Stop Making Lists
Stop Making Lists
The passage from Mark’s gospel that occurs in the lectionary this week is one that is preached with care. It is known as the ‘divorce text’ and just hearing the word divorce brings a wide range of emotions. Often while reading this passage what we may do is generate a list of behaviour which we find unacceptable or un-Christian. I would ask that we stop making lists.
Scripture: Mark 10: 2-16
Stop Making Lists
The questions come, “My daughter is getting divorced, will she go to hell for this?” “My son has had an affair and is thinking of divorcing his wife, will he go to hell for this?”
Questions full of fear. This passage evokes some stark images in our minds. Pastor Philip Ruge-Jones writes the following about this passage, “As soon as you read the word ‘divorce’ aloud, a whole sermon will appear in people’s heads. Some will hear early sermons that were launched at them or someone they loved when a divorce occurred. Pain will make it difficult to hear the words you actually speak. Others will conjure up their condemnation of others based on this single word” (reference).
So here we go. The ‘Divorce’ Text. Let’s try to make some sense of it and figure out what Jesus is trying to tell us. As we move through the text today, I would ask you to move with me. Don’t get stuck.
First let’s situate this text within scripture. The Pharisee’s came to trap Jesus, they are hoping to catch him saying something. But what might that be? To figure that out we need to look back a few chapters in Mark’s gospel in chapter 6.
This is where we find the passage about the beheading of John the Baptist. John had been critical of Herod and his marriage to Herodias. Herodias had previously been married to Philip, Herod’s brother. John didn’t approve and said as much. This got John arrested and then while drunk Herod agreed to have John executed.
Enter the Pharisee’s in our passage today. If they can get Jesus to say something similar to what John said, they can go and tell Herod who might arrest Jesus. You see where this is going.
Jesus doesn’t fall for it. He answers their question with a question. “What does the law of Moses say?”
The answer, “Moses gave permission for a man to write a divorce notice and send his wife away.”
To which Jesus replies, “Moses wrote this law for you because you are hard to teach.” Other translations render this as hard-hearted. In other words, Jesus is saying you should stay married, but Moses has allowed an out. Jesus escapes the trap, but his words aren’t easy to swallow.
Staying on a surface level, Jesus is more critical about remarriage than he is about divorce. However, if we simply stay here we haven’t done enough with the passage. We haven’t moved deep enough.
We’ve set the passage within the context it belongs in Mark’s gospel. But what about where it exists within the cultural it was written? Let’s talk about that for a bit. When Jesus walked the Earth, women were considered property. Let that sink in for a moment. It is a thought, an idea that today we find particularly distasteful. Today, we view, at least I hope we view, women and men as equals.
However, it was not so when Mark’s gospel was written. Women were property, and this was for their protection. They were under the protection of either their father or husband. If a man divorced his wife, he removed from her all social benefits and protections. She became an outcast in society, if divorced she had no family. There was no social safety net that would catch her. A divorced woman was often left to beg or prostitute herself to survive.
With that in mind we might understand the words of Jesus to provide a rebuke of divorce for the protection of the vulnerable, the divorced women. Jesus says that yes Moses allowed it, but that was because you were hard-hearted. Stop being so hard-hearted.
The question Jesus receives from the Pharisees assumes a patriarchal world-view. Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? Not, is it lawful for a woman to divorce her husband. Not, is divorce lawful in the first place. You will note that Jesus makes a comment about a woman divorcing her husband. Under Jewish law a woman could not divorce her husband, but under Roman law she could. This gives us some insight into Mark’s audience and further situates the gospel within a historical context.
We have placed the passage within the larger framework of Mark’s gospel to understand the reason for the question in the first place. We understand the implications from a social perspective. We could say more, but I think what I have said paints the picture. We might not like how women were treated, but we have come a long way in the past two thousand years.
What about divorce today? I have heard it said, from a variety of places, that the high rates of divorce today are because we do not live in a Christian society. Because the values of Christ and what the church teaches have been pushed to the side. Maybe there is truth to that. However, I think it is more likely that there are higher rates of divorce today because women now have the economic and social supports to escape relationships that are abusive. I think we must be honest about that. Women can do today what they were never able in the past.
So far, we’ve talked about divorce, we have not talked about the children. The various translations of the Bible like to put sub-headings in. We have that today, ‘Jesus Blesses the Little Children.’ The sub-headings are trying to be helpful so that you can find passages easily, but they often do us a disservice. These breaks make us think that the passages aren’t related, however this morning these two passages couldn’t be more connected.
“Let the children come to me, and do not stop them, because the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I assure you that whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”
These two passages about divorce and receiving the Kingdom as a child inform one another. Jesus is reminding us that receiving the Kingdom is based on dependence on God, not by fulfilling abstract legal principles, even those concerned with marriage and divorce.
Commentator David Howell writes, “In the kingdom it is not about what is permissible but what is ethical.”
In our passage this morning Jesus subverts cultural and legal assumptions about women and children. Don’t get caught up by what is said on the surface, you need to dig deeper. You need to see all of scripture working together. Charles Campbell writes, “At the heart of this passage is the disruptive work of God in Jesus Christ, which overturns patriarchal martial relationships and elevates those at the bottom of the social ladder into models for entering the kingdom.”
We might ask what is God’s purpose regarding marriage in the understanding of the kingdom?
To which I would answer, God’s purpose regarding marriage is about relationships. In fact, I believe we were designed and created to live in community. We are relational beings. God desires relationships which are life-affirming, which bring joy and love into the world. Which promote the values of grace, love and mercy that the Kingdom are founded on.
Now invariably, the question of sin comes up around intimate relationships. The divorce text opens up a lot of other conversations. Should we be intimate with someone outside of the bonds of marriage, what about LGBTQI relationships, what about divorce and remarriage. I find it helpful to look at that word sin and consider what we are asking ourselves. A definition of sin provided by Canadian theologian Douglass John Hall is helpful. Hall writes, “Christians have allowed this profoundly biblical conception, which refers to broken relationships, to be reduced to sins – moral misdemeanors and guilty thoughts, words and deeds, especially of the sexual variety, that could be listed and confessed and absolved … There has been no more effective way of erasing the profundity of this term, which refers to a quality of relationship, than to quantify it. The result is a petty moralism that no longer speaks to the great and abiding conflicts of human persons in their complex intermingling.” (Hall, Douglas John, The Cross in our Context, p 104).
Stop, I beg you, stop creating lists of what is acceptable and not acceptable and start evaluating the quality of the relationships of which you are a part and those that you witness. And then instead of judging, start loving as openly and welcoming as a child might. For that is how the Kingdom is received. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.