"No one Signs Up to be Hosea"

Hosea 1 and Colossians 2

The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

July 25, 2004


"Go and take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord." Right or wrong, my gut response to the prophetic work of Hosea is: who would want to be him? I mean . . . you have to pause for just a moment, and this is just the opening line. It’s fair to say, no one signs up to be Hosea. Most pastors I know project their life and call into a biblical character. I have met a number of Abrahams, Pauls, Peters. I tend to identify with Jacob. Yet I have never heard someone say, "Hosea. I see myself in Hosea." This is not what I would call a first option, a cushy position. Whenever "whoredom" is used three times in a sentence you can be sure things are not going well.

"Go and take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord." No one signs up to be Hosea. When I think of Hosea I remember the Far Side cartoon where the deer has a bull’s eye pattern on its rear end. The deer next to him says, "bummer of a birthmark, Hal." Being associated with a Far Side cartoon is not a good thing.

Hosea doesn’t fair much better in scholarship either. Through the centuries he has been cast as a kind of social-sexual martyr, enduring his wayward wife, Gomer. In light of feminist scholarship in the last few decades, Hosea has been recast as a kind of obsessed television evangelist pursuing the call girl with all sense of abandon and recklessness. I have to say neither the puritanical pastor taking one for the team nor the puritanical hypocrite lost in some sort of Freudian quest to overcome his repression appeals to me. Not only are they unappealing in terms of someone I would care to know, they are also unappealing in terms of interpretation. Each one is just too easy.

Some recent scholarship has gone past the easy categories that paint Hosea. Based upon some good archeological and historical digging Hosea seems to be emerging as part of a reform movement, a kind of Puritanism, or we could put this in today’s language, an evangelical conservative trying to restore the worship life of Israel. In the later chapters Hosea uses metaphors and makes claims that put him in a pretty clear category. And we know about categories today.

Gomer is a bit more nuanced. Her role is made dicey by the notion of prostitution, yet in fact, we can find great evidence in Hosea’s descriptions of her that Gomer was a kind of icon, or metaphor, or symbol of earthy, messy, sexual, unbridled faith. Where Hosea was a kind of pure, elite, removed image, Gomer was the opposite. She was the liberal to his conservative; she was the real to his ideal and so on. The temptation of interpretation has been to choose a side with these extremes. For centuries Hosea was chosen as a model of the suffering servant enduring Gomer; recent interpretation has painted Gomer as a kind of woman of power keeping the obsessive Hosea at bay. Yet both of these miss the basic challenge of the passage: marriage. If you choose one or the other, one over the other, one instead of the other, it all falls apart- the marriage that is. The challenge is to choose both.

Hosea lays out the challenge when he says, "the Lord said." This is the persistent challenge of scripture if we are to take it as the Word of God. If scripture is just a historical collection or a magic book of laws and precepts, Hosea’s easy interpreters have much to do here. And there is also the temptation to say there are some quirky, odd, even bizarre parts to scripture and this is just one we need to avoid. I can’t say I like that one. For I believe the metaphors, the images, the extremes of Hosea and Gomer being married are a crisis and challenge, a prophetic word, then and now.

For Hosea’s time, and for Hosea, it was a verdict: you can’t stay in the ivory tower, you can’t remove yourself from life; for Gomer, you can’t keep up such a life, you can’t live without boundaries, without the hard questions: freedom isn’t free, there is always a price. The call of God to Hosea is also a kind verdict upon our categories, our exclusiveness, our need to caricature each other as extremes and if the truth be told evil. The challenge of the passage is laid down by God: you have to live together.

Much like Hosea I grew up apart with a view of life marked by purity. I saw the world as divided into the good and the bad; I saw whole peoples as corrupt or wicked. I grew up in the suburbs; I grew up in a church that was very sectarian and idealistic; I believed perfection and purity could be achieved. And then I got married. When I got married I moved into the city and found a job at a grocery store that was as messy, earthy, broken, and sullied at it gets. There was a constant stream of protesters across the street carrying sign about the gay bath house- they didn’t picket the drug house which was kitty corner. I saw good people and struggling families and then I saw parents beat their children when they got caught stealing cigarettes for them.

Early on I experienced a kind of Hosea moment. People stole constantly from the store. Some of the people who stole became confrontational when stopped- especially so if they had just visited the crack house across the street. One such fellow started to shout and take swings at the employees of the store and before I knew it I was in the middle of it. How it all happened I am not quite sure but I took him down to the ground, hard. So hard, I knocked him unconscious. The man and the crowd who had been wild just a moment before were hushed, people moved back.

The paramedics and police came next. After a time, a police officer came over to me. He said, "that fella, the one who fell down, he’s gonna be O.K. People fall down. It happens all the time." Well, it doesn’t happen to me. Sitting on the curb watching the police officer walk away and the paramedics head out, my head just spun. I felt like Lady Macbeth with dirty hands. It wasn’t just the concern I felt about being in trouble or even doing something wrong; it was a loss of a whole world view. I felt complicit, mixed up, part of a world that didn’t fit nicely into categories and was far from ideal.

I felt like Hosea. Over the years there have been other moments where the dilemma of Hosea has come to the fore: the dilemma of wanting to live apart, above the fray. I certainly want to keep my family above it, to protect them. Yet, and this is the dilemma I faced on the curb, isn’t this what God chose in becoming human? Jesus’ didn’t go to the nice places; he didn’t dine with the elites; he stepped into the mess of life. And if you read into the anger of the Pharisees and even some of his friends and disciples, it made him messy.

When Hosea prophesied is significant as well and adds weight to this whole notion of separation versus a messy marriage. Hosea prophesied a few years before Israel would be conquered. The Northern Kingdom of Israel would be sacked by the Assyrians shortly after his marriage to Gomer. In some ways his life and the loss of pretense and distinction, the merging of extremes, the end of categories would become real for all as they would all become slaves. Soon they would all be thrown together and the Assyrians would not stand on the ceremonies Hosea enjoyed, nor would they we as interested in the freedom of Gomer.

I hesitated bringing up the Assyrian defeat as it makes this all apocalyptic and it doesn’t have to be. Hosea’s risk is lost in captivity because now he doesn’t have a choice. When the Northern tribe was taken into captivity and they loss their distinctions and pretensions, they also lost their freedom and dignity, not by choice, but by force. That’s not a sermon so much as doom and gloom. We are not there. Yet, we have to admit, we are rife with distinctions and divisions and echelons.

This last week we held a neighborhood meeting. One of the persistent themes I heard there was: I called city hall and no one came to fix the problem. The problem was people. I never heard a neighbor say, I talked and talked with my neighbors and try to help them and as a last resort I turned them in. Our six interns who are walking this neighborhood come back with lots of anecdotes about how people view each other. Most are not positive. They are often bitter and caricatures. Most of us have had the experience of seeing someone as evil by association or assumption, only to find out in the end, they are actually flesh and blood, trying to make a way in life, trying to raise kids, or just make it to Friday.

No one signs up to be Hosea. Yet God said to Hosea and Gomer, live together, get over it. In effect the message to Hosea was get messy. Sitting on a curb commingled with violence and untruth, entwined with addiction and mercy, I felt messy. Yet the cross is not clean. We gild it and polish it, but the cross of Christ was a bit earthier.

It is fair to say we could be too. The church has a tendency to withdraw, to ascend when we should be stepping into the fray, getting our hands a little muddy. It’s safer to not get involved, to call city hall, to not step into the fight. Yet is this what Christ did? Does this seem Christ-like-living, being above brokenness of life? We are the body of Christ. Do we embody the life of Christ? I dare say our hands need to get a bit dirty to be so. Amen.