How does a pastor preach on something she/he has struggled with, remain genuine and not dump their pain all over the pulpit? Yesterday's gospel text was Mark 10:2-16 and this is the message I shared with God's people at Bethel Lutheran Church, Portville, NY.
Jesus’ words in this morning’s gospel are anything but easy. His words are shocking. This is not an easy text to preach on and some ministers will shy away from this topic. Divorce is a very touchy subject in our country. Divorce has caused a lot of pain for the parties involved and especially for the children whose worlds are turned upside down by divorce. Some of us may not have personally experienced divorce, but chances are we have friends or family members who have suffered such pain. Divorce in one way or another has touched us all.
For many years, I believed with all my heart that if two people were really committed to each other and God, there was no way their marriage would fail. I could not understand divorce as an option. I did not believe in divorce and yet in 2001, I became a victim of it. For a long time I struggled with these verses. Did Jesus’ teaching mean that one could never remarry even if the divorce was not his or her fault or desire? Obviously, I have worked through that issue and that is why Ray is here. [at this point Ray exclaimed "Yeah!" and everyone laughed]. However, questions remain in the minds of many of us just what Jesus was getting at in the gospel text.
Divorce and marriage in ancient times was very different than today. If we think that the divorce rate is crazy now and some dissolve marriages far too quickly, just listen to this. All Jews of Jesus day believed that a man could write a certificate of dismissal, divorce and remarry. This meant that he could write, “She is not my wife and I am not her husband” and kick his wife out of the house. The custom was based upon this well known verse from Deuteronomy, quote “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” (Deut 24:1 NRS).
Dismissal is probably a better word to use for the procedure than divorce. Notice who could do this. It was only the prerogative of the husband, not the wife. The husband could dismiss his wife at will--if she did not please him in any way: if the wife spoke too loudly in the house, if she prepared a meal her husband did not like, if the husband did not like his wife’s looks anymore and he found another woman to be more attractive (Mark J. Molldrem, “Interpretation,” A Hermeneutic of Pastoral Care and the Law/Gospel Paradigm Applied to the Divorce Texts of Scripture, 47). A wife did not differ much from property.
Marriage in Jesus’ time, involved whole extended families. Individuals did not get married-- whole families did. Marriage “symbolized the fusion of the honor of both families involved” (Malina & Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 240). Political and economic concerns played a part in the union as well. Divorce had much greater consequences than it does today. It dissolved extended family ties. Family feuds could result because of the challenge this was to the honor of the family of the woman being divorced.
Considering the Jewish people’s knowledge of the verse I just quoted from Deut., you can see why Mark says the Pharisees were testing Jesus. They knew what the law allowed. Jesus was teaching in a territory governed by Herod Antipas—the leader who beheaded John the Baptist because he did not like John’s message that he should not have married his brother’s wife. Yes, that Herod. Maybe the Pharisees were setting a trap. Depending upon Jesus’ answer to their question, they were hoping he would suffer the same fate as John the Baptist. But Jesus did not enter into their debate of the technicalities of the law. He just asked them another question about what Moses commanded. They responded with what Moses allowed.
This is where Jesus goes for the jugular. The Pharisees asked the wrong question for the wrong reasons. Jesus responds with the true heart of the matter—God’s intentions. Jesus moves the conversation to a completely new plane by declaring God’s will expressed in creation. For Jesus, the starting point is divine rather than human. For Mark, the authority of Jesus was the whole point of the discussion--not how good the argument was or the authority of scripture. Jesus trumps it all. Scripture is the authority for our faith, but how many of us have suffered from rigid Bible bashing? The Pharisees were concerned with strict adherence to the letter of the law. Jesus is concerned with grace and relationship.
In the midst of these strong words about marriage and divorce, there is grace—the lens through which Jesus looked beyond the law to justice. Jesus includes women in his discussion. By doing so, he is taking the discussion to a completely new level. Women then merely suffered the consequences of divorce: family and public disgrace, economic hardship, no future for her and her children. In antiquity, if a husband committed adultery, the sin was not against his wife but against her father and family—the ones who entrusted her to him. Jesus showed that the innocent wife had been wronged—that the sin of adultery was against his wife, not the males of her family. Jesus was concerned with the women who were much more vulnerable before the law than the men were.
Jesus’ words about remarriage were a real sticking point for me. Jesus said that if either the husband or wife divorced and remarried they were committing adultery. Where does it leave those who did not want the divorce in the first place? What Jesus was talking about was directed at the person initiating the divorce IN ORDER to marry someone else. That makes a huge difference. It means that the wronged party was free to remarry. She would not be punished for the wrongs of her husband.
That is good that Jesus’ concern was for the victim and the marginalized. How does that relate to us today? There are some here in church that are single or widowed and do not have to worry about divorce or remarriage. However, the focal point of what Jesus is teaching is that as Christians the way we interact with others is very dear to God’s heart. It is all about RELATIONSHIP, RELATIONSHIP, RELATIONSHIP—with God, each other and our community. To be human is to be in relationship. Broken relationships break the heart of God.
Now you may ask, “Where does it leave those who initiated the tearing of the one flesh relationship or other relationships? Are they hanging out on a limb? Are they damned for eternity?” The answer is no. Is God happy with what they have done? No, but we have a loving heavenly Father and we are forgiven. We are sinful, broken people. Luther referred to the Christian as being a saint and sinner at the same time. Sin is anything that separates us from God and broken relationships can do that. As great as our sin may be, God’s grace is greater still. God hears our cries and the Holy Spirit is with us to bring restoration. The community of faith can be God’s tool to help us through the pain. Does this give us the right to do anything we want and expect to be let off the hook? No. God expects us to act responsibly; however, God knows that by our human nature we will from time to time fall flat on our faces and fail. Even when we screw up, he will still come over to us, pick us up, dust us off and give us great big hugs and doses of mercy.
God is with us in our marriages and in our broken relationships. God is with us in every aspect of our lives. This is the good news of today’s lesson! Amen!