“Some texts in the Bible, both in the Old and New Testament have what some scholars have termed “texts of terror.” Usually, these are texts that scholars consider to be offensive or disconcerting to contemporary sensibilities. These might include passages that condone slavery, genocide, and polygamy, just to name a few. Many of these texts are troubling, for these scriptures, although inspired, speak to a different time, culture and context. Some of these are at odds with present-day understandings. Included among those texts is this morning’s gospel reading about divorce.
As one who is divorced, I approached this passage with some fear and trepidation, and maybe a little guilt. But let me state that I do not advocate divorce except as last resort, after other options for working through the marriage have failed or in cases of the physical or emotional safety of family members. Yet, statistics show that currently about 45% of first marriages end in divorce, and subsequent marriages show an even higher percentage. Personally, my divorce after 26 years of marriage followed two years of personal professional counseling as well as spiritual direction, in addition to joint counseling, which was not successful. While I am not proud of my attribute, we both truly feel that in the end, this was the right thing for us to do. Thus, I am of the opinion that divorce should not be approached casually, as an easy out; just as marriage should neither be entered into lightly, but responsibly and prayerfully– and with counseling. And even that is no guarantee of success.
That being said, let’s look at our reading for this morning in its historical framework and its entirety to get a better picture of passage. Mark sets up the scene: “Some Pharisees came and to test him, and asked ‘Is it lawful…’” Did you catch that? This was never intended to be a conversation about love, marriage, and divorce. It’s a test. Moreover, it’s not even a test about divorce, but about the law. There were at the time several competing schools of thought about the legality of divorce. Not so much about whether divorce was legal – it was and everyone agreed upon that – but rather under what circumstances. And with this test question, the Pharisees were trying to pin Jesus down, trying to label him, trying to draw him out and perhaps entrap him so that they know better how to deal with him.
And Jesus, of course, is having none of their game. He deflects their question away from matters of the law and turns it instead to relationship. Particularly, to God’s hope that our relationships are more than legal matters, but rather, relationships that will help us to have and share a more abundant life. Hence the turn to Genesis: questions of marriage and divorce, he argues, aren’t simply a matter of legal niceties, but rather are about the Creator’s intention that we be in relationships of mutual dependence and health.
In fact, Jesus goes one step further and takes what had turned into a legal convenience – typically it was the man who sought a divorce – and pushes his verbal adversaries to see that this law – indeed, all law – was and is intended to protect the vulnerable. When a woman was divorced, she lost pretty much everything – status, reputation, economic security, everything – so how can they treat this as a convenience? Jesus asks, let alone a debate topic. The law, as given to Moses and to us, is meant to protect the vulnerable and hurting, and every time we use it for another purpose, we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter.
It seems, too, that Jesus isn’t speaking here about individuals; rather, he’s making a statement about the kind of community we will be. In fact, he’s inviting us to imagine communities centered in and on real relationships; relationships founded on love and mutual dependence, fostered by respect and dignity, and pursued for the sake of the health of the community and the protection of the vulnerable.
Let’s also consider this: even though the discussion up to this point has been about divorce, I don’t think that’s really the heart of what’s going on here. Which is why I’m grateful the lectionary includes the next verses describing the reaction of Jesus’ disciples to those bringing children to Jesus to bless and, more importantly, Jesus’ reaction to the same.
Let’s recall the context: Jesus has previously announced his intention to go to Jerusalem to die and, in response, his disciples argue about who is the greatest. Jesus in turn tells them that to be great is to serve, and that the very heart of the kingdom he proclaims is about welcoming the vulnerable. In fact, he says that whenever you welcome and honor a child – one who had the least status and power in the ancient world – you were actually welcoming and honoring Jesus. Now, on the heels of this conversation about the purpose of the law, some folks bring their children to be blessed and the disciples try to keep them away. And Jesus intervenes, forcefully, saying that welcoming the kingdom pretty much means welcoming children, that is, the vulnerable, those at risk, and those in need.
Therefore, it seems that maybe the whole passage is about community. But it’s not the kind of community we’ve been trained to seek. That is, it isn’t about a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent. Rather, this is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk. It’s a community of those who know their need and seek to be in relationship with each other because they have learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other, they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place.
And isn’t this what the church was originally about? And should still be about? A place for all those who had been broken by life or rejected by the powerful and who came to experience God through the crucified Jesus as the One who met them precisely in their vulnerability; not to make them impervious to harm but rather to open to the brokenness and need of those around them.
But that has been hard to remember! The Apostle Paul had to remind the Corinthians,
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
Part of being human is to be insecure, to be aware of our need and, in light of the cultural preference for strength, power, and independence, to be embarrassed by our need. For this reason, Paul, following Jesus, reminds us that to be broken is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, to be broken is, in fact, to be human. And to be human is to be loved by God and drawn together into relationship with all the others that God loves. Which means that our Sunday worship become gatherings of the broken and loved, of those who are hurting but also healing, of those who are lost but have also been found, of those that know their need and seek not simply to have those needs met but have realized that in helping meet the needs of others, their own are met in turn. And in that, we are blessed.
Today we will come to the table with brothers and sisters from around the world, in communion and community with these who are seeking to share God’s love and compassion. We are, in short, communities of the broken and blessed. And that can be a hard message to hear because it runs contrary to conventional wisdom about strength and security. But it can also be life-giving, not only to those who know themselves to be broken and wonder if this is a place to them, but also to those of us in denial, seeking relentlessly to make it on our own. So, come to the table and discover anew God’s life-giving grace, love, and mercy. Amen.
*Thanks to David Lose, and his blog “Working Preacher” for the substance of this morning’s sermon