Text: Mark 10:2-9
We look to our faith tradition for guidance on how to live with ourselves, with each other, and with God. I think it is clear that the headline guidance in our faith tradition is love – love one another and love God. And yet, love never seems to be that simple in real life. Most of us live life in the gray areas where love involves choices and compromise and sometimes loss. We live in the shadows where discerning our path on loving ourselves, others, and God is not always easy. We live our real lives knowing that it is a rare moment when right and wrong are so clearly defined.
In this ambiguous reality, guidance can be a tricky thing. In the absence of easy answers or easy application of answers, our tendency as humans is to take the guidance and use it as judgment and punishment. Such has been the case with the words of Mark 10 and the teaching attributed to Jesus concerning the question of divorce. In our churches, it has been our tradition to read and interpret Mark 10:2-12 as punishment and judgment rather than as a vision and a hope for how we are to live in relationship with one another. And in so doing, we have missed a larger teaching of Jesus that is central to all his teachings: relationship commitments are serious commitments, not to be entered into lightly or without care.
Folks like us, in churches like Pullen, don’t talk much about divorce anymore. We tend to think of it as a past theological issue – one with which we have made our peace and from which we have moved on, even though we still bear the scars of broken promises and unrealized hopes and dreams. Yes, we have made our theological peace, but I dare say that for any one of us who has ever experienced divorce or contemplated it, the actual truth is that we are always making our spiritual peace with it – not once and for all and certainly not simply because the church has moved on to other theological hot button issues. This awareness has never been more real to me as, in these past weeks in the lectionary group, I have listened to caring and loving people share their experiences of divorce – some decades in the past. On some level the pain is still felt. The inevitable feelings of failure are quick to re-surface. And the disappointments of lost dreams are easily re-awakened. In those conversations, there was a depth of knowing just how real the pain of divorce is. And yet, in those same conversations, there was no denying that for many, divorce felt necessary in order to live an authentic life, to be safe, and to care for themselves and for others. It was also evident in those conversations, that there is always the promise of healing; in the face of divorce and in the hard place of separation, there is always the possibility of forgiveness and grace and reconciliation.
The Pharisees came to Jesus with their question of divorce. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” As Jesus so often did, when being asked questions intended to entrap, he answered according to the law and often with a question. “What did Moses command you?” he asked. Knowing the law well, the Pharisees rightly responded that the law of Moses allows a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce his wife. So now, with the legalities of the question satisfied, Jesus tightens the screw and goes deeper than the context of the question at hand. He says, “Because of your hard heartedness 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.”
For many of us sitting in this sanctuary, that part of the text is the most difficult, because it, too, has been used to exclude and punish those for whom it does not fit in gender nouns and pronouns. And again I would say that these inclusions and exclusions in Mark 10 are not the point of Jesus’ message. It is easier for all of us to get focused on the details and the specifics than to open our minds and hearts to the larger message of Jesus’ words. In this text, Jesus wasn’t focused on divorce. He wasn’t even focused on who gets to marry whom. Rather, he was focused on God’s intention and God’s vision for how we make commitments to one another and the kind of relationships that our faith calls us to live into.
In a text that seems so clear, it’s fair to ask the question, whether or not this shift that I’m proposing from this text being about divorce to instead being about relationship is simply another example of people trying to make the text say what we want it to say. To read this text at face value, it seems clear that Jesus is talking about divorce, and that his position on divorce is firm and non-negotiable – that divorce is not what God intends for our relationships. But it is important to put this in historical context – in Jesus’ time, several things were true about divorce. First, a woman had no say in the decision – as we read from the text, it is the man who writes the certificate of dismissal and makes the choice to divorce. But more importantly, in Jesus’ time, a woman who is divorced is cast away; she is rejected not just by the individual man, but by society. It is fair to say that in the historical setting of this text, divorce was, in itself, a damnation for women.
To equate the responsibility of a man in a marriage contract in this historical context to the choices we make today is a perversion of the message. Jesus is not focused here on the irrefutable permanence of marriage as much as he is once again reinforcing his primary messages of justice and equality. It is our work to set Jesus’ message in our context, and to try and understand what these words mean for us today. That is fundamentally different than trying to twist the text to our purposes. I honestly stand here today not trying to justify my own choices, or those of our times, but trying to understand the mind and heart of God in making statements about covenant and about commitment.
So what does Jesus’ statement mean to us? How might we do what Flannery O’Connor suggested over and over to her students when trying to discern wisdom and truth from a long ago sacred text? When she would ask her students a question, and a student would give the right answer, as did the Pharisees, Flannery O’Connor was known to look at the student and say, “Now go deeper. Now, go deeper.” So, how might we go deeper with Jesus’ response to the Pharisees?
Jesus goes deeper by reminding the listener of God’s intention for humanity and for humans’ relationships to one another from the beginning of creation. God created human beings to be in relationship with one another. Jesus was saying that there is a permanence in the connections and in the commitments we make with one another. I do believe Jesus intends to convey that we should not enter into relationships lightly, that there is a binding responsibility to love and care for those we choose. He is wanting us to understand that when we do choose to join our lives together, there is a oneness that is created. And no matter how that might get separated over the course of time, the transformation of joining is not undone. There is a common perception that divorce has become too easy – that people can quickly and neatly end their unions. The reality is that most people who have ever been divorced will tell you that divorce does not end a relationship, there is an ongoing-ness, even in the most severe separations.
So, what do we do in 2012 with these words in Mark 10? As I am known to do, I want to attempt to rewrite Mark 10:2-9 for our ears. Hear now Jesus’ words for our times.
Some Baptists came to Jesus asking the question, “Is divorce wrong?” And Jesus said, “I tell you, God is less concerned with the status of your marriages than with how you care for one another and how you keep relationships that are just and compassionate and equal. In marriage, as in all things, God’s people are a people of promises made, promises kept, and promises broken. And because God’s people are such a people, with God there is forgiveness and grace, healing and reconciliation.
From the beginning of creation, God’s vision for humanity was that we live in relationship with one another and in ways that transform who we are and how we live in the world. Regardless of the paper certificates that bind us one to another or separate us from one another, beyond the individual covenants that we keep and that we break, we are bound together as one humanity in relationship with one another and with God, forever.
If we want to go deeper with the real question that Jesus was interested in addressing in Mark 10, we must recognize that marriage is but one manifestation of God’s intention of us living in relationship with one another. And we will go even deeper on this world communion Sunday, and acknowledge that the broader manifestation of God’s intention for us is the truth that we are connected to and in relationship with all people in every corner of the globe. Perhaps on this Sunday as we celebrate communion with every other Christian; perhaps on this Sunday when we are keenly aware of God’s call to be peacemakers with every other human being on earth – not just Christians – we might raise the point that we are joined in one flesh with all humanity because we came from one flesh – all of us. God didn’t create us as couples, each with a single partner. God created us as one humanity. We don’t live separated, even when we divorce. We are connected, and that connection is never more real than when we gather around the table, where we all become one in God’s love and in grace.
And so, to the question of divorce, Jesus says go deeper. Go deeper and consider God’s vision for humanity from the beginning of time – a vision that cares for and honors the relationships we form and the commitments that we make to one another in all of life.