(A sermon on Mark 10:2-16, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 10/4/2009)
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
Once again, we are faced with a troubling text from the Gospel of Mark. Last Sunday, I suggested some choices a preacher has in dealing with a difficult text that does not seem to offer the Good news: choose to preach on the Old or New Testament, pick out and focus on a good phrase found in the Gospel passage, or, as one visitor suggested: dump the preaching responsibility on the deacon. This week, we have another option. It is a common trait of the lectionary to have two occurrences in the Gospel. We have the teaching on divorce, and we have the “let the children come to me” story: two occurrences that do not seem to have a lot to do with each other.
Considering the rather short time one has for a sermon...or at least, the short amount of time most people should limit their sermons to...it makes a lot of sense to preach on either one episode or the other. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that one of these excerpts is a lot more inviting than the other for preaching the good news of the Gospel. The children story is much more inviting and it seems more likely to encounter the Good News.
For the sake of argument...or perhaps to keep anyone from suggesting that I’m taking the easy way out...I want to start off with the section on divorce.
The first thing to notice is that Mark frames the passage with the suggestion “some Pharisees came, and to test him asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?'” The point is that this is a loaded question. A trap has been set. There are other such traps found in the Gospel of Mark, like “should we pay taxes to the emperor (Mark 12:14), and “if a woman successively marries seven brothers, whose wife will she be in heaven (Mark 12:23). Those asking the question knew full well that Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife. Under Jewish law, men could issue a “certificate of divorce” to their wives. A woman receiving such would lose most of her rights, including losing any property she owned. Those asking the question are looking to drag Jesus into the debate of the times: what are the legitimate grounds for divorce. “Was divorce justified only in cases of sexual impurity, or could a man legitimately divorce his wife for any fault, including perhaps the “fault” of simply being less appealing than another woman.” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. 4., Ed. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 141-142)
The Pharisees question assumes the practice of divorce, and it is here that Jesus refuses to go along, saying that the intention of God is that those joined in marriage remain so. The phrase “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate,” says that ideally there would be no such thing as divorce. Jesus doesn’t say that divorce isn’t allowed, but instead says that it’s not what God, (and hopefully, anyone who enters into marriage), ever intended. Jesus chooses not to enter this debate in the legalistic way the Pharisees are hoping for.
The trap for us, hearing this today, is to think that Jesus’ words are against anyone who divorces. David Howell shares this story:
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.
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.” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. 4, Ed. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 140-141)
We error if we take Jesus’ words about divorce and marriage as rigid, legal principle. Jesus is moving beyond the technique of the Pharisees, where a legalistic approach can answer everything. We must remember that everything in the Gospel of Mark is framed by Jesus’ opening words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” So, naturally, Jesus focused on what it means to be the kingdom of God...and in terms of the intent of marriage, it is a deep mutual respect of the covenant between two people that God is part of. Howell writes that Jesus preached what was now possible in the unfolding kingdom of peace, love and justice. Jesus was declaring the beginning of a new era in which relationships could work if each party approached the other with mutual respect and concern. It was now possible to go beyond what was just permissible to what was kingdom enhanced. Unfortunately, then and now, not everyone chooses to live out the ethics of Gods kingdom. Abuse and neglect are substituted for respect and concern. The reality is that marriages, having great potential as places of mutual respect and concern, are also sometimes breeding places for abuse and neglect. In a broken world, divorce is sometimes necessary. (FOW)
I think that it is helpful now to bring in the second occurrence in this morning’s Gospel. For the third week in a row, we have Jesus’ speaking in the midst and on behalf of children. “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.” (Mark 10:14-15)
I do not believe it is a coincidence that children and vulnerability have been part of these difficult texts. Charles Campbell writes that Jesus reminds his disciples that one enters the kingdom of God only by receiving it in complete dependence on God. One does not enter the kingdom through the fulfillment of any abstract legal principles, including those related to divorce and remarriage. (Feasting on the Word, Vol. 4, Ed. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 143)With this reference to let the children come to him, Jesus offers comfort to those divorced persons who may feel that they are unworthy of God’s love and God’s kingdom. Remember again, children are compared to the “servant of all,” meaning the one without power and the one who is vulnerable. Any woman divorced in Jesus’ time was certainly one without power and was vulnerable, and Jesus insists that the kingdom of God belongs to them. Thankfully, the Good News found today in the Gospel text is not only that the kingdom of God is near, but also that those who suffer the pain and brokenness of divorce are invited not to remain alone, but are welcomed into the loving arms of Jesus, and claimed to be part of the kingdom of God.