FEBRUARY 8, 1998

When I first planned many months ago to do a Valentine's Day sermon on love and sex in the Bible--focusing on the figures of Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Jesus and Mary Magdalen--I never dreamed the nation would be caught up in an alleged sex scandal in the White House involving the President of the United States and a former female intern. Maybe this is another one of those "meaningful coincidences" or "synchronicities" that I spoke of last November. Be that as it may it would be pretty difficult to talk about the one and not the other, so I will not pretend that what happened in the Bible many centuries ago does not relate rather directly to what is happening in our world today.

Astrologically speaking Mars represents the aggressive drive in human nature, usually associated with the masculine, while Venus represents eros, the force of love and sex, most often associated with the feminine. Put the two together and you sometimes get passion and fireworks and problems and difficulties galore. Mars and Venus in human encounter can bring the best of heaven and the worst of hell on earth depending on the circumstances.

It was Henry Kissinger who once said that power is the greatest aphrodisiac. History seems to bear him out. Men in power, and I do mean men, have all too often combined political power with sexual enhancement. Ancient Roman and Chinese emperors had their harems and concubines which they used to indulge their lust and pleasure without fear of political scandal or threat to their power. Rulers would add to their harems from the wives and daughters of their enemies conquered in battle. It was both expected and accepted practice. Sex and power not only went together, but were often one and the same.

Robert Wright, in TIME magazine, quotes Laura Betzig, an anthropologist of early civilizations, who suggests that the politics of these ancien regimes were often "little more than reproductive competition" with "men using power to better spread their genes." She cites the Aztec King Nezahualpilli who had more than 100 children, as did Ramses II of Egypt, who ironically has a condom named after him, hardly an inducement to limit the number of your progeny. Perhaps the sexual misadventures of modern politicians is a carry over from ancient male potentates' lust for sex and power which has yet to be fully civilized. That is hardly an excuse for sexual misconduct, but it may be a fact of life, and one not likely to disappear no matter how many Special Prosecutors peer into the private lives of politicians.

Let's look briefly at the Biblical legend of Samson and Delilah. Before he was born an angel told his mother that she was to raise her son as a Nazirite, dedicated to God's service, and that he was not to cut his hair or to touch strong drink. His mission was to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines. The legend of Samson's superhuman strength is in many respects akin to the Greek myth of Hercules who had to face a series of tests and challenges to his strength to prove his worth. Likewise Samson. While walking in the wilderness one day Samson encounters a lion which he kills with his bare hands.

Later he discovers that a swarm of bees had settled in the lion carcass. He scoops out the honeycomb and brings it home to his family. Samson's problem is that he is always falling for Philistine women rather than for a nice Jewish girl from his own tribe. The forbidden is enticing. He becomes betrothed to a woman from the Philistine village of Timnah. During the seven day wedding feast Samson poses a riddle to the men of the village: "Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something to sweet." If they could solve his riddle he would give them 30 pieces of fine linen and garments. His experience with the lion and the bees in the wilderness formed the basis for his riddle.  The men of the village inveigle Samson's bride to entice the answer from him and reveal it to them. When they give him the solution: "What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?", Samson is enraged. Days later he seeks his revenge by killing 30 Philistines at Ashkelon and then taking back the linen and garments which he had given to them. He was a sore loser to say the least. When he discovers that his bride's father has given her to another man he ties 300 foxes together in pairs by their tails and sends them with lighted torches attached into the Philistine's wheat fields and olive groves, thus destroying their crops. He follows this up by slaying a thousand of their men with the jaw bone of an ass. Finally, he lifts up the gates of Gaza and carries them upon his shoulders 38 miles to a hilltop near Hebron. The Philistine's later referred to Samson's tirade over sex and power as Gaza-Gate, not to be confused with Water-Gate or Naughty-Gate as the British press has labeled the latest episode.

Does Samson learn his lesson that falling for Philistine women only leads to trouble? Of course not. Next he falls for Delilah who lives in the valley of Sorek not far from his home. When the Philistine chiefs learn of it they offer Delilah 1100 pieces of silver if she can learn from him the secret of his superhuman strength. She begs and cajoles Samson to tell her his secret. Samson tells her that if he was bound with fresh bow strings, or new ropes, or the locks of his hair woven into the web of a loom, he would lose his strength. But each time he snaps loose from his bondage in an instant. Finally she nags him till his soul is vexed to death and he reveals the secret of his Nazirite discipline of never cutting his hair. You all know what happened. Samson has his first visit to a barber while asleep, the Philistines overpower him, put out his eyes, and set him turning the millstone in Gaza prison. But as his hair starts to grow back so does his strength. And when he is placed between the pillars of the temple of Dagon for sport and entertainment, he is such a hit that he literally brings the house down. The question for our time is will the House of Clinton come tumbling down because his presidency is vexed to death by endless sexual scandal and innuendo, and making sport of by the media, or will his strength return and he be permitted to complete his term of office, or perchance bring his enemies down with him?

The Book of Judges concludes with the verse: "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes." You might say that the mode of governance was somewhat anarchic. As were the mores governing sex and aggression. In some respects we may be returning to those days. The people of Israel longed for a king who would be a just ruler and moral exemplar. First they got Saul who had bouts with a manic-depressive disorder and was finally rejected by Yahweh. They thought they hit pay dirt with King David, who was much heralded as a model ruler and pious writer of Psalms.

But David was no less subject to the temptations of sex and power than rulers before or since. When he sees Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, bathing on her rooftop, he lusts for her and has her brought into his chamber where he makes love to her and gets her pregnant. Hoping to conceal his sin he has her husband Uriah brought home from battle in hopes that he will go into his wife and lay with her thus covering-up who the real father of the child is. But Uriah refuses the opportunity to do so while his men are engaged in battle. When David is unable to soften his will with food and drink he has his officer assign Uriah to the front lines where he knows he will likely be killed.  After Uriah's death, following a period of mourning by his widow, David marries Bathsheba, assuming no one will know of his previous adulterous relationship. But the Lord sends to David, Nathan the Prophet, His Special Prosecutor, to confront him with his sin, and to pronounce God's judgment. David is told that the child in Bathsheeba's womb, a boy, will eventually fall ill and die, which is exactly what happens. But Bathsheeba's second child, Solomon, lives, and is destined to become his father's successor. Thus God eventually forgives his servant and ruler, David, and permits him to complete his term of office, though not without much pain and turmoil caused by jealousy and intrigue among his future sons.

Years ago William Phipps, a Biblical historian, wrote a book entitled, Was Jesus Married?, in which he argued that Jesus most likely was married, that most Jewish men were, and that Jesus was probably no exception. The truth is we know next to nothing about Jesus' intimate life or relationships with women if any. We do know that he had women disciples and followers and that Mary Magdalene was held in high regard. One brief verse relates that she was one from whom Jesus cast out seven devils, meaning that he had healed her of a mental/emotional affliction. The writer of the Gospel of John credits her with being the first disciple to encounter the Risen Lord after his death and resurrection. Did Jesus ever have an intimate relation with Mary Magdalene? Probably not. But one tradition has it that the woman in the Gospel of Luke, who was called a sinner, meaning adulteress, and who washed Jesus' feet with her tears, and wiped his feet with her hair, while he supped at the home of Simon the Pharisee, was Mary Magdalene. Jesus says of her that she was forgiven much because she had loved much. Jesus was apparently very compassionate and forgiving of so-called sexual sins. The Gospel of John tells the story of another adulterous woman who was about to be stoned to death when Jesus intervenes and sends them away by challenging the crowd of angry men: "He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone." One by one they all go quietly away. Some legends have supposed that this woman also was Mary Magdalene, that this event may have preceded the story of her washing his feet with her tears, the latter being an expression of her deep affection and gratitude.

Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek novelist, follows this tradition about Jesus and Mary Magdalene in his controversial novel THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, in which he portrays a very human Jesus who experienced temptation and thoughts of sexual passion with Mary Magdalene. The so-called "last temptation" was one that came to him during his dying moments on the cross. He has a dream that instead of following his divine destiny as a martyr and a savior he chooses instead to fall in love with Mary Magdalene, to sire children with her and raise a family, in other words, to be a normal human being and fulfill his natural desire to love and be loved as a human being, a husband, and a father. He is tempted, but in the end he embraces his destiny as a suffering servant and son of God. I would like to think that Jesus had normal human needs and drives and passions and that he may have contemplated if not consummated those passions with a Mary Magdalene or some other woman. Making him into a sexless icon does neither him nor us any good.

Which brings us back to the consideration of the carnal sins of kings and presidents. President Clinton is certainly not the first to be sallied with sins of the flesh, but he is the first to have such charges brought to light while in office. Thomas Jefferson is said to have had an affair with a married woman and to have sired children by his slave girl, Sally Hennings, who would have been about 14 or 15 when the sexual relation presumably began. Grover Cleveland was elected President knowing that he had impregnated a young woman out of wedlock, but he owned up to his responsibility and gave financial support towards the raising of his child. Warren G. Harding is known to have had several dalliances in and out of the White House even with his wife. The joke of the day was that when Warren G. Harding proposed to his wife she nearly fell out bed. 

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had a marriage of convenience more than of passion and FDR's wife was well aware of his relationship with another woman who was with him at the time of his death. Everyone now knows of Ike's relationship to his attache, Kay Summersby, during the war, and that he had thought of divorcing Mamie, but decided against it since he knew it would kill him politically. JFK's apparently numerous extramarital affairs are already too well known to be commented upon, while Lady Bird Johnson readily admits that Lyndon had a number of female friends who loved her husband. Jimmy Carter only lusted in his heart, but former Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller died while having a tryst with a female lover. The French do it openly without cant or hypocrisy. President Mitterand's mistress attended his funeral with his wife and family. How civilized can you get?

How is it that we have come to the point in our current history that we are now criminalizing the private sexual behavior of political leaders? What does the alleged sexual relationship between Monica Lewinsky and the President have to do with what happened in a bungled Whitewater land deal in Arkansas long before Bill Clinton was elected President? Absolutely nothing. So why is the Special Prosecutor, who has already spent $10 million investigating Whitewater and come up with absolutely nothing, now been given carte blanch authority to investigate every nook and cranny of a President's sexual history?

It could be argued that this whole messy affair is a manufactured crisis having nothing whatever to do with President Clinton's conduct of his public office. An illegal action in the State of Maryland (the taping of Monica Lewinsky's telephone conversations without her knowledge or permission) has become the impetus for a highly questionable legal investigation, the sole purpose of which is to unseat a duly elected president. I would suggest to you that there is something constitutionally amiss with the creation of the office of a Special Prosecutor given unlimited legal power to investigate a President's private life and behavior. Where are the checks and balances for the limits of such power? I don't think the framers of the constitution ever intended for there to be such an office.

If Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, and Mrs. Mitterand could put up with their husbands' various illicit sexual activities, then who are we to stand in the way of Hillary Clinton doing the same? Is this not a matter to be resolved between Bill and Hillary Clinton and their God? If Bill Clinton is guilty of the accusations brought against him by Paula Jones when he was Governor of Arkansas, and Monica Lewinsky while he was President, then what he did is clearly wrong and stupid--men do stupid things when sex and power get mixed up with each other--and possibly illegal in a purely civil suit--but is what he did an impeachable offense necessitating the investigation of a Special Prosecutor? I don't think so.

So I would conclude by suggesting to you the following: if God could forgive King David for lusting after Bathsheba, and indirectly causing the death of her husband, Uriah the Hittite--(Bill Clinton has yet to be accused of murder though two Special Prosecutors thought he or Hillary might have had something to do with the suicide of Presidential assistant Vince Foster, but came up with absolutely nothing)--and if Jesus of Nazareth could forgive the sexual sins of a Mary Magdalene or her literary surrogates--then is it not time for the nation to let God forgive Bill and Monica and Paula and Hillary, and anyone else who needs forgiving, and to put all this foolishness behind us, and get on with the business of governance in our less than perfect democracy? What do you think?

God of love, who of us could stand up under the scrutiny of a Special Prosecutor looking into the private lusts of our hearts or the carnal sins of our bodies? So let us not be too quick too judge the affairs of heart and body of kings and rulers lest we judge ourselves in the process. And let us not forget that Mars and Venus in human encounter can bring the best of heaven and the worst of hell on earth depending on the circumstances. Happy Valentine's Day.