Oct. 3, 2021 Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost The text is Mark 10: 2-16.
2 Some Pharisees came, and to test [Jesus] they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 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. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The lectionary of readings used by Lutheran churches across the country is based on a repeating three-year cycle; which means that specific gospel lessons come around once every 36 months. And there are very many readings that ministers look forward to preaching on.
There are the very familiar ones that center on the grace of God that Jesus reminds us of, the lessons that confirm the truth of the coming kingdom of heaven, or those gospel stories that reassure us of the mercy and love that surround us as God’s children. These are the readings that cause preachers to smile when they read that they are coming up next in the cycle.
Then there are the ones that cause ministers to regret that they didn’t schedule to take that particular Sunday off. There are many of these, some of which cause great discomfort to those hearing them read. These deal with divine punishments, commandments which are seemingly impossible to obey, and stories about God’s anger toward the people. Unfortunately, one of the more difficult gospel lessons happens to be the one that appears in the cycle this morning. It might be easier if ministers chose to ignore today’s reading and substituted another lesson, but nobody said preaching was supposed to be easy.
There are very few indeed who have not been impacted in some way by divorce; both spouses, children, extended family; even the wider community feels the hurt that results from the breakup of a family. So here goes, let’s take a look at this discussion Jesus has with the Pharisees who bring up yet another controversial topic with which they hope to test him. To start with, notice they way they frame the question, “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The culture and societal norms of Jesus’ day were drastically different from what we’re used to today. There is no denying that both Jewish society and the wider Roman/Hellenistic world were steeped deeply in the patriarchy of the time. Men held all the power in society; and women, and especially children had no rights, and little to no protection. A divorced woman and her children were powerless and essentially had no value, and in most cases no manner in which to find security. Thus, the Pharisees were questioning only whether a man divorcing has wife complied with Jewish law or not. It was unthinkable that a woman would have that same option open to her. Remember that most marriages were arranged by the bride’s family, and that romance was not an important factor. The express purposes for a marriage might include social status, family honor, prosperity, or security. All these might be more for the benefit for the families involved; the concerns of the bride were not paramount.
As he often does, Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees by asking what was commanded in the Torah, the Jewish Law that Moses received from God. The Pharisees spoke only about the allowance for a certificate of dismissal that a man could issue to his wife to divorce her. Now, there were different schools of thought regarding the grounds that could be cited for this dismissal. Some rabbinical scholars noted that the only reason a man could divorce his wife was if she committed adultery, while others viewed the options much more broadly. As long as the husband provided her the certificate, he could put his wife out if she simply burned dinner. Again, with no provisions under the law, a divorced woman and her children had no rights and no provisions for their security.
Jesus then reminds those questioning him that it is the will of God that people should join together through real affection; providing for each other’s security, mutual fulfilment, protection, nurturing, and the betterment of both parties. Thus, arbitrary dissolution of marriage goes against God’s will; especially if it is because the ancient Jewish man would rather marry someone else after dismissing his current wife. Note that Jesus doesn’t address issues of domestic abuse, alienation, abandonment, or other situations that might make remaining together impossible. He was most concerned that people remained within marriage relationships as this is a means for attaining the mutual fulfilment that God yearns for the people. Yet, we may find that when a marriage is deemed beyond repair, and the effects of continuing the marriage is certain to be more destructive to the partners or children than divorce, the decision for divorce may be recognized as a responsible choice to make. Again, not to be taken lightly, or without appropriate cause.
Here’s the next point Jesus makes; did you catch it? He tells the disciples that if either the man or the woman divorce in order to marry another, they are both breaking God’s command. Neither one should abandon the marriage with the intent to marry someone else. Divorce doesn’t provide a legal loophole in the Jewish Law to justify adultery.
He is limiting the allowable reasons for divorcing, but more importantly in this proclamation he is elevating women to the same level as men; unthinkable in first century in Israel, or for that matter anywhere in the ancient world. God’s institution of marriage is for the benefit of both parties.
So, it seems this dialogue between Jesus and those testing him isn’t centered solely on the question of the legality of divorce among faithful Jews, but again it does give Jesus the opportunity to turn the test of the Pharisees into a teaching moment. Women and men are equal in the eyes of God, and both are bound by the Law of Moses; but wait, there’s more! Now Jesus again invites little children to be brought to him to receive his blessing. He proclaims that God’s kingdom is set aside for them also, they who have no rights, no value, no worth in the culture of the time. But in the eyes of God, these little children are welcome; they have been elevated in status before God, just like women have been. And Jesus expects that everyone is to be treated in this world the same way God welcomes, blesses, and draws close all men, and women, and children.
So, Jesus takes what was meant to be a trick question about a man’s right under the law to divorce his wife so he may be able to marry someone else, and turns it into a teaching about the value of all people in God’s kingdom. How reassuring it is that Jesus reminds the Pharisees, his disciples, and us that his ministry, his mission, and his ultimate salvation for God’s people incudes everyone. None of us who believes will be left out, not the men, not the women, and not the little children. Actually, based on the way Jesus is so indignant that the disciples don’t stop the children from coming to him, I would suggest that the kingdom is set aside especially for children. Those who are actually very young and also for those who would come to God with the open heart, and mind, and innocence of a child. I think I’m glad I didn’t take today off after all; I wouldn’t want to have missed out on this joyful pronouncement of Jesus, proclaiming the wide-open nature of the coming kingdom.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, we ask your blessing on all your people who find themselves in difficult relationships. Heal brokenness so families might be sustained when possible; and nurture, bless, and support those who are not able to maintain challenging, damaging relationships. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who lifts up and makes all equal, in his eyes and in your kingdom. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.