By The Rev. Sherry Deets
19 Pentecost, Proper 22, October 7, 2012
This is an uncomfortable gospel passage this morning, one that brings up divorce and yet also, in the same narrative, talks about the little children coming to Jesus. I thought about skipping the gospel and focusing on one of the other readings. I thought about just focusing on the little children coming to Jesus. That’s when I realized, I needed to spend time on thwies entire gospel passage – to want to avoid it means there is an important message there.
Note that Jesus is on route to Jerusalem, walking steadfastly and purposefully to meet his cross and his destiny. Just now, that road has taken him beyond the Jordan River and across the boundary between what is known and unknown, familiar and unfamiliar. You see, in Mark’s Gospel, location is often an important clue to interpretation. And so it’s worth noting how frequently Jesus goes beyond the prescribed boundaries – both geographical and social – to proclaim God’s mercy and grace even if that meant challenging the status quo. Is that what he’s doing here today, challenging the status quo?
In order to answer that question, we need to recognize that divorce in the first century was not at all the same social phenomenon that it is in the twenty-first. There were two schools of thought about divorce in Jesus’ day – both believed a man had a right to put away, dismiss, or divorce his wife. One school was fairly strict – a man could do this only if his wife were unfaithful; the other was more lenient – a man could do this if his wife displeased him in any number of ways, including, according to one rabbinic source, “burning her husband’s toast.” Either way, the consequences for the woman were devastating – familial and public disgrace, potentially severe economic hardship, and limited future prospects for her and her children. So Jesus’ words were likely intended not to set up a standard by which to judge and stigmatize but rather to protect women who were so much more vulnerable before the law then men. Key word, vulnerable.
Along these lines, it’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t just say that a man who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery in general, he says that man commits adultery against his wife. In the ancient world, if a man was unfaithful to his wife he was considered to have committed adultery not against her but against her father and her family, the ones who entrusted her to him. But Jesus says it’s against her. So again, concern for the vulnerability of the woman seems a paramount concern.
It is also striking that in response to the question by the Pharisees – “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” – Jesus actually refuses to render a legal judgment on divorce but instead turns the question on its head, shifting the conversation from legal to relational categories as he seeks protection for the most vulnerable.
His use of Genesis itself is interesting. For most of history marriage was not about romance or fulfillment; instead, it was viewed primarily as a legal contract, the lawful exchange of property. It may be that by linking marriage to creation Jesus intended to retrieve, and even to elevate, marriage as something more than just a legal obligation. He may have wanted to assure men and women that, in fact, God blesses our marriages and wills for them to flourish, and that any time a marriage ends in ruin it grieves the heart of God, not because some legal standard has been broken but because of the damage done to Gods’ beloved children.
In other words, divorce is something that you can do, but it is not what God intended. Jesus is less concerned about what is allowed and more concerned about what is intended in the kingdom of God.
For Jesus, the kingdom of God was unfolding and this meant that everything was changing. So the answer to the Pharisees’ question was not what was permissible under the law, but what was now possible in this 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 God’s kingdom. Abuse and neglect are substituted for respect and concern. In a broken world, divorce is sometimes necessary.
We would also do well to remember that the designated passage for this Sunday does not end at verse12. Instead, we have the brief story of people bringing children to Jesus, an act the disciples try desperately to curtail. To what extent is the question “to whom does the Kingdom of God belong” (10:14) at the heart of the test posed by the Pharisees? Is the issue at stake less about divorce and symptomatic of the larger subject of vulnerability?
Those persons on the edges of humanity, women and children, and for Mark, any outsider, marginalized by ritual, tradition, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, will find their place in the Kingdom of God. The reality of divorce, of not being married, of not having children, has made all of us outsiders for a time. I wonder if Jesus calling us back to the created order is not simply to hold up an ideal vision of the perfect relationship, but to remind us that to be human is to be in relationship, whatever that relationship might look like. To be marginalized is to be alone.
This is where the Gospel of Mark starts, in the lonely places. This is where Jesus will end up, on the cross. Being alone is not what God wants for us. The theological point in all of this, especially for Mark, is not God stipulating idyllic models of relationship but God saying, “I am here, in my Son, to be in relationship with you. Nothing can separate us any longer.”
Brian McLaren writes of ‘Naked Spirituality’ and I couldn’t help but think of naked spirituality as Jesus brought us back to Genesis and the creation story. Recall that Adam and Eve were naked in the garden before the fall, naked and in a special and close relationship with God. Naked Spirituality is about being vulnerable. It is about the naked person standing trustfully before a naked God. The important thing is that we are naked; in other words that we come without title, merit, shame, or even demerit. We come like children. All we can offer to God is who we really are, which to many of us never seems like enough. But it is enough for God. God is saying, “I am here, in my Son, to be in relationships with you. Nothing can separate us any longer.” Amen.
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