The EFM class at my parish has a running joke about this passage. It’s one of those readings that makes parents silently wish that they had NOT taken their children to get a nice dose of religion this morning. And it’s one of those that makes me squirm when I read it, because the patriarchy is particularly strong with most readings of the text.
But this time, I read it and thought “This sounds like a job for Dr. Wil Gafney–she must have written on this.” And lo, it was so. Her sermon on Gomer is a big influence on what I said, and if you haven’t read it, you should.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
July 28, 2019
Ordinary Time, Proper 12
Hosea and Luke
At my last parish, we had a fervent lay reader with an extremely thick Mississippi accent. And on the day that this OT lesson was assigned, she had volunteered to sub for the assigned reader, and I thought it best to give her a heads-up, lest she be taken by surprise by the contents of what she was about to read. No worries, she assured me—these were her favorites!
And sure enough, she imbued the reading with enough enthusiasm and emphasis as to make one think that Foghorn Leghorn had found religion, and also to provoke many awkward questions in Sunday School.
So, in the interests of forestalling whatever awkward questions you might face later, let’s discuss old Hosea.
WHAT. ON. EARTH.
Let’s start with some context, because there’s a LOT going on here. Hosea, so far as well can tell, is one of the 8th century BCE prophets, (there were a whole group of them.) He, in particular, was preaching in the Northern Kingdom, after Elijah and Elisha had sauntered off to glory, and the united Kingdom had split.
Israel (up north, recall), was on the verge of being conquered by the Assyrian Empire. It’s looking bad. Hosea, personally, is concerned that the leaders of the kingdom are not faithfully adhering to God’s law and ways of justice, which will lead to the collapse of the kingdom. As per usual, the Israelites had wandered off again from worshipping God alone, and had started setting up shrines to other gods, and getting away with the low-level idolatry that other people did—the same sorts of things that everyone back to the time of Abraham had been concerned about.
So, this is where we pick up.
Now: the metaphor of marital infidelity being used for religious infidelity was extremely common. It is found all through the prophets and the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Because Judaism understood God to have created a legal covenant with Israel, the nearest analogy for people to grasp was generally a marriage covenant—also legal, also a contract, also (in those times) an unequal balance of power.
Hence, the descriptors of Israel being the unfaithful woman, and God being the cheated on spouse with the sole discretion to divorce her would have made sense.
Also, one of the ways prophets sometimes made their point was by engaging in symbolic acts. Ezekiel, later on, will do the same thing. He wanders about wearing dirty clothes, and eating bread cooked over a fire made of human dung. (Which, he argues down to cow dung, because ew.) Hosea, though, goes to a new level in roping other people into this. We are not told what, exactly Gomer and the kids thought of this extended modern art performance, (a point we will return to) but I can’t think they were thrilled.
Anyone will tell you, if you show up at school with a name like “Not My People” or “Unloved”, the kids are going to pick on you. Also, your priest is going to have a tough conversation with you about working out your issues on your kids.
Nevertheless, Hosea proceeds. He marries Gomer, and has three children, all with increasingly dire sounding names. And we are told, prophetically, that this is to symbolize the breakdown of God’s relationship with Israel.
And that may be hard to square with the God that Jesus is on about in the gospel. The God that runs to open the door at 3am when we pound on it, asking for something again. The God that never hesitates to listen when we pray. That God.
Where is THAT GOD in the world of Hosea? Because Hosea’s God just seems to have some really harsh words to say about women, and some really odd ideas about how to get a point across.
Dr. WIl Gafney, Episcopal priest, biblical scholar, and general genius human, argues that part of the issue in reading this text is a problem of translation. Gomer, she points out, is described as (just) promiscuous, which is a different Hebrew word than prostitute—we know because Israel is described that way. Gomer herself is never called that. Gomer, she points out, is described merely as proliferate prior to her marriage—abundant with love, and she points out that even the daughter named Unloved is unique in that we are told Gomer nurses her. Her, the daughter named Unloved.
Here, Dr. Gafney argues, is where we find the reflection of God. In the actions of Gomer, who loves fervently and without boundaries. In the love of a mother who loves even the children that others call worthless. In the dedication to each other of two partners, despite some questionable choices. That widespread, unstinting love of God that is so prodigal that it becomes scandalous. That love that dares to love the people of Israel, even when they consistently make horrible choices.
It is that love that Jesus describes when he teaches his disciples to pray, when he reassures them and us that God loves us enough to hear whatever we want to say. That God loves us enough to want us to love the other people that God loves. That God loves us enough to want other people to love and care for us too.
It’s an odd thing, but I’ve found that we need frequent reminders that God loves us. And not just in a vast, theological-clockmaker of the universe-way, but that God actually loves us and likes us. When we live in a world that is filled with stingy neighbors, who don’t want to open their doors to each other, it can be hard to remember that there exists a God that pours that unbounded love into all of us, and yet, it is so. Our job, is to reflect that sort of Gomer-ish love in the world so that it becomes easier to remember. Easier to believe in. To love one another so much and so well that it becomes easier to remember just how much and how well God loves us too.