Genesis 2:18-24 Psalm 8 Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 Mark 10:2-16
I found today’s readings challenging on two fronts. Both the reading from Genesis and Mark challenge our practice of faith in not only the Episcopal Church, but throughout the Christian Church. Some Christians consider marriage of same gendered couples an attack on the “sanctity of marriage,” while others do not. We are among the few denominations that perform such marriages AND we are among the many denominations that allow divorcees to remarry. Most faith groups accept and support divorce couples without judgment. Yet in today’s gospel Jesus challenges this accepted practice of divorce saying, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Jesus says this after a group of a Pharisee approach him and ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife.” When tested, Jesus is quick to turn things around by answering them with a question, “What did Moses command you?” Moses, they say permitted it, and Moses did. But Jesus challenges this commandment, referring to our earlier reading from Genesis, then saying, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
What Jesus says here on the topic of divorce and remarriage is enough to make many people uncomfortable. This may not be the teaching of the church today, but there is no denying what Jesus is teaching here – that marriage is sacred and to be preserved.
Are we doing as Moses did, allowing divorces because of the hardness of heart among people? I would have to answer this question yes and no. Sometimes people get divorced because they are not willing to do the hard work of resolving their differences. But while it may appear to us that Jesus is saying divorce is wrong – no exceptions, I think we need to consider and better understand the context and in which he said what he did in order to for us to reconcile his teaching with modern day life.
First, we need to note that the women were treated as property and thus when a husband issued a certificate of dismissal, his wife was left without anything. Over and over again Jesus defended the vulnerable – and a divorced woman was as vulnerable as they came. So, what Jesus says to the Pharisees is in defense of women. This does not say, however, that Jesus would be okay with marriages that lack commitment. Jesus is, after all, big on commitment – to God and to our neighbor.
Marriage is more than a legal arrangement, it is a covenant to love honor and cherish one another as Jesus loves, honors, and cherishes us. Still, there are a number of factors to consider. One of which is the change in society which helps to level the playing field – so to speak. Women are no longer considered property and they, too, can file for divorce. Divorce is no longer the one-sided dismissal that was the practice in biblical times.
The bigger threat today is for a couple to stay together when one or both parties are physically or emotionally threatened and living in fear. There are the marriages in which staying together requires a person to pretend to be someone he or she is not. I do not believe Jesus would expect these couples to stay together. Thus, I believe these situations requires us to apply a higher biblical principle to our reading of the scriptures. And here, the higher biblical principle is found in the second great commandment.
We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. This commandment requires us to love ourselves and we cannot love ourselves if we are living in fear or denying who we are. God calls us to live an authentic life, one in which we can freely love God and one another.
I do believe in the sanctity of marriage and that many broken marriages can be fixed – but fixing a broken marriage requires a willingness on both parts to do the work that needs to be done. It also requires us to be true to who we are – and sometimes being an authentic person makes staying together impossible. I am still hearing that half of all marriages end in divorce. Fortunately, that is no longer true. The divorce rate in our county is declining – but it is still common.
When a couple marries in our church, those present are asked to support them in their marriage. We support them with our prayers that they may hold fast to the promises they make before us and before God – in good times and in bad.
A divorce does reflect broken promises, broken promises that we know leave both parties feeling vulnerable and experiencing a wide range of emotions. We know that over and over again Jesus demonstrates his compassion and offers forgiveness. What Jesus says to the Pharisees is that a man should not be permitted to abandon his wife, leaving her vulnerable and destitute. We, as a church, as Christians, are also called to love and support the vulnerable – which includes those in abusive marriages and those who are divorced.
After speaking on divorce, parents are bringing their children to Jesus and the disciples are stopping them. Jesus is “indignant” and says, “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.” Then we are told Jesus “took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” Children, too, were considered property. They, too, were considered less than an adult male.
Just as in the sermon on the mount, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, . . . those who mourn, . . . and the meek . . . for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, . . .they will be comforted, . . . they will inherit the earth,” Jesus tells the disciple that the kingdom of God belongs to children.
It is often in our moments of greatest vulnerability that we find ourselves closest to God. Being strong and keeping up appearance may keep a marriage together, but it is not how we enter into the kingdom. No, we enter into the kingdom by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. And, with a loving and supportive spouse, it is also what makes a marriage sacred.
Let us pray,
Loving God, help us, we pray, to follow your commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. Help us to love and support one another and remain true to who you created us to be, that we might live an authentic life and help bring about your kingdom. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.