Oct. 7, 2018
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Here’s how one of my commentaries begins its reflection on Mark 10:2-16: “She did not look like a Pharisee. She appeared harmless: a flowered-print dress, short in stature, glasses too large for her rounded face. I thought she was going to welcome me to the church. It was the reception at my very first pastorate. I extended my hand as she approached, opened my mouth – but before I could say anything, she said, ‘Preacher, do divorced people go to hell?’
Almost dropping my fruit punch, I thought, ‘I just passed my ordination exam. What is this? Another test of some sort?’
I raced through my mind’s data bank for something I had learned in pastoral care, or even New Testament courses, that I might offer her (and get myself off the spot.)
Finally, I spoke, ‘Better people than me get divorced.’
I think I remember her asking the question again, ‘Preacher, do divorced people go to hell?’ I gave her basically the same answer. I remember wondering if my attempt at cleverness had been helpful to her as she turned and walked away.
During a longer conversation in her home, she told me about her son who had recently divorced. Behind her question at the reception was a deep concern for her son, who had chosen to end a troubled marriage and was about to remarry. As a serious student of the Bible, she knew Jesus’ words to the Pharisees (who put him to the ‘test’ with the question about divorce) and his words to the disciples (“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her”). Although her faith would mature later, at that time my parishioner was a distressed mother who held rigid beliefs about sin and punishment. She believed that her son was endangering his very soul.”[i]
Today’s gospel is a hard passage to hear. If you are struggling with it I wouldn’t argue that your faith is immature. Given this woman’s care for scripture and her love for her son, it’s little wonder that Christ’s words today caused her alarm. In fact, in a podcast on the lectionary passages from Luther Seminary the professors there suggest that it’s unethical to read this passage in worship if you aren’t going to preach on it. Too many of our lives have been touched by the pain of divorce to think that such words can be read, despite their very different context, and not be heard as spoken directly to us.
It’s just so hard not to read this little section of scripture and turn it into a new law from Jesus about divorce and remarriage. But, as you know this little passage is part of a much larger narrative in which God is incarnate, present to serve and not to be served, honoring the lowly and not the elite, offering the world an alternative to its oppressive and demeaning ways, suffering this world’s rejections, loving it enough to the point of death, and overcoming it with resurrection and the pouring out of God’s Spirit for forgiveness and new life. This is Christ’s agenda as he travels the countryside. A new way, a Godly kingdom, a heavenly empire clashes with the empire of Rome and the kingdoms of this world as Christ lives among them and fields today’s question posed by the Pharisees.
Notice how the question is asked. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” They never would have asked, “Is it lawful for a woman to divorce her husband,” because of course such a thing was unheard of. The patriarchy of the time is exposed in the very question. Writes David Howell, “In Jesus’ day, when a woman received a ‘certificate of divorce,’ she lost most of her rights (like the right to own property.) She could easily find herself begging for food on the street or prostituting herself for income.”[ii] One of the profs on the podcast repeated what may have been only a slight exaggeration, “You could divorce your wife if she burned your eggs.” The point here is that the wife in this scenario is incredibly vulnerable. If the husband finds her undesirable for any reason, she might literally be forced to beg for her subsistence. The household under Roman occupation was hierarchical and patriarchal, and considered a microcosm of the empire itself. The husband was the emperor ruling over everybody else: the wife, the children, and the slaves. And, while Jewish customs weren’t always the same as Roman customs there was great pressure to assimilate into Roman norms. So, when Jesus one-ups Moses’ law he subordinates both Moses and the emperor to the kingdom that his presence ushers in.[iii] At great risk Jesus announces that there’s a far better way.
When it comes to marriage in the Kingdom of God, Jesus is less concerned with what a man can get away with than with the new creation that we are together. In contrast to the image of a husband ruling over a wife whose status is never secure, Jesus offers the image of two people becoming one flesh; two people living together in mutual love, support, and dignity. The thrust of his argument is rooted in the priorities of the inbreaking Kingdom of God in which the vulnerable, the poor, and the marginalized up upheld and uplifted. In the alternative kingdom of God a marriage based on domination and subordination just doesn’t fit. In fact, any relationship based on those things doesn’t fit.
Having said all of that I can see how that part in the passage about adultery (divorcing and remarrying) might still be a sticking point. In thinking about those verses I was reminded of a conversation that my colleagues and I had three years ago as we discussed these same passages. I shared it with you then, but I think it bears repeating.
My colleague was formerly Catholic and married to a woman who was also Catholic. At the time he was doing his part to help his wife get the annulment that would make their marriage “legitimate.” Perhaps his previous marriages were annulled; I’m not sure. But, he sat there in the confessional with a priest who upon these passages informed him that he was committing adultery. He said back to the priest, “I’ve committed adultery. But, sleeping with the mother of my children is not adultery.” The priest was doing his best, but he had nothing more to say.
We moved on a bit. We talked about the perils of legalism. We talked about how easy it is to slip into a religion that’s secretly guided by thoughts that if we are faithful enough, good enough, right enough we’ll earn our way or secure our place or guarantee the benefit we seek deep down. We talked about the dead end this is. We talked about the god we create when grace is something we earn – a god who is perpetually disappointed, a god to whom we never measure up.
But, my friend said what he said and I just wasn’t ready to let it go yet. “But look,” I said, “’Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.’” Those are Christ’s words. What do you say? He put his hands up and said simply, “Guilty.”
I didn’t ask in an accusatory way; rather, I wanted to know how he worked it all out for himself. “Guilty.” I heard him to mean something quite other than “ashamed.” He wasn’t living under the dark cloud of his own failings as if he were guiltier than anyone else in this world; quite the opposite; he was experiencing forgiveness and living in the richness of a life of faith and service. He was living as a man dependent upon grace and reliant upon God, in need of a parent to call him home, to love him, nurture him, and bring him along. He was, as the scripture says, receiving the kingdom of God as a child might receive it. And that, my friends, is just what we are all asked to do. Receive the in-breaking, alternative kingdom of God as one who needs grace because that’s the only way to receive it, and it’s the only way to join with God in being part of grace’s distribution.
At last week’s dinner Pastor Sara talked about a man who came to their church. He was torn and tattered, dirty and smelly. He hadn’t eaten in three days. He was a migrant farmer whose work had dried up, living temporarily in a small room somewhere in downtown Bridgeport. Starving, he prayed that God might give him some food that day. Someone then told him about the church. Go to them; they will help you. And they did because food is what they do. And they got a big box and they put all kinds of food in it and whatever else, and when they gave him the box he said, “Wow, look at what God has done for me this day!”
It was good for him and it was good for the church too. It is a powerful thing to be reminded that you are doing the work of God almighty. It is a miracle if you think about it. But, the only way to experience it is to put ourselves there, to embrace a kingdom where the powerless are lifted up because the only thing that saves any of us is grace.
[i] David Howell, Feasting on the Word, Year B Volume 4, pages 141-142.
[ii] Howell, 142
[iii] Kathleen Mills, The Kinship of Jesus, page 186