Focus Scripture: Mark 10:2-16
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.
Our text for today is a tough one. Some people call verses like these “Clobber verses” because they have often been used to clobber people, especially women, divorces, gay/lesbian/transgender people. These texts have a history of being weaponized by people to fight against beliefs different from their own. And yet, as so very often in these texts and others, Jesus responds by reminding his hearers that to judge is human and to love divine. Nevertheless, today’s gospel lesson is one that many preachers, including myself, would like to skip. In addition to how these verses have been used against people, the truth is also that divorce has touched the lives of many and often there are good reasons why a marriage ended. For many people it may have been the one thing that was necessary for their emotional well-being or the one thing that that saved their very lives.
It was that for me – a life saver – when I left my then-husband with a one-year old baby on my arm and walked away and later divorced myself from a situation that may, otherwise, have cost me my life. The decision was not an easy one, because there I was, a young mother, an immigrant, someone with no support system, with family far away in Germany, with a temporary green card that depended upon the sponsorship of the person that I had to walk away from, and without own transportation, housing, money, or employment. And this gospel lesson – with references to God having designed things one way telling me that going against that design means to go against God – well, it makes me and probably others feel a bit sad and uncomfortable and maybe even a bit excluded by God, by Jesus. Would God have wanted us to stay?
However, the question was asked by the Pharisees, by those who tend to defend the ancient laws and who would have done anything to trip up Jesus – and so the question is not personal but political and it is not about who can marry or divorce or not but about the law and about judging others and about playing a verbal power play.
We just spent the last three weeks in the Gospel of Mark. These weeks have been about becoming loving and caring and about being inclusive. How does our reading today fit in? The only way it will fit in is if we look at it through the lens of love and the lens of what we know about Jesus and about what know about living faithful lives. And if we do that, everything changes. When we look at this story through the lens of love we see that it must be a story of inclusivity and about justice and about caring for each other and especially the vulnerable and voiceless ones – just like all the surrounding stories. And we see that this story has to be about lifting up people or restoring them to their rightful place in society because that is what the surrounding stories are about.
The setting of the conversation between the pharisees and Jesus is one many in the Gospels, where authorities try to get Jesus to say something that they can then use against him. It is entrapment because they know that there is never a good enough answer because the questions they ask Jesus are tough and they are difficult questions for which there does not seem to be a fully right or wrong answer and whatever his answer is –someone or some group will disagree and be offended. Questions such as, “If a woman successively marries seven brothers, whose wife will she be in heaven? (Mark 12:23) Should we pay taxes to the emperor? (Mark 12:14)“ And now this question about divorce.
Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, tells us that “divorce in the first century was a generally accepted part of life, both among Jews and perhaps more so within wider Greco-Roman culture. Some writers and public leaders spoke against divorce as bad for society, but for the most part people debated only details of its legal basis. Among Jewish legal experts, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was a key text, one that assumes divorce will occur and proscribes procedures for carrying it out. But other scriptures call the permissibility of divorce into question (see Malachi 2:13-16; Genesis 2:24). The debate centered around grounds for divorce, who can ask for a divorce and who cannot, and when is divorce justified. “[i] But Jesus takes this question about a man’s ability to divorce his wife and he turns it around. Instead of making it about divorce and separation, he makes it about marriage and unity. And instead of making it a matter of law, Jesus takes the topic and makes it a matter of God and God’s creation.
For Jesus, our relationships, marriages and others, are not about legal contracts but about God’s intention for all of creation and when we keep that in mind as we read this story, then it becomes clear that what Jesus is saying is that God created us for living together in harmony and community. And rather than being an issue for men alone – “can a man divorce his wife” – it is an issue in which both sides are equals because God “from the beginning created them, male and female”. And rather than talking about one man and one woman and one-on-one relationships and marriages, what Jesus is really getting at is community and relationships. And what Jesus is telling us is that it is not right to walk away from those who need us and who depend on us. See, in ancient times, a woman who was divorced by her husband or who had divorced her husband faired a lot less well than he did. When a woman was divorced, she often lost everything – her safety and security, her status, and even her reputation – and when we turn away from those who are vulnerable without us, we are purposely leaving them hanging; we are abandoning them.
And no, let me make this very clear, Jesus is not trying to hold us hostage to hurtful and damaging relationships but is encouraging us to honor and uphold and engage in mutually loving and respectful and committed relationships, within the bounds of marriage and even beyond. Rather than quick, sensational relationships like those formed on TV shows like the Bachelorette, The Bachelor, The Proposal, or in speed dating and speed marriage scenarios, Jesus is inviting us toward a new way of living in community – based on deep, loving and mutually dependent relationships, relationships of respect and of dignity, and relationships that make our families and communities stronger by loving the way God loves us – unconditionally and deeply and with care and concerns for the wellbeing of all, especially those who cannot care for themselves.
The lesson for us, among many in today’s text, it that any practice that purposely excludes someone or removes them from our community, for reasons other than safety, is hurtful. And the text invites us to ask ourselves who are we excluding in our present day by being complicit to certain laws and doctrines or even rules in our various social groups that are passively accepted? Who do we remove or exclude by doing things because that is how they always have been done rather than imagining a new way together? What lines of division do we hold on to and why?
And the text goes even further – it is not only about whom we exclude, but about whom we do not invite in and welcome. Once again Jesus uses a child to underscore his point. Once again Jesus points toward the most vulnerable as those who need us with them and not against them. Not too long ago the disciples argued about who is the greatest and Jesus told them that to be great they must serve the least, and to be welcome they must welcome the vulnerable – and in doing so they welcome God. And now he reiterates his point, angry that the disciples are trying to turn away the children, and tells them that rejecting the kids means rejecting the kingdom because the kingdom is found right there, with those children, with those who are vulnerable, with those who are in need of God love.
God is all about love and so is Jesus. And when we open our Bibles and read them or when we tell others about God, then it ought to be about love. And every time Jesus is tested by legalists- by Pharisees or by scribes – he responds by reminding people that unconditional love is the answer and that inclusivity is the answer and that speaking up for the least and lost is the answer. So, when these texts are used as clobber passages, to hurt others, we can assure them that they are loved and included into the Kingdom of God. And when these texts make us feel uncomfortable because they touch our lives on a very personal level, we too can be comforted in knowing that God is not against us but with us, we too are the ones included into the Kingdom of God.
God loves us whether we are male or female, no matter what skin color, whether rich or poor, divorced or married or single or widowed, whether we are young or old, and regardless of our sexual orientations, gender expressions, or any other box that we may fit into. And God surrounds us with people who love us and whom we can love us back.
God loves us.
God loves you!
Because our God, is an awesome God. Now and always.