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.”