Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
Year B, RCL
October 7, 2018
North Fork Ministries
Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus 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.
My guess is that lectionary preachers standing at pulpits throughout the land are at this moment scurrying as quickly as they can away from today’s gospel reading and toward the confounding complexities of Job, the comfort of the Psalms, or to the expressions of praise and glory found in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. And with good reason. Who wants to stand before a bright eyed and well scrubbed congregation on a beautiful autumn morning and try to make sense of the words of Jesus, when they make us cringe and think to ourselves, “I really wish Jesus hadn’t said that.” However, most preachers don’t have the luxury of addressing the people of the North Fork, who can usually be counted on to receive a sermon with open hearts, open minds, and forgiving spirits. Taking on a gospel reading dealing with marriage, divorce and adultery, I may need all the understanding you can muster.
People get married for all kinds of reasons - love, money, security, status - probably as many reasons as there are marriages. Unlike today, in the Jewish community of which Jesus was a part, marriage wasn’t a matter of romance. Marriage was a strictly legal arrangement, involving the lawful exchange of property. Women were owned, first by their fathers and then by their husbands.
In contrast, Jesus begins his answer to the Pharisee’s question, by quoting from Genesis: “the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” Consider the possibility that by quoting from Genesis, Jesus is establishing a link between marriage and creation, elevating the status of marriage beyond a mere legal obligation, and instead giving to the institution of marriage the blessing that all creatures and all manner of relationships received in the story of creation. Jesus is offering his assurance to the men and women around him that God blesses relationships and desires for them to prosper, and anytime that a bond between people is broken, God grieves. God grieves, not because a legal standard is violated, but because God’s beloved children are wounded when bonds are broken.
Jesus’ inquisitors came to him with a hidden agenda. They already knew the answer to the question they posed: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” They knew that under Moses’ law the practice of divorce was lawful. The source of the law, Deuteronomy 24:1 reads, "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."
The contemporary question, the question that was more often posed on the streets of Jerusalem, concerned the legitimate grounds for divorce. Was divorce permissible only in cases of sexual impurity, or could a man divorce his wife for any reason, perhaps because he simply preferred another woman? It was the accepted wisdom that a man had the right to divorce his wife. The debate was between those who thought a man could only divorce his wife if she were unfaithful, and those who felt that a man could divorce his wife if she didn’t wash his tunic properly or burned his pita bread.
Keep in mind that either way, if a wife was divorced she faced disgrace within her family and in the public eye. She would be left impoverished, alone, and without prospects. Jesus response to his inquisitors, “what God has joined together, let no one separate,” was an answer based on compassion and a desire to protect the most vulnerable - the divorced woman who would suffer as a result of being dismissed by her husband.
Back at the house, the disciples asked Jesus about what he had said about marriage and divorce. His answered them, “"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." You see, under Roman law, with it’s Hellenistic influence, either a man or a woman could divorce their spouse. But under Jewish law, a woman had no right to divorce her husband. In his response, Jesus was assuming that women should possess the same rights as men. It is a question that has been at the heart of the heated arguments swirling around the Supreme Court nominee this past week. Is a woman's voice as important as a man's.
Jesus reply was startling to his disciples, not because of the connection between remarriage and adultery, but because Jewish law assumed that adultery was committed against a husband, not against a wife. In Jesus’ time, a man who was unfaithful to his wife committed adultery, not against his wife, but against her father and her family. In contrast, Jesus again shows concern for the well being of the woman and for her vulnerable position.
Jesus isn’t offering his listeners a new law. He isn’t seeking to replace one rigid set of legal principles with another. Jesus is doing what Jesus typically does. In defending the rights of women, Jesus is demonstrating love, compassion, and concern for the well being of the poor, the powerless, and those who inhabit the margins of society.
It is interesting that this encounter between Jesus and his inquisitors takes place on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, and that his path has taken him beyond the Jordan River, to a territory beyond that which was familiar and expected. In the Gospel of Mark, geographical location often provides a clue to the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words. As Jesus travels beyond the Jordan he is pushing the boundaries beyond that which was accepted, proclaiming a message of mercy and grace, and extending God’s blessing to people and to relationships that were scorned, belittled and disparaged by the status quo.
Jesus is calling us into new kinds of relationships – relationships that extend beyond the legitimate and the lawful. We are called into relationships that are more demanding than that. We are called into relationships that require purity of heart, compassion, and understanding – often beyond a level that seems humanly possible. We are called into relationships that, if they are to succeed, require that we recognize our own need for God’s mercy and an acceptance of grace, freely given.