Proper 22B/Ordinary 27B/Pentecost 20
World Communion Sunday
October 7, 2018
2Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But 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. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
In America, there is one divorce approximately every 36 seconds*.
That’s nearly 2,400 divorces per day, 16,800 divorces per week and 876,000 divorces a year.
The average length of a marriage that ends in divorce is eight years.
People wait an average of three years after a divorce to remarry (if they remarry at all).
The average age for couples going through their first divorce is 30 years old.
This topic can be difficult and disheartening. When we read about divorce in Scripture, we tend to hear it in an intensely personal way. This is particularly true, of course, if you have gone through a divorce, or your parents have been divorced, or someone close to you has. All of this has the end result of hearing this passage as addressed to particular individuals and feeling ashamed or angry or hurt or embarrassed, and that’s totally understandable. Especially if Jesus imagined these words being addressed to individuals.
But here’s the thing: I don’t think he did.
Note, for instance, how Mark sets up this scene: “Some Pharisees came and to test him, said ‘Is it lawful…’”
Did you catch that?
This isn’t a casual – or even intense, for that matter – conversation about love, marriage, and divorce.
It’s a test.
Moreover, it’s not even a test about divorce, but about the law.
There were, you see, several competing schools of thought about the legality of divorce. Not so much about whether divorce was legal – everyone agreed upon that – but rather under what circumstances. And with this question/test, the Pharisees are trying to pin Jesus down, trying to label him, trying to draw him out and perhaps entrap him so that they know better how to deal with him.
And Jesus is having none of it. He deflects their question away from matters of the law and turns it instead to relationship and, in particular, to God’s hope that our relationships are more than legal matters but instead help us to have and share more abundant life. Hence the turn to Genesis: questions of marriage and divorce, he argues, aren’t simply a matter of legal niceties, but rather are about the Creator’s intention that we be in relationships of mutual dependence and health.
In fact, Jesus goes one step further and takes what had turned into a legal convenience – typically for the man who sought a divorce – and pushes his debaters to see that this law – indeed, all law – was and is intended to protect the vulnerable.
When a woman was divorced she lost pretty much everything – status, reputation, economic security, everything – so how can they treat this as a convenience, Jesus asks, let alone a debating topic. The law is meant to protect the vulnerable and hurting and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter.
Jesus isn’t speaking to individuals, you see, he’s making a statement about the kind of community we will be.
In fact, he’s inviting us to imagine communities centered in and on real relationships; relationships, that is, founded on love and mutual dependence, fostered by respect and dignity, and pursued for the sake of the health of the community and the protection of the vulnerable.
Now, here’s the interesting part for me. Even though the discussion up to this point has been about divorce, I don’t think that’s really the heart of what’s going on here. Which is why I’m grateful the lectionary includes the next verses describing the reaction of Jesus’ disciples to those bringing children to Jesus to bless and, more importantly, Jesus’ reaction to the same.
Let’s recall the context:
Jesus has announced his intention to go to Jerusalem to die and, in response, his disciples argue about who is the greatest. Jesus in turn tells them that to be great is to serve, and that the very heart of the kingdom he proclaims is about welcoming the vulnerable.
In fact, he says that whenever you welcome and honor a child – one who had the least status and power in the ancient world – you were actually welcoming and honoring Jesus. Now, on the heels of this conversation about the purpose of the law, some folks bring their children to be blessed and the disciples try to keep them away. And Jesus intervenes, forcefully, saying that welcoming the kingdom pretty much means welcoming children, that is, the vulnerable, those at risk, and those in need.
This whole passage, I think, is about community. But it’s not the kind of community we’ve been trained to seek. It’s not, that is, a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent. Rather, this is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk. It’s a community, in other words, of those who know their need and seek to be in relationship with each other because they have learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place.
This is what the church was originally about – a place for all those who had been broken by life or rejected by the powerful and who came to experience God through the crucified Jesus as the One who met them precisely in their vulnerability, not to make them impervious to harm but rather open to the brokenness and need of those around them.
But, goodness, is that hard to remember! No wonder Paul had to remind the Corinthians,
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God (I Cor. 1:26-29).
Part of being human is to be insecure, to be aware of our need and, in light of the cultural preference for strength, power, and independence, to be embarrassed by our need. For this reason, Paul, following Jesus, reminds us that to be broken isn’t something to be ashamed of. Rather, to be broken is, in fact, to be human. And to be human is to be loved by God and drawn together into relationship with all the others that God loves.
Which means that our gatherings on Sundays are local gatherings of the broken and loved, of those who are hurting but also healing, of those who are lost but have also been found, of those that know their need and seek not simply to have those needs met but have realized that in helping meet the needs of others their own are met in turn.
This passage is not so much instructions about divorce but instead an invitation to see our communities as those places where God’s work to heal and restore the whole creation is ongoing, not by taking away all our problems but surrounding us with people who understand, and care, and help us to discover together our potential to reach out to others in love and compassion!
We are members of a community of the broken, but we are those broken whom God loves and is healing and, indeed, using to make all things new!
We are, in short, communities of the broken and blessed. And that can be a hard message to hear because it runs contrary to conventional wisdom about strength and security. But it can also be life-giving, not only to those who know themselves to be broken and wonder if this is a place to them, but also to those of us in denial, seeking relentlessly to make it on our own, even if it kills us.
I want you to know that as part of God’s community we might discover God’s life-giving grace, love, and mercy. For ourselves and for others. Let us seek to be part of God’s community!
Based on commentary from David Lose, Scott Hoezee, Charles L. Campbell, David Howell and C. Clifton Black.