7 October 2018, World Communion Sunday
The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor
West Walworth: Zion & East Rochester United Methodist Churches
Mark 10:2-16 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=405569750)
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “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.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
I am often asked about my position on theology and sexuality:
Where I stand on the Church and gay marriage,
And the ordination of homosexuals.
My stock answer remains:
When Jesus teaches about it, I’ll preach about it.
Jesus doesn’t bring up the topic once.
But Jesus does teach on the issue of divorce.
He teaches the crowd,
the Pharisees (Jewish lay leaders),
and his followers
quite a lot about divorce.
(My comments on Mark 10:2-16 are heavily dependent upon the exceptional scholarly work of Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.)
Here are four points of context:
1. We assume divorce is a modern phenomenon;
In the first century, during the time of Jesus,
Divorce was a generally accepted part of the cultural landscape.
It was just as painful and prevalent then as it is today.
2. Marriage in the ancient world
was primarily a means of economic and social stability.
Women, and their children, were considered property of the father,
Women were sold to a husband in marriage
through the exchange of a dowry.
Marriage united family, created offspring, increased wealth,
strengthened the tribe, kept the peace, and maintained the family lineage.
When a marriage failed, …
3. Jewish leaders in the time of Jesus
spoke about how divorce was bad for society,
The debate was mostly focused on the legal imperative.
The legal foundation for their belief is found in Torah, Deuteronomy 24:1-2:
Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife.
In other words
Deuteronomy assumes divorce will occur
and proscribes legal procedures for carrying it out.
The legal procedure ensured dependent women and children
A defense against rumor and slander;
A very important consideration for survival,
Let alone remarriage.
Some hardhearted Pharisees who question Jesus
Conveniently fail to mention the strong, moral imperative in the Law
That provides justice for the vulnerable: women and children.
Other Pharisees who question Jesus and attempt to trap him,
Call into question the permissibility of divorce
Citing Genesis 2:24 and Malachi 2:13-16, which read:
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Experts in the Law were not in agreement on the issue of divorce.
What better controversy to trap Jesus
Than one that is hotly debated by religious authorities?
4. Which brings us to the setup for the Gospel passage;
this narrative is one of many in a long succession
about how religious authorities attempt to trap Jesus,
to find cause to have him arrested,
and to have him put to death.
This passage, and Jesus’ response, must be viewed through this lens.
What does Jesus teaching about divorce
Mean to you and me?
Let’s look carefully at his words:
1. Jesus answers a question with a question.
He knows the minefield the Pharisees have laid.
He knows they are divided themselves.
He knows their absolute devotion to the Law.
He knows that Hebrew scriptures, the Law and the prophets,
are in conflict and less than clear.
‘Jesus,’ they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
“What did Moses command you?” Jesus questions back.
“Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”
Good answer! They know the Law.
But Jesus sees their callous and hardened heart:
“Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Better answer! Jesus favors two becoming one.
He moves beyond the simple justice advanced by the Law
Takes it a step further
And advocates for the value of equality and unity and eternity.
Jesus makes the point that this is what marriage is all about:
Two equal partners.
One without the other breaks the whole thing.
Two cogs that drive the wheel;
Take one cog away and the whole process brings the wheel to a stop.
God joined two into one,
Therefore, no one can break the one.
Two equal partners that are so unified
They become one flesh,
What sensible Pharisee will discount Genesis 2 in public?
Not one of them.
They slink away, like the snakes they are,
defeated once again in their attempt to trap Jesus.
They lost the debate because
Jesus uses the Law as the foundation for his teaching.
He builds upon it with a new covenant
That is rooted in grace.
2. Jesus uses the early confrontation with the adversarial Pharisees
as a talking point later in the day
in the privacy of a house
surrounded by his disciples.
They, and we, want to know more.
“the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Jesus is speaking specifically against those who leave their spouse for others,
Be it the husband or the wife.
His point is that divorce does not offer a legal loophole to justify adultery.
Be warned, Jesus tells us frankly,
Do not initiate divorce as a means to get something else.
Do not sacrifice a spouse to satisfy one’s desires or ambitions.
It is no accident that this passage is immediately followed by
The disciples attempting to keep children away from Jesus
And his powerful response:
“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Do not sacrifice a spouse,
Do not sacrifice the children,
To satisfy one’s sexual desires or ambitions.
Jesus doesn’t throw anyone away.
He doesn’t throw anyone under the bus.
And neither should we.
3. Women, take heart.
Men, listen carefully.
Jesus elevates women to a place of equality in marriage,
Hardly seeing women as passive objects or property.
Responsibility is balanced:
If a man leaves for another – adultery.
If a wife leaves for another – adultery.
This is such a volatile position to take in the ancient world
The parallel narrative in Matthew 19:9 conveniently omits it!
Also, by speaking of a man committing adultery against a woman,
Not against her father or past husband,
Jesus implies that adultery involves more than the violation of property rights of another man.
Adultery concerns accountability to a partner.
Jesus is calling us to accountability in relationships,
Accountability in marriage.
If you make a wedding vow,
4. I applaud Jesus for not avoiding the issue;
Especially later in the day when asked to elaborate by his disciples
behind closed doors.
His words help us understand better why failed marriages
Bring such pain to couples, extended families, and communities.
Jesus brings into laser focus the hurt and brokenness that come,
Even when divorce appears to be the best choice among all available options.
He brings special attention to children.
The most vulnerable are often the most victimized when parents divorce.
The church has learned over the centuries
That to impose these words uncritically,
as inflexible commands,
is to do violence, deny protection, and withhold grace
to the women and children who need it most.
Yield not to the temptation to avoid Jesus teaching about divorce,
For it teaches us far more than first meets the eye.
Jesus urges us to regard marriage in stark contrast
To our culture’s tendency to treat commitment and love as conditional.
Jesus is opposed to adultery.
The Law is followed.
Women and children are elevated,
And women are afforded equal accountability in the marriage relationship.
No one is to be thrown away.
In marriage, the self becomes sub-servant to the married whole.
Two become one.
Connected to the One,
Lord, and savior of us all, Jesus Christ.