing, history-shaping encounter with erotic love.
Or maybe not…there are too many sexy bits in this story, as some early Christian theologians seemed to think. As was common in the early centuries of Christian traditions, stories like this one from Genesis were read allegorically, filled with symbols of Christ and the Church.
In the third century, Origen proposed that Rebekah at first represents patience, which is honored with jewels from those who are wise. The meeting with Isaac then stands for the union of the soul with Christ. “Are you not yet moved,” Origen writes, “to understand that these words are spoken spiritually? Or do you think that it always just happens by chance that the patriarchs go to wells and obtain their marriages at waters?”
A century later, Ambrose supposed Rebekah symbolizes the soul at the font of wisdom, or perhaps Rebekah at her well of water is the church by the font of baptism, or as Isaac takes his bride to the tent, so Christ lures the wayward toward Heaven (though I’m not sure that sounds any less sexy than the story itself…).
For modern critics of Christianity, these ancient commentaries show how reluctant Christians are to deal with romantic desire, just to let sex be sex.
If some theologians didn’t read enough sex into those ancient stories, I read too much of it into Paul’s letters when I was a teenager. In his letter to the Romans, Paul laments over not being able to do what he really wants to do and doing the thing he doesn’t want to do. I read that growing up as so obviously and self-evidently about sexual desire.
I mean, of course I read it that way! That’s how pious Evangelical teenagers think, can’t help but think that way, wish desperately at times they could think of just about anything else.
Paul captures that adolescent vexation precisely: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” That was basically the first-century script for my mid-twentieth century hormone-ravaged youth group.
But Paul doesn’t say what exactly vexed him so terribly much. While I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with sex, I find it much more useful these days to read Paul in relation to the socio-economic systems in which all of us are embedded, whether we like it or not: we cannot help but contribute to global climate change, for example, just by riding around in a car or purchasing nearly any item from nearly any store; we cannot help but participate in the institutional dynamics of white supremacy in this society, a system no one alive today helped to create but from white people benefit every day just by trying to live as “good citizens.”
Stop thinking about sex when reading Paul (if you can) and think instead about the suffocating systems of injustice in which we are steeped and through which we try our best to navigate: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Even just a glimpse of those systemic issues can be paralyzing; analyzing them is discouraging; trying to dismantle them, exhausting.
“Come to me,” Jesus says in Matthew, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Many of the self-styled progressives in my seminary classroom are actually troubled by these words from Matthew’s Jesus, or at least suspicious of them. There’s too much work to do! No time for rest and we can’t possibly lay down our burdens in a world of injustice and violence with no time to spare! Or, as I actually heard an ordained minister say, “there will be plenty of time to rest when they lay me in a grave.”
So thank goodness for the Song of Solomon! Or as it is sometimes called, the Song of Songs. I am endlessly fascinated by that little book of erotic poetry tucked away in the latter half of the Hebrew Bible where most people can’t even find it. Even more, it carries with it a wonderfully peculiar history in Jewish and Christian traditions, especially among mystics (a history that shaped my book on sexual intimacy and the Eucharist).
The lectionary option to read that portion from the Song of Songs rather than a psalm kept pushing me back to erotic desire as I read the other texts, kept urging me to notice love and why it matters.
Part of what makes the history of this little biblical text so peculiar is how important the Song of Songs was to Medieval Christians and how it nearly vanished entirely among modern Christians. For centuries, the Song of Songs was the one text most often copied, the one text most often chosen for commentaries, and the one text most often selected by preachers. More Latin manuscripts of this erotic poetry exist than any other biblical book. More medieval sermons were preached on it than any other and it took its place along with the four gospels as among the most important; at times the Song of Songs was read more often than any of the gospels except John – and that’s because many thought John was early Christian commentary on the Song of Songs!
What in the world is all that about? Simply put: for our medieval ancestors, only the language of erotic desire can capture our own deep longing for God. The yearning for encounter, for intimacy, and for communion among dear friends and spouses and loved ones – what the ancient Greeks called Eros – this is the very same desire that draws us closer to God.
I certainly never heard that growing up. I would have read Paul’s letters quite differently if I had. Modern Western Christians generally have been quite skeptical about mixing the language of faith with the messy entanglements of erotic longing. Some critique this rather pointedly: Oh, don’t be ridiculous. God isn’t even mentioned once in the Song of Songs!
Yes, that’s true, respond the mystics. And that’s because God is the one speaking:
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away. …
Let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely (2:13-14).
I can scarcely imagine how the world would change if that were the divine voice people heard – not the scolder-in-chief, the wrathful judge, the distant father from whom the best we can hope is tolerance. No, but the voice of the beloved, as the song writer says, the one “leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills” eagerly coming in search of the lover – for us.
To be clear, I’m not referring to the mushy Hallmark-card version of sentimental romance. To see and know ourselves as the cause of God’s ceaseless delight will forever change the way we see others and the world around us; we become even less tolerant of injustice, even more scandalized by hateful speech, even more committed to act boldly and courageously and beyond what we thought possible for the sake of a better world.
As Matthew makes clear, the kind of “rest” promised by Jesus is not without burdens, but they are ever so much lighter when taken up with love.
The mystics actually warned us about this: If you hear that divine voice, truly hear the Beloved speak, be careful! The love of God will change you, unravel you, and remake you.
And that’s exactly what the world needs: people who are changed by love.
Come to Rebekah’s well.
Enter Isaac’s tent.
Gather at the Eucharistic Table, a foretaste (lest we forget) of the heavenly wedding banquet.
And then lay down the burdens that are not yours to carry.
Pick up the lighter one instead,
the one that matters,
the one that makes a difference,
the one borne because of love.