Proper 22B, October 4, 2015

October 5, 2015

It’s Not About Divorce
Mark 10:2-16

10:2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him 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.

In an opposite way, this passage reminds me of that old saying about money. That whenever someone says over and over that it’s not about the money – it’s about the money. In the case of our scripture reading this morning, the Pharisees are asking Jesus about divorce, and Jesus has a lot to say about divorce, but I really don’t think this passage is about divorce.

If I thought the point of this passage was to heap condemnation on people who have suffered through the pain of divorce I wouldn’t touch it. If I thought Jesus’ intention was ramp up pressure on people to stay married at all cost I would skip over these verses. If I thought the enterprise of Christian living was simply a matter of following a very precise set of rules I would find another occupation. If I thought divorce disqualified people from full membership in the body of Christ I would have no hope for the church, but that’s not how I see it.

I doubt if there is any single issue I could bring up that would conjure up as much pain as this issue of divorce, and I hope you’ll forgive me for even mentioning the word. I know this passage seems to heap a new load of judgement onto that pain, but I don’t believe this was Jesus’ intent. He was issueing some strong judgement with his words, but the wrongness he was addressing was not really about divorce. Jesus spoke some words that seem hard to hear, but he was responding to a tricky question, and he had a shrewd reply.

The Pharisees weren’t questioning Jesus in hope of obtaining answers to questions that were actually troubling them. They weren’t really interested in knowing what he actually thought was legal or right – they were just interested in getting Jesus to say something that would be self incriminating to a significant group of people.

Apparently divorce was the subject of much debate in those days, and there were two main schools of thought on the issue. Both sides agreed that the Mosaic law allowed for a man to divorce his wife. There’s this passage in Deuteronomy that said a man could divorce his wife if he found something objectional about her. But there was quite a disagreement as to what justified a divorce. One group thought that a man could only divorce his wife if she engaged in an adulterous affair with another man, while the other group was willing to consider an objectionable dinner to be grounds for divorce.

The Pharisees were trying to set Jesus up as being at odds with one group or the other by having him interpret the intention of Moses’ law, but Jesus didn’t take the bait. He comes across as sounding like a member of the Taliban, but he wasn’t advocating intolerance. They asked him what was legal, and he gave them a legalistic answer. He sounds terribly hard-hearted, but I believe his true intention was to reveal the unrighteousness of the Pharisees.

What he did was to show that it was possible to be legally pure and spiritually wrong. In a sense what he said was that it wasn’t good enough to follow the letter of the law. The Pharisees based their righteousness on their ablility to abide by all the laws, and Jesus pointed out that it was possible to follow the law without being faithful to God.

By answering the way he did he exposed the unrighteousness of those who thought they were the most righteous. Jesus raised the bar impossibly high for those who sought to become worthy of God’s favor. Jesus basically said that if you are counting on being perfectly righteous there can’t be any compromise of God’s will – which is even harder than the Pharisees made it out to be. Jesus considered some of the laws in the Torah to be corrupt. He basically said Moses was pressured into making some adjustments to the law.

Jesus had bad news for those who based their relationship with God on their ability to abide by all the rules. The Pharisees lived very disciplined lives, and Jesus didn’t fault them for that, but he didn’t allow them to think they knew what it took to become perfectly righteous.

The Pharisees asked Jesus what was lawful and he told them that God’s law is even more demanding than Moses had portrayed it. If you want to be perfectly righteous there’s no room for divorce or any other form of behavior that is less than perfect. And I’m pretty sure that the One who can see into our hearts can recognize the ways in which we all engage in some form of idolatry, thievery, murder, adultery, coveting, Sabbath breaking, lying, blaspheming, or parental dishonoring. And that’s just the top ten ways to offend God.

Jesus has bad news for anyone who thinks they can meet all of God’s expectations. It’s not just the divorcees who are disqualified from perfect righteous – it’s hopeless for any of us who have ever harbored a desire for anything we don’t already have or a malicious thought about anyone.

The good news is that we don’t have to be perfectly righteous in order to be perfectly loved by God. Jesus wasn’t willing to compromise the holiness of the marriage covenant, but he didn’t lift up a perfectly righteous person as the example of someone who would enter into the kingdom of God. Jesus didn’t say that the person who has never done anything wrong is the person who is the most capable of receiving the kingdom of God. Jesus lifted up a child and said: Whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.

And it wasn’t their innocence that he was recognizing. Children weren’t revered in those days in the way we revere children. In the rank of human value in that society, men were the most important, women were second class citizens, and children were on their way to becoming of value. I’m sure they loved their children, but they were the most invisible members of the community. They didn’t earn their keep. They weren’t in charge of anything. They hadn’t achieved anything. They were powerless, and the disciples didn’t consider them to be worthy of Jesus’ attention. They were preventing them from being brought to Jesus to be blessed, and it was in response to the way they were being disregarded that Jesus chose to highlight them as having the right qualification for entry in to the kingdom of God.

I think it was their lack of religious qualification that Jesus found so endearing about children, and that serves to undermine the way we often categorize who is most qualified for God’s favor.

Jesus clearly saw broken relationships as being contradictory to God’s desire for humanity, but that is not to say that people who divorce and remarry are unredeemable sinners. In fact people who fall short of maintaining the covenant of marriage generally undergo a pretty devastating experience. To experience divorce is to experience public failure, and I think it becomes a little harder for divorced people to engage in the kind of self-righteousness that Jesus found so offensive. I think it’s often easier for people who’s failures are put on display to develop the kind of attitude that Jesus found to be redeeming.

It’s so funny to think about who it was that recognized Jesus as the embodiment of God, and who it was that couldn’t stand him. The officially righteous people were totally put off by Jesus, while the losers and the lost couldn’t get enough of him.

Now I’m not saying that you need to ditch your spouse and develop a drug addiction if you want to get close to Jesus. I’m not suggesting that the best way to get to Jesus is through a personal train wreck. Living without regard for God or anyone else is detrimental to the developement of spiritual life, but I believe an inflated sense of righteousness is the greatest obstacle to an authentic relationship with God.

It isn’t our ability to live perfect lives that makes us candidates for life in the kingdom of God. The way we live our lives does make a difference, but it’s often our mistakes that enable us to become better candidates for living in relationship with God. Jesus didn’t point to the Pharisees as the one’s we need to emulate – he pointed to the children.

It’s not about being qualified. It’s about seeking to live in relationship with the one who loves us regardless of what we’ve done. Thanks be to God for those powerful experiences that enable us to see ourselves for who we are, and that put us in touch with the redeeming grace of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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