Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hope for the Hopeless? Jesus on Divorce

Below you will find the conclusion to Linda's sermon on Mark 10:2-16.  Without collapsing the tension or avoiding the dilemma that Jesus' teaching poses, she points us to a surprise ending, one that is routinely overlooked when this passage is preached.

The disciples are listening in when the Pharisee’s propose this question: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" and it appears they are equally stunned by his response to the Pharisees. 
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“What did he say?  Did Jesus just say that Moses was wrong?"  

As soon as they are alone, they ask Jesus the same question again.  This time, Jesus goes even further; not only is divorce not allowed, but anyone who remarries, man or woman, is committing adultery.

Why would he say that?  It sounds like the ultimate sin and Jesus offers, it seems, no way out.  


In contrast to Jesus' words in Mark 10, there are other passages where Jesus ministers tenderly and lovingly to the woman caught in adultery.  He rescues her from almost certain death, and after he has cleared the field of her would-be executioners, all he says to her is this: go and sin no more.  

There is also the woman at the well, who Jesus knows has been in and out of relationships over and over again and then living with someone to whom she was not married.  Instead of pronouncing her sin to be unforgivable  Jesus offers himself to her as living water that will wash away her sin and her guilt. 

So how are we to understand Jesus' words in Mark 10?  


I think two keys that unlock Jesus' meaning are found at the beginning of this passage and at the very end.

The passage begins with a question from Jesus' enemies, a faction of the group known as the Pharisees.  These religious men came for one reason and one reason only. Mark tells us that they came with a question intended to trick him.  They were not after anything real or life-giving.  Their purpose was to find a way to humiliate Jesus.  

Instead, Jesus sees their true intentions.  Even more important, he is able to see something in their question that they themselves have not anticipated. 

You see, the Pharisees where guilty of having made the law into something that effectively blocked the path to God—for themselves and everyone else.  For everyone else, because the 10 commandments given by Moses had been expanded to become 613 commandments that almost no one could keep.

Only the rich and well-educated had a chance at being able to meet all of the rules and regulations.  That is why Jesus repeatedly chastises the religious rulers of his day because they used the law as a battering ram, beating down the people instead of using it to draw the faithful to God.

But, their use of the law also blocked their own path to God—and that is what Jesus saw and they did not—nor in this case did the disciples.  Neither the Pharisees or the disciples saw that the law, turned by human beings into a giant list of do’s and don’ts—also meant that if, indeed, one thought that they were fulfilling the law, they effectively had no need whatsoever of God.  

God was out of the picture—if we can earn our salvation by following all the rules, who needs God—on the other hand, if the rules are so burdensome that we can never hope to follow all of them then our path to God is blocked.

In his response to the Pharisees' trick question, Jesus does what he is so good at; he refuses to be boxed in by the legalism of his questioners.  

Jesus changes the question by broadening the meaning of the law so that it is abundantly clear that no one, no one, can ever meet the letter of the law by themselves.  

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, "You have heard that it is said (in the law) do not murder, but I tell you that anyone who has been angry with his brother has committed murder.  You have heard that it was said do not commit adultery, but I tell you that if you look at a woman with lust in your heart, you have committed adultery. You have heard it said, love your enemies, but I say to you to do good to those who persecute you."

Indeed, Jesus' persistent message to to all of us is simply this: we cannot earn our salvation by being good enough to keep the law all by ourselves.

We have all gotten angry, most of us have lusted after someone else, and most of us have great difficulty doing good things to those who seem to hate us.

And so it is in this passage.  "No," Jesus says, "don’t even consider divorce.  It is not allowed. If you divorce and remarry you are still in deep trouble because now you have committed adultery."

So, what a are we to do?  


I believe the answer is found in the very last verses of our reading today.  These verses we read today are rarely included, but there is very strong evidence that they belong here.  

Without missing a beat, Mark moves directly from the discussion of a very difficult topic, to tell us that people are bringing children to Jesus to be blessed.  Whether he did so consciously or unconsciously, the apostle focuses our attention on those who are most often the real victims of divorce.  

The disciples reaction is typical, isn't it?  "Don't bring those kids in here!  We are talking about grown-up stuff."  

Isn't it interesting that these two stories which are jammed so tightly together in Mark's narrative, are so seldom connected to one another? Yet Jesus sees these children not as victims or as intruders into the conversation, but immediately lifts them up as examples and teachers for us.

"Come," Jesus says, "come to God like little children, children who are dependent on God’s mercy and forgiveness."

Those people who think they can make it on their own are living a lie that will suck the life out of them. 

And those of us who have messed up, who failed in our promises to one another and missed the mark badly when it comes to loving and valuing the person we married, well, our only choice is to come to God as the children do.  

We must abandon ourselves to God's life changing forgiveness.  We cannot hope to correct our errors or somehow make up for them.  It is our sin, our need and our child-like faith that have driven us into the arms of God who, as a familiar praise song says, offers rest for the weary and hope for the sinner.

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