Mark 10: 1-16, NRSV
He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart 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.’
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 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.Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Preached Sunday, January 14 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman
I stared at my computer screen for a while after re-reading this text I assigned to this particular date more than eight months ago. We’re back in our Year of Mark today—our year long journey through the Bible’s oldest Gospel, and we’re just jumping back in the deep end after our holiday hiatus. “Seriously, Jon?” I thought. “How are you going to preach this one.” It’s one of Jesus’ clearest teachings, or at least it seems that way at first glance. The core of the teaching is seems simple: don’t get divorced. And for years, the capital C Church has at best remained silent on the issue and at worst condemned those who’ve divorced because of this passage and ones like it in the other gospels.
So before we go any further, let me assure you of a couple of things: (1) If you’re divorced, God loves you. (2) If you’re divorced, you are not less than anyone else. For that matter, if you’re single you are not less than. If you are dating you are not less than,. If you are engaged you are not less than. You are enough wherever you are. (3) There are two times in the Gospels that I’d say Jesus is straight forward. That’s when he gives us the two greatest commandments: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love each other. That’s it: love God and love people—the rest are details. Which means that while this passage on divorce might seem straight forward, it isn’t really.
In order for the last bit of these verses on divorce to make any sense, we need to understand the first verses. Jesus has, once again, been confronted by the Pharisees. Throughout Mark (and the other gospels, for that matter) we encounter the religious authorities as the chief counterpoint to Jesus’ teachings. Over and over, they show up and try to corner him, to catch him off guard so that they can disprove his teachings. And while they still consider his teachings heretical, despite their hardest efforts, Jesus bests them every time. And in this little patch of 16 verses, we see him do just that.
The pharisees ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife.” Jesus turns the question back on them. And they answer truthfully—Moses permitted it. “Yep,” Jesus replies, “because y’all were jerks.” OK, that’s not exactly what he said. “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law.” The whole interchange hangs on this statement. You see, back in the day—the ancient days, that is—people were getting divorced on whims. Particularly Men were growing tired of their wives and divorcing them so they could move on. Women, you remember, were property. They weren’t people, they weren’t even accessories. They were functional—tools that could be tossed out when they weren’t of any use anymore.
So, when Jesus talks about divorce in Mark, he’s only partly talking about divorce—that’s the surface of it. But deeper in, we realize that he’s challenging social convention of the day. He’s saying that women are than tools to trade in when a man is through with them. Now, whether or not you’re on board with Jesus and divorce, I think that is something we can all get behind.
Later, his disciples ask for clarification—they’re a little thick, remember? And Jesus puts it plainly: “anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” Now here’s the hard stuff. Jesus is drawing a line in the sand because people were abusing the ability to scrap their commitments. Jesus is about constancy, loyalty, commitment. So he makes it clear—not just any reason is a good one to give up on promises made.
Now hear me, I don’t think Jesus is saying if you’re in a bad marriage—if you’re in an abusive or hurting relationship that you should wait it out and deal with it. That’s not it at all. But what Jesus is saying is that he wants you to have life in abundance—that sometimes abundant life is work—sometimes it does mean sacrifice and honesty and vulnerability. And sometimes, it means separating for a while or for good so that you can be all God created you to be.
Really, Jesus is reminding us that the life of faith isn’t easy—that it’s challenging and hard and holy. And maybe sometimes we’d like to just flip a switch and make it all go away. But Jesus is about seeing things in a new way, he’s about calling us to a new way, a better way. So friends, as we begin this new year together, let’s heed his call to live a new way. Amen.