St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

But from the beginning

But from the begin­ning

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, 20th Sunday after Pente­cost, 7th Octo­ber 2018

Read­ing: Mark 10. 2–16.

When I looked at the Lec­tion­ary read­ings for this week, the pas­sages from Job and Hebrews looked very attract­ive as good preach­ing mater­i­al. But the pas­sage from Mark can’t be avoided and demands some explan­a­tion. This is a pas­sage of Scrip­ture many of us would rather avoid because it is dif­fi­cult at a num­ber of levels. None the less, divorce is a top­ic which affects many fam­il­ies and because the Church’s tra­di­tion­al teach­ing regard­ing divorce has been the source of so much pain one can­not avoid address­ing the issue. How are we to read this text today?

Mark tells us that when the Phar­isees asked Jesus about divorce it was a ‘test ques­tion’. In oth­er words there was an agenda behind the ques­tion that we need to under­stand. The ques­tion was dis­hon­est in that there was no debate at the time as to wheth­er divorce was leg­al-every­one accep­ted the fact of divorce. How­ever, what was in dis­pute were the grounds for divorce. Deu­ter­o­nomy 24.1 declared that if a man found some­thing objec­tion­able about his wife he could write a cer­ti­fic­ate of divorce, put it in her hand and send her out of his house. The ques­tion being debated was how to inter­pret the words ‘some­thing objec­tion­able.’ The fol­low­ers of Rabbi Hil­lel believed a woman could be divorced by her hus­band for almost any reas­on, includ­ing if she burnt the din­ner. Rabbi Aqiba went one step fur­ther and even per­mit­ted divorce if the man found anoth­er woman more beau­ti­ful than his wife. At the oth­er extreme the fol­low­ers of Shammai argued that only adul­tery was a suf­fi­cient cause for divorce.  The lib­er­al views about divorce were obvi­ously pop­u­lar with some men but left women extremely vul­ner­able and without any redress. Jesus would have been very aware that a cul­ture of easy divorce was not in the best interests of women.

How­ever, as well as get­ting Jesus embroiled in a leg­al­ist­ic dis­pute over grounds for divorce there may well have been a more sin­is­ter motive behind the Phar­isees’ ques­tion. In the open­ing verse of chapter 10, Mark tells us that Jesus and his dis­ciples were in the region of Judea bey­ond the Jordan. The ref­er­ence to the Jordan brings to mind John the Baptist whose min­istry had been in the Jordan region. What brought about John’s impris­on­ment and death? It was his cri­ti­cism of King Herod for tak­ing his brother’s wife, Hero­di­as and mar­ry­ing her. Hero­di­as had divorced her hus­band, Philip, in order to marry Herod. (Roman law allowed a woman to divorce, Jew­ish law did not). So it is likely that  the Phar­isees were hop­ing that Jesus would fall into the trap of say­ing some­thing treas­on­able that would lead to a fate like that of John the Baptist. This may be the reas­on that Jesus fin­ished his remarks about mar­riage and divorce not in the pub­lic arena but in closed ses­sion with his dis­ciples. Whatever the pre­cise nature of the trap being laid, Jesus could spot it a mile away. His answer avoided argu­ments about fine points of the law and dir­ec­ted his inter­rog­at­ors away from the law to the will and inten­tion of the cre­at­or.

Divorce, Jesus declares was nev­er part of God’s ori­gin­al plan for his cre­ation: it was a con­ces­sion to accom­mod­ate human weak­ness and frailty. God’s pur­pose from the begin­ning was that mar­riage would be the phys­ic­al and spir­itu­al uni­on of a man and a woman bring­ing about a new entity-two becom­ing one. Jesus quotes Gen­es­is, “a man will leave his fath­er and moth­er and be joined to his wife”, which over the cen­tur­ies was changed into the pat­ri­arch­al notion that a fath­er gives away his daugh­ter in mar­riage as though she were a com­mod­ity to be traded. Jesus affirms that the uni­on for which we yearn sexu­ally, emo­tion­ally and spir­itu­ally is best achieved and sus­tained by fidel­ity to one part­ner in a life- long uni­on. Jesus was deeply aware as we are that there are hun­dreds of ways in which this divine plan may be thwarted and mar­riage rela­tions dam­aged. Even those of us who regard ourselves as hap­pily mar­ried are often con­scious of how far short we fall of the high stand­ard that God asks of us. In the sens­it­ive area of our intim­ate sexu­al rela­tions none of us gets it right all the time. But in an ego­centric soci­ety that often treats mar­riage vows lightly it is some­times help­ful to be reminded of what God inten­ded from the begin­ning. Jesus refuses to com­prom­ise God’s ori­gin­al inten­tion because he is pro­claim­ing the eth­ics of the new cre­ation where the har­mony and unity God desires will be made into real­ity.

This pas­sage has often been inter­preted in a leg­al­ist­ic way that takes Jesus’ words out of con­text and turns them into a blanket pro­hib­i­tion of divorce. So for a long time the Church refused to allow the re-mar­riage of divorced people under any cir­cum­stances and in doing so caused much suf­fer­ing and dis­tress. There are still vari­ous caveats in place about who may be re-mar­ried and our own dio­cese has a very muddled and in my view unsat­is­fact­ory approach to this issue. Any re-mar­riage pro­pos­al is sup­posed to be approved by the bish­op and not all bish­ops are of the same mind on this ques­tion. The issue will be dis­cussed in our syn­od this year with a motion affirm­ing that a per­son who has divorced because of domest­ic viol­ence should be allowed to remarry. Sadly as some of you know divorced people have not always found a wel­come with­in the church. All of us stand in need of God’s grace and for­give­ness and church should be the place where all are wel­comed as our Vis­ion state­ment declares.

Mark fol­lows Jesus’ words about mar­riage with some teach­ing about chil­dren. It is pro­voked by the dis­ciples’ action in send­ing away chil­dren who are being brought to Jesus for a bless­ing. Why the dis­ciples felt it neces­sary to dis­miss the chil­dren is not made clear. Per­haps it was because they thought chil­dren were of little con­sequence. Chil­dren were at the bot­tom of the social order. Per­haps, too, the dis­ciples were still enter­tain­ing vis­ions of future glory when Jesus would be acknow­ledged as Mes­si­ah and they would share in his exal­ta­tion. Surely Jesus didn’t need to both­er with chil­dren. Again the dis­ciples fail to under­stand the nature of the king­dom of heav­en. Jesus rebukes his dis­ciples and wel­comes the chil­dren warmly. But Jesus’ words and actions say much more than ‘be nice to small chil­dren.’ He uses the incid­ent to teach an import­ant truth. He says “it is to people like these that the king­dom of God belongs.” What did he mean? Well, he didn’t mean that chil­dren are wel­come because they are sweet and inno­cent. If you believe that, then you have nev­er spent a day with a two and a half year old. No, Jesus was say­ing that the King­dom belongs to them because chil­dren come as they are. They have noth­ing on which they base a claim. They have no achieve­ments or pos­ses­sions, just a will­ing­ness to receive whatever is on offer. Chil­dren come with empty hands. We adults so often approach God with our titles, qual­i­fic­a­tions, impress­ive C.V’s, years of faith­ful church attend­ance, per­haps even our years of faith­ful mar­riage and we some­times are temp­ted to think that these things give us a cer­tain entrée into the king­dom. Valu­able though all these things may be, they do not earn us mem­ber­ship in the king­dom of God. Mem­ber­ship in that king­dom is received as a gift. That is why Jesus says you will nev­er enter the king­dom of God unless you become like a little child. We are not asked to be child­ish but child- like; to open our hands to receive the gift we can nev­er earn. That is the way the New Test­a­ment under­stands faith. And without faith we can nev­er please God.

This pas­sage is often read at ser­vices of infant bap­tism and it is appro­pri­ate because we believe that even tiny chil­dren can be wel­comed into God’s fam­ily. Bap­tism is a gift to be received by faith- in the case of infant bap­tism, the faith of par­ents and god­par­ents. In bap­tism, the child is received into God’s fam­ily not because of any achieve­ments on the part of the child or his or her par­ents but simple in response to God’s invit­a­tion accep­ted by faith. The fact that Jesus had a spe­cial regard and love for chil­dren should encour­age us to do all we can to pro­tect and nur­ture the young. In parts of the world we know that thou­sands of chil­dren are being exploited and abused as child sol­diers, or sold into slavery, suf­fer­ing phys­ic­al and sexu­al abuse. Large num­bers of chil­dren in our wider com­munity suf­fer vari­ous kinds of abuse or neg­lect and Chris­ti­ans should be in the fore­front of those who are advoc­ates for their care and pro­tec­tion.

Jesus said: “Let the chil­dren come to me; do not pre­vent them for it is to people such as these that the King­dom of God belongs.”

Philip Brad­ford