Most of you know that I spent the last two weeks in Mexico. I was working in the southern part of the country, listening to people’s stories and trying to better understand the situation there. While I was there, I was thinking about this sermon, particularly about our first reading from Hosea. It’s a complicated beginning to a complicated book of the Hebrew Scriptures, written in the turbulent years before an invading army destroyed northern Israel.
I was particularly thinking about the woman in this passage, whose name is Gomer. This morning, I want to think about Gomer and her children as their lives probably really were in ancient Israel. There are other, spiritual messages to this text and other ways to talk about Hosea’s message. But sometimes I think we forget to just look at the story itself and ask ourselves some questions.
Gomer is named. Often women in the Bible are not named, but here we are given the name of an obscure woman who has obviously struggled deeply in her life.
But Gomer is also labeled. She is specifically labeled by her husband Hosea as a whore. We are not exactly sure what that means in this context. Some bible scholars believe that Gomer was a temple prostitute, that is a woman who not only made money selling her body but did so as part of ancient religious rituals. Or perhaps she was a woman who had the reputation of sleeping around before Hosea married her. When I read this passage, I wonder what her life was like. Maybe she was from a poor family and was forced into prostitution to earn a living. Maybe she had lost her way. Or maybe she was a child bride to Hosea as an older man and was in love with another man. Maybe she went off with someone else. We don’t know.
We don’t know because Gomer is silent. Like so many other women, she never tells her side of the story. Other than that, we are not really told anything about her. She is one of those women in the bible that are mentioned but never actually get to tell their side of the story. She is voiceless.
And that is not unusual, is it? Often, women don’t get to tell their side of history, their side of the story. In Mexico, I met many women who were quietly a part of their communities—mothers who missed their children who had left their community looking for work, grandmothers who were trying to build wells so that they could grow flowers to sell and have water for their children and grandchildren. It made me think about our own community and the women who have helped build it for centuries, quietly. We have all known women like this. Even this church—women started a Sunday school in this place and the women’s guild that basically ran this church. A few of these women have made it into our history book, thanks to Jim here.
But then there are women who never do, whose stories of pain are overlooked and ignored in a culture that likes to forget. I heard stories about women who had been raped while crossing borders in Mexico and never reported it and stories of women who got caught in sex trafficking rings or traded sex for a safe border crossing. There are women like this in our own communities—women caught in situations of domestic violence, women caught in cycles of addiction or violence, women who watch their children being abused and do not know what to do. These women are far too often silent and voiceless.
Many times, these women do not get to tell their own side of the story. Sometimes they are labeled as messed up, as whores, they are told they are worthless and they believe it themselves. Maybe, just maybe, this was Gomer’s story.
Gomer is also threatened with abuse. While we are not sure what Gomer has done, Hosea is deeply angry. He threatens to punish her publicly, a practice that was likely common in that culture. He says to the children; “I will destroy your mother” (4:5)
So Gomer is also a mother. She does not name her children—that is Hosea’s prerogative. But she has to watch them suffer. Hosea, in his anger, rejects the three children of Gomer. It doesn’t help that Hosea does not know if the children really belong to him and his struggle over that is on some level understandable. But, as always, the children are the ones who suffer for it. Their mother is disgraced and their father, Hosea, names them for judgment. He apparently rejects them and makes it clear that he does not think the kids belong to him. How would you like to be named Loammi—Not Mine? Or “No Mercy”?
Later in the book, Hosea cries out; I will not show my love to her children, because they are the children of adultery. The Message translates this in even more shocking language;
I'll have nothing to do with her children,
born one and all in a whorehouse.
Face it: Your mother's been a whore,
bringing bastard children into the world
What a sad way to speak to children! How lonely and rejected they must have felt!
Gomer. She is a rejected wife. A disgraced mother. A silent bible character. I felt compelled to look at this text, so full of anger and rage at a woman and her children, and ask some hard questions. Is this the attitude that God endorses toward people who either make mistakes in life or happen to be born in difficult circumstances? Before we go on, I want to take the time to think about what the implications of this message have been for women and children throughout the world. It is no secret that the Bible has been used to justify terrible things. Nothing is more shocking to me than when the Bible is used to justify abusing women and children.
I have friends who were told by their pastors that God wanted them to stay in an abusive marriage, even when they and their children were being abused. I have heard men say that women are supposed to be their servants because the Bible says so and that they can treat her however they want. I know numerous children whose spirits have been broken and lives destroyed by parents who said that they were only doing the “right thing.” In my growing up years in a more fundamentalist version of Christianity, I have seen religion used to justify all of this.
How many children cry because they feel rejected by their parents? How many women lie awake at night afraid of what the next day will bring? How many women are afraid to report abuse and watch their children suffer without knowing what to do?
Most importantly, what does our faith have to say about this? How do we respond? In our gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray. Then he sits down and explains it to them. He reminds them that God is like the Father who gives good gifts to his children, who takes care of their needs. He reminds his disciples of the importance of love and mercy. Jesus models the opposite of Hosea’s attitude—he accepts the woman who has had multiple affairs and was living with her boyfriend and promises her living water. He speaks with the woman sex worker who cries at his feet. He never labels them. He never treats them with contempt. And he tells his disciples to “let the little children come to me, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” Jesus offers a radical message of love and acceptance. He heard the cries and loneliness of the women and children whose stories were never told.
Why? Is it because Jesus knew the pain of rejection? On his travels, we catch glimpses of the fact that Jesus was believed to be illegitimate. He knew deeply and personally the pain felt by Hosea’s son who was named “Not Mine.” He knew the sorrow of Hosea’s daughter who was named “No Mercy.” His mother, Mary, was thought of and labeled as a whore. He was called the son of a whore. And through that deeply intimate experience with rejection, Jesus learned to love.
And I’m happy to say that Hosea did have a change of heart. As he thinks about God and talks about God’s love for his people in the rest of the book, he relents and God says ; "Start all over: Love your wife again… Love her the way I, God, love the Israelite people..." (Message) Then he tells his children; I will show my love to the one I called 'Not my loved one. ' I will say to those called 'Not my people,' 'You are my people';
He changes their names—“No Mercy” becomes Ruhamah, Mercy, Loved One. Not Mine becomes Ammi, My people, Mine.
It is my prayer that we see the face of Jesus in the rejected and the labeled. And may those of us who have experienced abuse find comfort in Jesus, labeled and rejected himself. Amen.