Sermon Seeds: Tough Questions Along the Way

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22)

Worship resources for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22) are at Worship Ways

Lectionary citations:
Job 1:1; 2:1-10 with Psalm 26
Genesis 2:18-24 with Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Mark 10:2-16
Additional reflection on Job 1:2, 2:1-10

Focus Theme:
Tough Questions along the Way

by Kathryn Matthews

Preachers may be tempted to avoid our Gospel reading this week, and choose instead to reflect with Job on why the good suffer, which may appear at first to be an easier problem than how to approach this passage about divorce. It’s hard to imagine a congregation today that doesn’t include a number of people who have come through the painful experience of divorce (as spouses who have divorced, or as their children), and the possibility of hurting them is an understandable reason to choose another text from the lectionary offerings.

However, we might explore the challenge of preaching a sermon on this Marcan text that is both pastorally sensitive and appropriately challenging to our culture’s attitudes and practices around relationships, especially (but not only) marriage. An unexpected benefit might be a deeper commitment to wrestling with, rather than avoiding, difficult passages that require more time, more thought, and perhaps more movement of our hearts. Jesus, after all, was known to ask us for all three of these: our time, our thoughts, our hearts–our whole lives.

The text before us

In any case, the focus text has been given to us, with its story of Jesus responding to another trap laid by the religious authorities. As we struggle with Jesus’ surprisingly hard words about divorce and remarriage, let’s keep in mind last week’s lectionary text from Mark 9:38-50, about cutting off our hand or foot, or tearing out our eye, if it makes us “stumble.” Undoubtedly there were preachers who happily chose the focus text from Esther last Sunday, and avoided dealing with those hard words of Jesus, too.

If that’s not enough, we have next week’s passage, which immediately follows this week’s text, about the rich man who thought he had all his “ducks in a row,” having obeyed all the laws since his youth. Instead of hearing that he had sealed the deal on eternal life, he’s told by Jesus to sell everything he owned and give the money to the poor, and come, follow him.

Shock and grief weren’t only his reaction; the disciples too were taken aback, and asked, “Then who can be saved?” (10:26). On his way to Jerusalem, to his suffering and death, Jesus speaks hard words to his followers, but he promises that “for God all things are possible” (10:27).

How are our words received?

The preaching challenge before us is not unlike that of preaching stewardship in a congregation that includes people who are struggling mightily with finances (whether anyone knows it or not), sitting right beside others who need to hear a word that will jar them out of complacency about their consumption of material things, or their dependence on money rather than God, or their lack of generosity toward those in need, or their failure to support God’s mission in the church. (It’s probably more fair to say “our” rather than “their” in that sentence.)

And this doesn’t even begin to address the question of economic injustice in our systems and institutions, a debate that rages now among North American and European Christians who would rather avoid many, many passages in the Bible that make most of us feel quite uncomfortable. Think, for example, of the reception the words of Pope Francis are receiving when he speaks about unfettered capitalism.

And yet, wouldn’t Jesus have something to say about all of these things, even while showing compassion toward his audience? Remember, we’ll hear next week that Jesus looked at the rich man “and loved him” as he encouraged him to do the very thing the man felt he could not do.

Divorce and remarriage?

The persistent preoccupation of churches with questions around sexuality and reproduction dominates our debates about morality, and yet divorce and remarriage–ironically–appear to be settled issues for most mainline (and members of many other) churches, even though Jesus seems to speak quite clearly here and in the Gospel of Matthew (19:1-12) against divorce and remarriage.

We have to acknowledge that the improved economic and social status of women in our culture may very well have contributed to a higher rate of divorce, as more women, for example, are able to leave abusive marriages and support households of their own. A growing number of religious leaders grasp the reality of harmful relationships that ought to end, and fewer women, we trust, are hearing from their pastors, “What did you do to make him hit you?”

A sad necessity

Also, while marriage is no longer as much a question of property transfer as it was in ancient times (women, of course, were part of the property), there are many important financial and other issues that require a legal agreement in order to end a marital relationship. Like our ancient ancestors in faith, we appear to have made a kind of peace with the sad necessity of divorce, and have shown compassion and understanding for those who seek to marry again.

So what do we do with all of this, as we shine the light of this Gospel text on the attitude of our culture and our church toward divorce? Can it be that the secular culture around us is somehow more compassionate than the gospel, giving victims a chance to escape unbearable situations, or those who feel that they are dying in relationships that starve their souls a chance to enter into a life-giving, grace-filled second marriage? These are thorny questions, but not ones to be avoided.

What does the Law say?

A little background is always helpful in understanding what is happening here, on the road to Jerusalem, when the crowds gather and the religious leaders try to set Jesus up with a trick question. His answer, one way or the other, will offend the faction that doesn’t agree with him. Although it seems that divorce itself was a given, there were teachers who allowed it under more conditions than others did.

We have to go back to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 to understand where the Pharisees are coming from when they ask Jesus whether it’s lawful for a man to divorce his wife. When he asks them what Moses (that is, the Law) said, they quote from Deuteronomy, and we might wonder why they even ask, if it’s right there in the Law. Or are they asking for Jesus’ interpretation of the text, which is where religious people start disagreeing, back then, just as we do today?

Scripture in conversation with Scripture

If we read the Deuteronomy text, we’re immediately struck by the marked difference between a patriarchal culture thousands of years ago and the one we live in today, where women are rarely if ever referred to as “defiled,” and it’s not acceptable for a man simply to get rid of a wife if “he finds something objectionable about her” (Deuteronomy 24:1-2). Jesus acknowledges that the Mosaic Law permitted divorce, but only because of the “hardness of heart” of the people.

However, he then puts Scripture in conversation with Scripture, holding up the ideal of God’s intention so beautifully expressed in Genesis, for two people to be faithful, lifelong companions in an intimate, committed relationship that should not be severed. As many commentators observe, the Pharisees ask about divorce and Jesus changes the subject to marriage instead. John and James Carroll write, “Jesus deflects concern from escape clauses to an embracing of the unity of partners that reflects the creative design of God” (Preaching the Hard Sayings of Jesus).

The conversation continues

That’s the public part of the conversation. Later, in private, “in the house,” that is, when it’s just Jesus and his followers, he expands on the Law, calling remarriage “adultery.” We know that “in the house” is the way Mark records the conversation that was going on in the early church.

That observation is confirmed here when Mark has Jesus speaking of something that wasn’t practiced in ancient Judaism, a wife divorcing her husband. Mark’s church is wrestling with the Greco-Roman culture around them which allowed such things, and that debate is reflected in the way they “record” Jesus’ private conversation.

Bible study will help us here

A Bible study may be a better setting than a sermon for discussion of the many interesting approaches to this text, and the small but important points that might adjust our perspective. For example, Lamar Williamson, Jr. notes that the words “against her” in the text suggest that these were personal rather than legal matters: “Jesus,” he writes, “does not legislate by saying ‘No remarriage,’ but he recognizes what divorce and remarriage do to the residual relationship with a former partner” (Mark, Interpretation).

Williamson focuses with keen insight on the bonds that can persist between two people who have been one and then separate. In a society like ours that permits divorce and remarriage, we might acknowledge that these bonds are not always easily or completely broken, despite all the legal agreements we might create. Other scholars point out that Paul himself re-stated the prohibition against divorce, but added a dispensation that endures in some churches to this day.

Jesus as law-giver?

Jesus is asked a legal question, a technical, down-to-earth question about everyday, lived reality, and he answers with an ideal that is, it seems, almost impossible to achieve, at least by everyone. As we have said, Jesus has been known to speak this way before, and he will again.

John and James Carroll, however, wonder if it’s appropriate to see Jesus as laying such a heavy burden on his followers, for would Jesus “insist that a man who remarries after divorce be put to death, as the law prescribes for adultery (Lev 20:10)?” Or could this be Jesus once again exaggerating in order “to challenge beliefs and practices which we take for granted? A hard saying to be taken seriously, but not to be pressed literally”? (Preaching the Hard Sayings of Jesus).

What would Jesus intend?

In our hearts, we sense that Jesus was not about ordering people to be put to death because they had disobeyed the Law, even if the Law seems to call for it. What is the lesson here? What do we hear in this passage?

At first, it might sound too easy just to say that Jesus was holding up the ideal of marriage in response to the Pharisees’ preoccupation with divorce. But isn’t that exactly what needs to happen in our own time: don’t we need strong voices that lift up the ideal, the intention of God from the very beginning, of two people joined together for life, faithfully loving each other?

From technicalities to the heart of the matter

Yes, it didn’t take long (in Genesis itself) for things to change, and for men (revered patriarchs included) to start collecting multiple wives, with no word of judgment from the Scripture. And yes, divorce came along, too, because of “hardness of heart,” a mysterious phrase that surely bears further reflection. As in every subject he addressed, Jesus wrenches our attention, our focus, from the technicalities to the heart of the matter.

There are ways for us in the church to focus more energy on the ideal of lasting, faithful, loving unions that are a sign of God’s love in the world. We could strengthen our support systems for married couples and our marriage preparation programs, and perhaps even consider a measure of holy hesitation before marrying every couple that asks. In some cases, it might require an extraordinary degree of courage on the part of a pastor to decline to marry a couple he or she knows is not ready for marriage.

Are we even spending time in the church wrestling with how quickly pastors agree to preside at weddings that perhaps should never occur? Or are we spending too much time thinking about other ways to “defend” marriage, especially in the political/secular arena?

Marriage as sacramental encounter with God

Isn’t it possible for pastors, in the pulpit but also in other settings of the life of the congregation, to speak about marriage in encouraging and hopeful ways that also affirm those who have had to leave a marriage in order to seek wholeness and healing? And if salvation is about healing and wholeness, then the possibility of remarriage seems not only a matter of compassion but a question of justice. James J. Thompson suggests that it’s a matter of “whether the human was created for marriage, or marriage for the human?” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4).

Richard Swanson has also written evocatively of marriage: “This basic ritual of intimacy and support is figured as a field on which we encounter God….at the heart of human life,” not “on the edges of existence, in retreat from ordinary life” so much as “in the midst of the ordinary rituals of daily life” (Provoking the Gospel of Mark).

In this sense, then, marriage is sacramental, a means of God’s grace in our lives. Of all people, then, faithful followers of Jesus should take marriage seriously, and should hesitate before denying anyone this means of encountering God.

Speaking of grace…

The second part of the passage may seem at first disconnected from the first, when Jesus once again uses children as an illustration of how to receive the reign of God. We remember that only a few verses earlier Jesus urged his disciples to become the servant of all, and to receive even little children, who had no standing in the world, as they would receive him (9:36-37).

In this week’s story, we picture parents bringing their children for a blessing; children may not have had status or power in that culture, but these parents obviously loved their own. Maybe the scene was chaotic, or maybe the disciples were in a bad mood after the divorce discussion. They “spoke sternly” to the parents, and/or the children, probably figuring that Jesus had more important business to tend.

That’s the moment that Jesus chooses to enlighten them once more; like us, they seem to need that a lot. Douglas Hare contrasts the innocent openness of the little children with the striving of the adult disciples and religious leaders: the “lowly” children receive God’s reign as the unearned, “pure gift” of God’s grace, while grown-ups need to “submit themselves humbly to God’s sovereign grace” (Mark, Westminster Bible Commentary).

The bigger question of how we read the Bible

There is a little book of speeches by several great Bible scholars, Struggling with Scripture, that is very helpful in approaching difficult texts such as these. In his introduction, William Sloane Coffin reassures us as we struggle with these texts, for “wrestling with Scripture, far from a sign of weakness, is a reflection of religious faithfulness. What else should you wrestle with if not the Bible? What struggle offers more reward?”

Walter Brueggemann describes the Bible as “essentially an open, artistic, imaginative narrative that will feed and nurture into obedience, that builds community precisely by respect for the liberty of the Christian man or woman….What this script does is to insist that the world is not without God, not without the holy gift of life rooted in love” (Struggling with Scripture).

Setting limits on the grace of God

William Placher claims that “practices that drive away rather than welcome, that set strict limits to the grace of God rather than marvel at its superabundance–such practices are not in accord with the practices of Jesus” (Struggling with Scripture).

Finally, Brian K. Blount offers an exquisitely beautiful reflection on how we listen for guidance from the Stillspeaking God, and it deserves to be read in its entirety. He challenges the church today in a way that might shock many contemporary Christians, when he says that, instead of conforming to a past culture, we should “speak to it! Speak from it, yes, but also speak to it in a way that values human living now, before God, just as human living before God was valued in the first century.”

Like slaves in the 19th century American South, and women, and the poor in Latin America, those who turn to the Bible in hope find that the Word of God liberates rather than oppresses. Blount writes that a literalist “perspective on the biblical words does a disservice to the power of the living Word to confront, challenge, and liberate us in the places where God’s Holy Spirit of Christ meets us today.…This is how the first Christians did faith, aggressively using it to interpret, not just recite their traditions. The Spirit was alive, and the Word of God was on the move” (Struggling with Scripture).

How do you sense the Word of God on the move in this world, today?


The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 19th century
“Love children especially, for they too are sinless like the angels; they live to soften and purify our hearts and, as it were, to guide us.”

Robert Anderson, 19th century
“In every marriage more than a week old, there are grounds for divorce. The trick is to find and continue to find grounds for marriage.”

Karl Menninger, 20th century
“Love cures people–both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.”

Lily Tomlin, 21st century
“If love is the answer, could you rephrase the question?”

Joseph Campbell, 20th century
“When people get married because they think it’s a long-time love affair, they’ll be divorced very soon, because all love affairs end in disappointment. But marriage is a recognition of a spiritual identity.”

Oscar Wilde, 19th century
“The world has grown suspicious of anything that looks like a happily married life.”

Audrey Hepburn, 20th century
“If I get married, I want to be very married.”

Eugene H. Peterson, Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, 21st century
“I had escaped the snare of certitude that I welcomed so avidly at first and entered, via the name of Jesus, the wide and comprehensive company of Jesus.”

Additional reflection on Job 1:1; 2:1-10:

This is barely the beginning of the story, this passage from the Book of Job. Most of us have some familiarity with Job and his story, the Bible’s exquisitely poetic reflection on the question of suffering, especially undeserved suffering. Back in the day, as some folks say, there were those (in Deuteronomic theology) who said that obedience and faithfulness to God’s precepts, keeping the covenant, would bring prosperity, health, and safety. Disobedience would bring a curse (Ronald J. Allen, New Proclamation Year B 2006).

Most of us, then and now, can do the math: when disaster strikes, there must be a good reason, specifically someone’s guilt. Consider the claims of TV evangelists who blame tsunamis or Hurricane Katrina on various sins and sinners; their attempts to explain such massive suffering mirrors in some ways the words of Job’s friends who are clumsily interpreting the religious tradition in order to make some sense of Job’s sudden calamity. (It’s usually easier to ponder the cause of other people’s misfortune rather than our own.)

Setting the stage for a very old story and a very old question

Eugene Peterson has written a wonderful reflection to introduce the Book of Job in The Message. This introductory passage sets the stage but also hints, in a way, at the ending, for Job’s response to his wife’s urgings to curse God and die (let’s remember that this woman has lost not just everything but all her children, too) is a question: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2:10).

Job, sitting in the ash heap, separated from his community and cleanliness; Job, unclean and surrounded by loss; Job, whose name has come to mean patience in suffering, speaks almost philosophically of the mystery of life, which holds countless, undeserved blessings as well as immeasurable, indescribable loss. In all these circumstances, Job suggests as he scrapes his diseased skin with a piece of broken pottery, God is in charge of everything.

And that is one reason this book moves us so. Beyond the cases pressed by Job’s friends or the despair of his wife is the stubborn insistence of Job to press his case to God. Isn’t that, in a way, a statement of faith, that God is in charge, and wouldn’t do things that aren’t just? It’s also a claim that God would care enough to hear a plea.

Praising God in every circumstance

It reminds us of stories about Jewish suffering where, in the face of death, the survivors recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. The reader might think this prayer is sorrowful and focused on death, but it is instead a beautiful song of praise, magnifying God and expressing the hope we share of God’s reign coming in fullness on this earth, even if we don’t have answers in the short term. A very different way to respond to death and loss than blaming and speculating on causes, indeed.

Perhaps many of our strivings today, along with our avoidance of the larger questions of life by distracting ourselves with entertainment and noise, are ways to find security and protection from suffering. We don’t want to think about it (did Job think about it when he was healthy, prosperous, and surrounded by his children?), and we hope, deep down, that our self-help programs, our insurance policies, and our safety procedures will somehow protect us.

We hope we won’t get caught off-guard, unprepared, or ill-equipped to handle what comes at us in life. We might even hope that the earplugs in our ears will insulate us from hearing about the suffering of others, or having to deal with the questions that suffering prompts. All the talk shows in the world can’t provide the answers, though, and we find ourselves, like Job, standing, or sitting in the ashes, humbled, and silent with wonder.

For further reflection:

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 19th century
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but–I hope–into a better shape.”

Kahlil Gibran, 20th century
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”

John Keats, Letters of John Keats, 19th century
“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, 20th century
“Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.”

Yann Martel, Life of Pi, 21st century
“When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, 19th century
“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.”

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 20th century
“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”

Lectionary texts

Job 1:1; 2:1-10

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before God, and Satan also came among them to present himself before God. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered God, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” God said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered God, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” God said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of God, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Psalm 26

Vindicate me,
   O God,
for I have walked
   in my integrity,
and I have trusted in God
   without wavering.

Prove me,
   O God,
and try me;
   test my heart and mind.

For your steadfast love
   is before my eyes,
and I walk in faithfulness
   to you.

I do not sit
   with the worthless,
nor do I consort
   with hypocrites;

I hate the company
   of evildoers,
and will not sit
   with the wicked.

I wash my hands
   in innocence,
and go around your altar,
   O God,

singing aloud a song
   of thanksgiving,
and telling all
   your wondrous deeds.

O God, I love the house
   in which you dwell,
and the place
   where your glory abides.

Do not sweep me away
   with sinners,
nor my life
   with the bloodthirsty,

those in whose hands
   are evil devices,
and whose right hands
   are full of bribes.

But as for me,
   I walk in my integrity;
redeem me,
   and be gracious to me.

My foot stands
   on level ground;
in the great congregation
   I will bless God.


Genesis 2:18-24

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.”

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Psalm 8

O God,
   our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name
   in all the earth!
You have set your glory
   above the heavens.

Out of the mouths
   of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark
   because of your foes,
to silence the enemy
   and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens,
   the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars
   that you have established;
what are human beings
   that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them
   a little lower than God,
and crowned them
   with glory and honor.

You have given them
over the works
   of your hands;
you have put all things
   under their feet,

all sheep and oxen,
   and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air,
   and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths
   of the seas.

O God,
   our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name
   in all the earth!

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or mortals, that you care for them?
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honor,
subjecting all things under their feet.”

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,
“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

Mark 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday”–not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!