Tough Questions along the Way
Sunday, October 7, 2018
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22)
Tough Questions along the Way
Sovereign God, you make us for each other, to live in loving community as friends, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, partners and companions. Teach us to choose love when it is committed and devoted; teach us like little children to wonder and to trust, that our loving may reflect the image of Christ. Amen.
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.
All readings for this Sunday:
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
1. How can the church hold up the ideal of marriage without inflicting further pain on those who are divorced?
2. Would you rather skip reading this passage from the Bible? If so, how do you decide which ones to skip?
3. How is marriage a justice issue?
4. Do you believe that some bonds can’t be broken, even by divorce?
5. Why do you think the reign of God belongs to the children? What do you think Jesus meant by “receiving the kingdom as a little child”?
by Kate Matthews
We might be tempted to avoid the reading from Mark’s Gospel this week, and choose instead to reflect with Job on why the good suffer, which may appear at first to be an easier problem than how to approach this passage about divorce. It’s hard to imagine a family or a congregation today that doesn’t include a number of people who have come through the painful experience of divorce (as spouses who have divorced, or as their children), and the possibility of hurting them is good reason to choose another text from the lectionary offerings for our reflection this week.
However, we might also explore the question of whether it’s possible to read this text for a meaning that is sensitive to the experience of those who have been divorced, and yet also appropriately challenging to our culture’s attitudes and practices around relationships, especially marriage. An unexpected benefit might be a deeper commitment to wrestling with, rather than avoiding, difficult passages that require more time, more thought, and perhaps more movement of our hearts. Jesus, after all, was known to ask us for all three of these: our time, our thoughts, our hearts–our whole lives.
Encountering a trap
In any case, the focus text has been given to us, and it is the story of Jesus responding to another trap laid by the religious authorities. As we struggle with Jesus’ surprisingly hard words about divorce and remarriage, let’s keep in mind that last week’s lectionary text from Mark 9:38-50 speaks about cutting off our hand or foot, or tearing out our eye, if it makes us “stumble.”
If that’s not enough, next week’s passage, which in the Gospel of Mark immediately follows this week’s text, tells the story of the rich man who thought he had “all his ducks in a row,” having obeyed all the laws since his youth. Instead of hearing that he had sealed the deal on eternal life, he’s told by Jesus to sell everything he owned and give the money to the poor, and come, follow him. Shock and grief weren’t only his reaction; the disciples too were taken aback, and asked, “Then who can be saved?” (10:26). On his way to Jerusalem, to his suffering and death, Jesus speaks hard words to his followers, but he promises that “for God all things are possible” (10:27).
The challenges before us
The challenge before us is not unlike that presented by passages about money and possessions, for example, in a congregation that includes people who are struggling mightily with finances (and no one knows it), sitting right beside others who need to hear a word that will jar them out of complacency about their consumption of material things, or their dependence not on God but on money, or their lack of generosity toward those in need, or their failure to support God’s mission in the church. (It’s probably more fair to say “our” rather than “their” in that sentence.)
And this doesn’t even begin to address the question of economic injustice in our systems and institutions, a debate that rages now among North American Christians who would rather avoid many, many passages in the Bible that make most of us feel quite uncomfortable. And yet, wouldn’t Jesus have something to say about all of these things, even if he does so lovingly? After all, we’ll hear next week that Jesus looked at the rich man “and loved him” as he encouraged him to do the very thing that the man felt he could not do.
Divorce and remarriage?
The persistent preoccupation of churches with questions around sexuality and reproduction dominates our debates about morality, and yet divorce and remarriage–ironically–appear to be settled issues for most mainline (and members of many other) churches, even though Jesus seems to speak quite clearly here and in the Gospel of Matthew (19:1-12) against divorce and remarriage.
We have to acknowledge that the improved economic and social status of women in our culture may very well have contributed to a higher rate of divorce, as more women, for example, are able to leave abusive marriages and support households of their own. A growing number of religious leaders grasp the reality of harmful relationships that ought to end, and fewer women, we trust, are hearing from their pastors, “What did you do to make him hit you?”
A sad necessity
Also, while marriage is no longer as much a question of property transfer as it was in ancient times (women, of course, were part of the property), there are many important financial and other issues that require a legal agreement in order to end a marital relationship. Like our ancient ancestors in faith, we appear to have made peace with the sad necessity of divorce, and have shown compassion and understanding for those who seek to marry again.
So what do we do with all of this, as we shine the light of this Gospel text on the attitude of our culture and our church toward divorce? Can it be that the secular culture around us is somehow more compassionate than the gospel, giving victims a chance to escape unbearable situations, or those who feel that they are dying in relationships that starve their souls a chance to enter into a life-giving, grace-filled second marriage? These are thorny questions, but not ones to be avoided.
What does the Law say?
A little background is helpful in understanding what is happening here, on the road to Jerusalem, when the crowds gather and the religious leaders try to set Jesus up with a trick question. His answer, one way or the other, will offend the faction that doesn’t agree with him. Although it seems that divorce itself was a given, some teachers allowed it under more conditions than others did.
We have to go back to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 to understand where the Pharisees are coming from when they ask Jesus whether it’s lawful for a man to divorce his wife. When he asks them what Moses (that is, the Law) said, they quote from Deuteronomy, and we might wonder why they even ask, if it’s right there in the Law. Or are they asking for Jesus’ interpretation of the text, which is where religious people start disagreeing, back then just like today?
Scripture in conversation with Scripture
If we read the Deuteronomy text, we’re immediately struck by the marked difference between a patriarchal culture thousands of years ago and the one we live in today, where women are rarely if ever referred to as “defiled,” and it’s not acceptable for a man simply to get rid of a wife if “he finds something objectionable about her” (Deuteronomy 24:1-2). Jesus acknowledges that the Mosaic Law permitted divorce, but only because of the “hardness of heart” of the people.
However, he then puts Scripture in conversation with Scripture, holding up the ideal of God’s intention so beautifully expressed in Genesis, for two people to be faithful, lifelong companions in an intimate, committed relationship that should not be severed. As many commentators observe, the Pharisees ask about divorce and Jesus changes the subject to marriage instead. John and James Carroll write, “Jesus deflects concern from escape clauses to an embracing of the unity of partners that reflects the creative design of God.”
Bonds not easily broken
That’s the public part of the conversation. Later, in private, “in the house,” that is, when it’s just Jesus and his followers, he expands on the Law, calling remarriage “adultery.” We know that “in the house” is the way Mark records the conversation that was going on in the early church.
That observation is confirmed here when Mark has Jesus speaking of something that wasn’t practiced in ancient Judaism, a wife divorcing her husband. Mark’s church is wrestling with the Greco-Roman culture around them which allowed such things, and that debate is reflected in the way they “record” Jesus’ private conversation.
Bible study will help us here
A Bible study provides an excellent opportunity for discussion of the many interesting approaches to this text, and the small but important points that might inform our perspective. For example, Lamar Williamson, Jr. notes that the words “against her” in the text suggest that these were personal rather than legal matters that are important even after the marriage ends; Williamson focuses with keen insight on the bonds that can persist between two people who have been one and then separate.
In a society like ours that permits divorce and remarriage, we might acknowledge that these bonds are not always easily or completely broken, despite all the legal agreements we might create. Other scholars remind us that Paul himself re-stated the prohibition against divorce, but added a dispensation that endures in some churches to this day.
Jesus as law-giver?
Jesus is asked a legal question, a technical, down-to-earth, question about everyday, lived reality, and he answers with an ideal that is, to be honest, almost impossible to achieve, at least by everyone. As we have said, Jesus has been known to speak this way before, and he will again.
But John and James Carroll wonder if it’s appropriate to see Jesus as laying such a heavy burden on his followers, including the death penalty that Leviticus 20:10 prescribes for adultery. Or could this be Jesus once again exaggerating in order “to challenge beliefs and practices which we take for granted? A hard saying to be taken seriously, but not to be pressed literally”?
What would Jesus intend?
In our hearts, we sense that Jesus was not about ordering people to be put to death because they had disobeyed the Law, even if the Law seems to call for it. What then is the lesson here? What do we hear in this passage?
At first, it might sound too easy just to say that Jesus was holding up the ideal of marriage in response to the Pharisees’ preoccupation with divorce. But isn’t that exactly what needs to happen in our own time: don’t we need strong voices that lift up the ideal, the intention of God from the very beginning, of two people joined together for life, faithfully loving each other?
From technicalities to the heart of the matter
Yes, it didn’t take long (in Genesis itself) for things to change, and for men (revered patriarchs included) to start collecting multiple wives, with no word of judgment from the Scripture. And yes, divorce came along, too, because of “hardness of heart,” a mysterious phrase that might bear reflection. As in every subject he addressed, Jesus seems to wrench our attention from the technicalities to the heart of the matter.
There are ways for us in the church to focus more energy on the ideal of lasting, faithful, loving unions that are a sign of God’s love in the world. We could strengthen our support systems for married couples and our marriage preparation programs, and perhaps even consider a measure of holy hesitation before marrying every couple that asks. In some cases, it might require an extraordinary degree of courage on the part of a pastor to decline to marry a couple he or she knows is not ready for marriage.
Are we even spending time in the church wrestling with how quickly pastors agree to preside at weddings that perhaps should never occur? Or are we spending too much time thinking about other ways to “defend” marriage, especially in the political/secular arena?
Marriage as sacramental encounter with God
Is it possible, in the life of the church, to speak about marriage in encouraging and hopeful ways that also affirm those who have had to leave a marriage in order to seek wholeness and healing? If salvation is about healing and wholeness, then the possibility of remarriage seems not only a matter of compassion but a question of justice. James J. Thompson suggests that it’s a matter of “whether the human was created for marriage, or marriage for the human?”
Richard Swanson has also written evocatively of marriage “as a field on which we encounter God….at the heart of human life,” not “on the edges of existence, in retreat from ordinary life” so much as “in the midst of the ordinary rituals of daily life.” In this sense, then, marriage is sacramental, a means of God’s grace in our lives.
Of all people, then, faithful followers of Jesus should take marriage seriously, and should hesitate before denying anyone this means of encountering God.
Speaking of grace…
Speaking of grace: the second part of the passage may seem at first disconnected from the first, when Jesus once again uses children as an illustration of how to receive the reign of God. We remember that only a few verses earlier Jesus urged his disciples to become the servant of all, and to receive even little children, who had no standing in the world, as they would receive him (9:36-37).
In this week’s story, we picture parents bringing their children for a blessing; children may not have had status or power in that culture, but these parents obviously loved their own. Maybe the scene was chaotic, or maybe the disciples were in a bad mood after the divorce discussion. They “spoke sternly” to the parents, and/or the children, probably figuring that Jesus had more important business to tend.
That’s the moment that Jesus chooses to enlighten them once more; like us, they seem to need that a lot. Douglas Hare contrasts the innocent openness of the little children with the striving of the adult disciples and religious leaders: the “lowly” children receive God’s reign as the unearned, “pure gift” of God’s grace, while grown-ups need to “submit themselves humbly to God’s sovereign grace.”
The bigger question of how we read the Bible
There is a little book of speeches by several great Bible scholars, Struggling with Scripture, that is very helpful in approaching difficult texts such as these. In his introduction, William Sloane Coffin reassures us as we struggle with these texts, for “wrestling with Scripture, far from a sign of weakness, is a reflection of religious faithfulness. What else should you wrestle with if not the Bible? What struggle offers more reward?”
In Walter Brueggemann’s essay, he describes the Bible as “essentially an open, artistic, imaginative narrative that will feed and nurture into obedience, that builds community precisely by respect for the liberty of the Christian man or woman….What this script does is to insist that the world is not without God, not without the holy gift of life rooted in love.” And William Placher claims that “practices that drive away rather than welcome, that set strict limits to the grace of God rather than marvel at its superabundance–such practices are not in accord with the practices of Jesus.”
Listening for guidance
Finally, in the same volume, Brian K. Blount offers an exquisitely beautiful reflection on how we listen for guidance from the Stillspeaking God, and it deserves to be read in its entirety. He challenges the church today in a way that might shock many contemporary Christians, when he says that, instead of conforming to a past culture, we should “speak to it! Speak from it, yes, but also speak to it in a way that values human living now, before God, just as human living before God was valued in the first century.”
Like slaves in the 19th century American South, and women, and the poor in Latin America, those who turn to the Bible in hope find that the Word of God liberates rather than oppresses; Blount writes that a literalist “perspective on the biblical words does a disservice to the power of the living Word to confront, challenge, and liberate us in the places where God’s Holy Spirit of Christ meets us today.…This is how the first Christians did faith, aggressively using it to interpret, not just recite their traditions. The Spirit was alive, and the Word of God was on the move.”
How do you sense the Word of God on the move in this world, today?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (email@example.com) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Eugene H. Peterson, Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, 21st century
“I had escaped the snare of certitude that I welcomed so avidly at first and entered, via the name of Jesus, the wide and comprehensive company of Jesus.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 19th century
“Love children especially, for they too are sinless like the angels; they live to soften and purify our hearts and, as it were, to guide us.”
Karl Menninger, 20th century
“Love cures people–both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.”
Lily Tomlin, 21st century
“If love is the answer, could you rephrase the question?”
Joseph Campbell, 20th century
“When people get married because they think it’s a long-time love affair, they’ll be divorced very soon, because all love affairs end in disappointment. But marriage is a recognition of a spiritual identity.”
Oscar Wilde, 19th century
“The world has grown suspicious of anything that looks like a happily married life.”
Robert Anderson, 19th century
“In every marriage more than a week old, there are grounds for divorce. The trick is to find and continue to find grounds for marriage.”
Audrey Hepburn, 20th century
“If I get married, I want to be very married.”
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