Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Of all of the tasks required of the Hebrew prophets, the one given Hosea was surely the most perplexing: “Go marry a prostitute who will bear illegitimate children conceived through prostitution.”
You can imagine the prophet’s response: Excuse me Lord… ummm… did I hear that right? “Go and marry a prostitute”? Never mind that what follows offers something of an explanation—“because the nation continually commits spiritual prostitution by turning away from the Lord”—you want me to marry a prostitute, and to have children with her?
Some modern biblical scholars find the whole story troubling and hopelessly patriarchal: the upright man presented as analogous to God, and the woman representing the unfaithful nation. I wonder, though, if a better way to respond to a book rich in symbol, poetry and imagination is by way of an imaginative reading of it? Yes, we should recognize the very different social and cultural context, but at the same time maybe we should try to see the people—the real flesh and blood people—who lie beneath this text.
During my years as a university student, I also worked in various jobs dealing with kids in the core area. One young guy in particular more or less adopted me as his big brother and mentor, which meant I also got to know his rather troubled family. He had an older sister named Sylvia, who at the age of 18 had just had a baby, though together with her boyfriend she was showing every sign of breaking free of the cycles of poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism that had dogged her extended family system for generations. She had landed a job, he was in a good employment training program, and that baby was well cared for and much loved.
And then for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, after about a year it all began to unravel. They started drinking, she lost her job, he was sometimes gone for days at time, and the baby ended up in the care of a more stable relative. A few months later, her younger brother told me she’d started shooting up what was called the “poor man’s heroin”—a potent mixture of the prescription drugs Talwin and Ritalin—and that she was “hookering”, as he put it. It was all sort of heart-breaking for me as a hope-filled young man, to think they’d come so close—so very close—to breaking out of the that kind of cycle of desperation.
I’d bump into her from time to time when I was picking up her younger brother, and she was always greeted me with warmth. Then one day when I was about 22, she called me right out of the blue, asking if I’d come meet her right away so we could talk. It was the middle of a hot summer day, and she was in the bar at the Mount Royal Hotel on Higgins Avenue; could I meet her there? Well, sure, I said. “If I’m not in the bar when you get here,” she said, “just sit and wait for me. I won’t be long.”
The drive over from my apartment was only about 10 minutes, yet when I arrived there was no sign of her. There were a few typical skid row characters scattered around the otherwise empty room, so I just grabbed a table in a corner and waited, all the time wondering what it was she so needed to talk about. Was she going to ask for some kind of help? Money? Advice about getting her child back? Who knew?
True to her word, it wasn’t long before she arrived in the bar. She was obviously “dressed for work”, and looking older and more tired than I’d ever seen her. Yet she greeted me with this great smile, and I caught a glimmer of the younger version of the person I’d first met. She sat down at the table, and just began to chatter about nothing in particular. A few minutes later, two other young women came through the door, and she invited them to sit with us. “This is my brother’s friend,” she said. “He’s my friend too.” And then she added, “He’s not a date.” “Date” being the euphemism these women used for the men who paid to use their bodies; not a good word at all.
Strangely, it wasn’t long before these three young women were talking about their dreams of getting off the streets and making a better life. One of them said something about a new boyfriend, which led to another talking about wanting to get married, move out to the county, and have lots of kids. They talked almost as if I wasn’t there, though from time to time one of them would defer to me for the “guy’s perspective” on these dreams.
After about half an hour, Sylvia began to get visibly anxious, and told me she had to get back to work. She thanked me for coming to meet her, and asked if maybe we could talk again sometime. “Sure,” I said, “just give me a shout.” I watched as she walked through the door to find her next trick, her next fix.
It took a while to make sense of all of this, but part of what I realized was that my just being there as a man who had no designs on her body and no hidden agenda was in itself significant. She knew I was “safe”—I was the guy who’d spent so much time supporting her younger brother, and I was also the guy who was planning on becoming a priest—and she knew that once she’d made it clear that I was not a “date” her friends would also be able to just keep company with me. Maybe all she wanted was to be reminded that she knew someone who had made a life different from hers? And this “someone” didn’t condemn her for the decisions she’d made, and maybe he even believed she could eventually break out of it all.
For me, though, the thing that was really staggering was all of these dreams of marriage, children, and home. So different from what I’d assumed. So very much like the rest of us, and yet so hard to take hold of when you’re carrying all these burdens, protecting all of these wounds. The addictions are only a part of it all, of course; often they begin as a way to numb other pains and hungers, and then they become the hunger than never lets up.
Did Hosea walk into the ancient world’s version of the Mount Royal Hotel, park himself nervously in a dark corner and sip cheap beer, waiting to see if he had the nerve to even speak to one of the women who came in? And when Gomer did come in, did he see in her eyes something that spoke of a deeper longing and bigger dreams? Just as Sylvia had smiled that great smile that hinted at something younger, more innocent, more true, did Gomer’s face betray something Hosea couldn’t help but see? And when he approached her and was right away talking marriage, did she think him mad? Maybe just attempting to con her into giving a better price? Or did she see something in his face that validated those hidden dreams of stability, home, children, love?
As the book of Hosea unfolds, it is pretty clear that this is going to be utterly unlike the Richard Gere and Julia Roberts movie, Pretty Woman. Three children are born to this marriage—three children given troubling symbolic names—yet Gomer seems unable to break free from her old life. As the first chapter ends and things roll forward into the second, the story of Hosea and Gomer becomes increasingly hard to distinguish from that of God and Israel. Our reading ended with a note of hope—“Although it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it will be said to them, ‘You are children of the living God!’”—yet that is followed by thirteen verses of pretty despairing judgment: she needs to “put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts.”
I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals,
when she offered incense to them
and decked herself with her ring and jewellery,
and went after her lovers,
and forgot me, says the Lord. (2:13)
Is that Hosea speaking of Gomer, or God of Israel? Or both? Maybe the only reason that Hosea could write like this was because he’d had his heart broken in this relationship in which he—like Gomer—had dared to trust, if only for a season.
But then comes this:
Therefore, I will now persuade her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her. (2:14)
There she shall respond as in the days of her youth,
as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. (2:15b)
I will take you for my wife for ever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord. (19-20)
It does happen for Israel, of course. They are taken into the wilderness of defeat and exile, where in time they discover that rather than having lost it all they’re actually being loved by God in a way they’d hardly imagined possible. And in time, of course, that same love would take God right to the cross for them, and for us as well.
I just hope it happened for Hosea and for Gomer, too.