Everybody loves a sale, and earlier this summer a local men’s clothing store made a seemingly irresistible offer: buy one, get three free! This offer applied to everything—suits, jackets, slacks, shirts—the whole works. So being a canny shopper, I went on the Saturday of the sale in search of new clothes. For good luck (and as an arbiter of taste) I brought Kathy with me. Being the son of a woman who worked with movie and television costumes, I have a pretty good sense of what I’m looking for in clothing. But Kathy over the years has saved me from making some major mistakes.
We got to the store at around 9:30 a.m. I picked out and tried on four suits and a like number of slacks and sport coats. Each of them required tailoring, so I submitted to the tape, chalk, and pin ritual. I went to the cash register and checked out. I was a little before 10:00 a.m. The whole process took just under a half hour.
Needless to say, Kathy Hall was amazed. “How could you do that so fast?” The store manager, who had waited on us, took it in stride. “Men are always like this,” he said. “They shop much faster than women.”
Now there are all kinds of possible explanations as to why I bought all these clothes in record time. Kathy would say it is because of my short attention span. The words, “You have the patience of a gnat!” have been uttered more than once in our household. But, without confirming or denying rumors of Adult ADD syndrome, I would suggest another explanation. It’s not so much that I can’t sit still very long. It’s more that I’m uncomfortable doing anything very long that focuses attention on my body.
Somehow, when I get in a clothing store with its full-length mirrors and all those tape measures, I become enormously self-conscious. I don’t want to look at myself in a full-length mirror. I don’t want to know what my actual waist measurement is. When trying on clothes I feel like I’m back in junior high school, trying to come to terms with this awkward physical case I carry my brain around in.
When I think very long about my body, I fall into the Western Civilization trap of mind/body dualism. Beginning with the philosopher Plato, we westerners have thought of our minds as somehow separate from our bodies. We tend to think of our “selves” as our mental functions, divorced from our physical beings. The poet William Butler Yeats (a poet I’ve been reading this summer) said that to be human is to be “fastened to a dying animal” [“Sailing to Byzantium”]. Over time, we have come to think of the mind as our essence, our body as its packaging. Whenever I go to the clothing store, I turn immediately into a Platonist.
Our Bible readings for today come from a different tradition than Plato, and they offer us an alternative way to understand ourselves. The Israelites did not think of the human body and the human mind as separate things. They believed not only that mind and body are one. They believed that both of them are good.
Take, for example, our first reading today. It’s from the second chapter of the Song of Solomon, and while you may have heard it read every so often at a wedding, you’ve never heard it read on a Sunday morning in church.
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.”
[Song of Solomon 2: 8-13]
What’s going on here? If this sounds to you like an erotic love poem, that’s because it is. The Song of Solomon is a short book that describes the attraction of a young woman to a young man, and it talks about human love in expressly physical terms. The book has had a strange history in Christianity. It has been studied privately—there are many commentaries written about it over the history of Christian thought—but it has been suppressed publicly. When Christian writers have thought about it at all, they have understood it as an allegory of the soul’s relation to God: they cast the woman in the poem as the soul, the man as God. They have read it in a spiritualized, Platonic way. Jews, of course, have read the poem much more literally than we have. They haven’t been infected with mind/body dualism the way we Christians are. It’s only with the adoption of the new Revised Common Lectionary in the last few years that adult Christians have been considered grown up enough to be exposed to this explosive piece of biblical love poetry.
The first point I want to make this morning, then, is that finding the Song of Solomon in our Bibles should alert us that God wants us to understand ourselves rather differently than we have. You and I are products of a Western culture that still thinks of our minds as good and our bodies as bad. The Bible knows nothing of this division. It not only accepts our bodies. It celebrates them. God created men and women in God’s own image. God took on human flesh in Jesus. The physical love of the two people in the Song of Solomon is an image of the function of divine and human love at work in the world. As Freud knew, the love the Greeks called eros binds us to other people and the world. Love is not some gaseous, spiritual idea. It is fleshly and embodied. And it is good.
But even though the Jews were not vulnerable to mind/body dualism, they, as we do, often fell into the trap into thinking that real religion was somehow all about being “pure”. When Jesus criticized the Temple cult of his day, he was primarily attacking the purity codes that had built up over time as a false way of understanding the holy. It’s not so much that Jesus disagreed with the Jewish idea of clean and unclean. What he objected to was the way in which that distinction got applied to every aspect of life, including the classification of human beings.
In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees criticize Jesus’s disciples for eating with “defiled hands”. Remember that this interchange takes place long before our modern understanding of antisepsis and infection. The Pharisees call those hands “defiled” not because they carry viruses and bacteria. They call them “defiled” because they are ritually unclean. They may have touched the wrong kind of food or the wrong kind of person. But, like many religious rules they have expanded out of all proportion. That’s why Jesus says to them,
"Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
'This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.'
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." [Mark 7: 6-8]
And he goes on to tell them that real defilement, real uncleanness, has more to do with personal intention than it does with physical substances. In thinking of certain things as dirty and other things as clean, the Pharisees had fallen into the mind/body trap. By living as one at home in his body and the world, Jesus was calling them back to the tradition of robust physicality expressed in the Song of Solomon. God made us and the world and called them good. Heaven is not some spiritual zone in the sky someplace. Heaven is earth perfected, it is earth made new. As we say in the Nicene Creed, we believe in the resurrection of the body. I don’t know how that works, but I do know that Christian faith proclaims that in life and in death the mind and the body are one.
And there’s one more thing to be said. This is Labor Day weekend, a holiday that has come to be more about the end of summer than about a celebration of human work. But if we take all that has gone before seriously—if we agree that God made us in the divine image, that God made the world and called it good, that our bodies are as holy as our minds, that redemption is about building a new heaven and a new earth—if we take all that as given, then we cannot help but see that there is something good and holy and necessary about human work. God made the world and is always making it new. God is calling us—in Jesus, in baptism, in our own personal vocations—to help in that work of creating and blessing and redeeming the world as well.
The older I get, the fewer things I believe. But the things I do believe have become the core affirmations of my spiritual, vocational, and personal life. And one of the things I do believe very deeply is that human work—professional work, volunteer work, work done inside the home or out in the world—all human work matters. God made us fleshly embodied beings in a real world. God gave us love to bind us to each other and the world. God has given us gifts and skills and has called us to tasks that empower us to participate with God in making that new heaven and new earth God promises.
So on this Labor Day, let’s not be like Plato and the Pharisees. Let’s not confuse the relation of our spirits and our bodies. Let’s be like the man and the woman in the Song of Solomon, like Jesus with his disciples. Let’s accept ourselves for who we are and our world for what it is. Let us allow our love to bind us to each other and the world. And let us be about the work of making this real, embodied world a new and more perfect place. No matter how you feel about your body, God loves it and so should you. No matter how you feel about your work, God values it and so should you. No matter how you feel about your relationships, God uses them as a primary way to know and love you. On this Labor Day weekend, let’s join in our church’s prayer for this holiday:
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. [For Labor Day]