The Scriptures and Sex: More Questions than Answers
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Today’s readings offer an extended meditation on the relationship between following the Law and following Jesus, who clearly values the Law but also notes that it should lead us to, not exempt us from, heartfelt conversion. While Moses sees the Law as evidence of God’s closeness to the people of Israel, the Psalm and James note that following the Law means living justly toward our brothers and sisters. Jesus goes even further asserting that good deeds are necessary but insufficient. Our following of the Law and our good works must flow from and lead to loving hearts. How does this ethic apply to our sexuality? The Scriptures do not say, but if we share from the depths of our hearts the divine love we have received, we know that our answers cannot be too far off!
August 29, 2021: the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
Psalm 15: 2-3, 3-4, 4-5
James 1:17-18, 21b -22, 27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
A reflection by John Falcone
Jesus said to the Pharisees and the crowd: “Listen to me, all of you, and try to understand. Nothing that enters us from the outside makes us impure; it is what comes out of us that makes us impure. … murder, promiscuity, theft, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, obscenity, envy, slander, foolishness, pride. All these evils come from within.” (Mk 7: 14-15, 21-23)
What’s at stake here for LGBTQ and allied Christians today?
What is Jesus saying about sexual freedom and sexual rules?
This week’s readings are about freedom and rules. When I was an inner-city high school religion teacher, I assigned large sections of the Hebrew Bible to my 14-year-old freshman students. We covered these Scriptures thematically. Genesis 1-11 was “origin stories.” The origin of the universe; of adulthood (Adam and Eve leave the Garden to face real life); of sin (the story where Cain murders Able is the first place in Scripture where the word “sin” appears); the origin of genocide and of second chances (Noah and the Flood); and so on. We used Genesis 12-50 to study “family dynamics.” Abraham and his wife Sarah – and his other wife Hagar, trickster sons, feuding brothers, broken families. Skipping ahead, with Joshua through 2 Kings, we covered “politics:” war, taxes, national identity, ethnic cleansing, people on the margins, and life in the diaspora. And we used Exodus through Deuteronomy to address “freedom and rules.”
Exodus and the tablets at Sinai are closely connected: the experience of liberation from bondage in Egypt (Hebrew Lives Matter); and the Torah (literally, “the instructions”), the Law which would keep people free. Surprisingly (or, perhaps, not surprisingly), my students agreed that rules are indeed necessary if we want to stay free. My high schoolers embraced the idea of rules, boundaries, and limits as guidelines that reduce needless anxiety, guidelines that remind us how we ought to treat others. But the Torah is also the law of a nation; freedom and rules are always bound up in group politics; the rules of Exodus-through-Deuteronomy bleed into the political identities that play out in Joshua-through-2-Kings. While ethical rules may keep us on the straight and narrow, is group identity also necessary if we want to stay free?
On this topic, my students’ opinions were split. Many of them treasured their ethnic and racial identities both as a valuable heritage, and as crucial resource in the struggle for pride and self-respect. Others noted the very real dangers of conflict and division that can emerge from different ethnic and cultural identities – Black vs. White, Mexican vs. Dominican, and so on.
This week’s readings focus on the rules that are found in the Scriptures, and on how they can – or cannot – bring us closer with God. In Deuteronomy (Moses’ farewell speech to Israel), Moses seems to equate closeness with God to following the Torah. Psalm 15 and the Letter of James underline how right words and right theology may be somewhat important, but right action is most important of all. In our Gospel reading, Jesus addresses this same dynamic in a confrontation with the Pharisees, who were experts in theories of Torah implementation. The Pharisees argued that holiness did not belong solely to priests but could be achieved by anyone who followed the Torah. Most modern scholars agree that Jesus’s point of view was close to that of the Pharisees. In this passage, Jesus does not condemn the Pharisees for following Jewish tradition; he condemns them for raising tradition above correct action itself: “You disregard God’s commandments and cling to human traditions!” (Mk 7:8) Jesus does not discount group identity (following the Law); he places right action (and right attitude) above it.
Fr. L. William Countryman, a biblical scholar and Episcopal priest, explores the implications of Jesus’ message for sexual morality today. His book Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and their Implications for Today (1988; revised 2007) challenges readers to take the Bible (“God’s commandments”) seriously while recognizing the importance of rules and identities as “human traditions.” Here are two key conclusions that Countryman draws (p. 241):
(1) “Membership in the Christian community” must in no way be limited by rules about sexual purity. “Individual Christians may continue to observe the purity code of their culture, but they may not demand that other Christians do so.”
(2) “Christians must respect the ‘sexual property’ of others.” By sexual property, Countryman means how each culture understands and expresses sexuality. In the Hebrew Bible, a person’s sexuality “belonged” to their family: thus, marriages were arranged so that families and clans could survive. In Greco-Roman times, one’s sexuality “belonged” to the Empire: thus, citizens owed it to the government to procreate. This is what made early Christian virgins so counter-cultural; they insisted that their sexuality belonged to their God. Today more and more, we understand sexuality as belonging to the individual; thus, consent and fulfillment are our guiding moral lights.
So Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees is neither anti-Jewish nor anti-Torah. It is an argument about purity codes (one can take them or leave them) and about theft (it can never be permitted).
Applied to our sexuality, this leads to real-life questions: Which purity codes in the Scriptures might I want to keep or discard? How can I continue to live in right relationship with others, whatever choices I make in that regard? What is more, how can we live together with other believers whose sexual purity codes differ from ours?
What could it mean to “steal” or misuse someone else’s sexuality? What could it mean to disrespect or misuse our own? What could it mean to be greedy of it? To slander it? To treat it “obscenely” or subject it to “deceit”?
Neither Countryman nor Jesus provides direct answers to these questions about sexual freedom and sexual rules. As a Dignity community of LGBTQ+ Christians and allies, we are called to discern them together, with God’s own Spirit to guide us. In this, we have Moses’ reassurance: what other people “has a god so near to it as our God is to us when we call?” (Dt 4:7)
John P. Falcone is a practical theologian, religious educator, and a practitioner of Theatre of the Oppressed (PhD Boston College). He has been a Dignity member for more than 20 years with close links to Dignity NY, where he met his husband Matias Wibowo in 2005. He is currently Theologian-in-Residence at St. Matthew’s Bethnal Green (Church of England) in London’s East End.