The Gospel text for yesterday, Mark 10:2-16, deals with some difficult topics. Namely, divorce. It’s a difficult reading for us, because Jesus seems to leave very little wiggle room in talking about divorce. But taking a step back and asking some questions can help. What was divorce like when Jesus lived? And, what is the context for this conversation. The first I answer in my sermon. As for the second, well, we’ve been reading straight through Mark lately. So the context for this conversation is Jesus’ discussions with the disciples about caring for the “little ones”–the vulnerable members of society. That should certainly color how we read Jesus’ comments on divorce.
This is a difficult passage. If you’d like to talk, know that my door is always open.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever asked someone a question, and then they talked for a while in response and maybe said some nice or interesting things, but then eventually you realized that they never answered your question in the first place? Maybe they talked about things that were sort of related, but never actually came to the point?
I wonder if that’s how the Pharisees feel in this Gospel reading. They test Jesus with a question. They’re trying to get him to trip up. They ask if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. And Jesus returns the question to them, and Jesus talks for a while, but he never actually answers the question himself. He reframes it. The Pharisees want to talk about the legality of divorce. Jesus wants to talk about God’s intentions for human relationships. And though these two things are intimately linked together, they’re not the same.
This is an emotionally charged text for us. We need to admit that upfront. You would be hard pressed to find an individual who has not been personally impacted by divorce, either their own, or a family member’s or friend’s. And passages like these in the Bible have been used to add shame to an already immensely difficult situation. Because of that, we’re tempted to rush over these passages, not wanting to bring up the hurt and embarrassment. But, that makes it even more important to take a hard look at this and to try to see what it really says.
I’d like to first look at what this text does have to say about divorce, but then, and more importantly, at what this passage says about relationships. It’s important to know that divorce in Jesus’ time wasn’t exactly like divorce in our time. Marriage wasn’t the same—marriages were usually arranged, and often arranged for economic reasons, rather than romantic ones.
And the Pharisees’ question, “can a man divorce his wife?” is telling, because only men could initiate divorces. If a woman was in an unhappy marriage; if her husband was committing adultery or hurting her, she had no recourse. But if a man was displeased with his wife, he could write her a certificate of dismissal and send her away. The woman and any children they had were left to the mercy of her male relatives. It was an incredibly vulnerable position to be in. Women were seen as expendable, something that could be dismissed and discarded.
And Jesus sees this for what it is and says that it is not good. It is not the way that things are meant to be. People are not meant to be expendable. Jesus speaks honestly about the trauma that divorce causes. It is an example of creation torn asunder from God’s intention for it. It causes immeasurable pain to the people involved. But none of that has to do with whether it’s legal or not. When you get right down to it, Jesus isn’t nearly as concerned with the legal grounds for divorce as he is concerned with our relationships with one another. With how we treat one another. In this time and place, divorce was being used to treat people poorly. It was not at all being used to care for the little ones, to care for the vulnerable. Instead, it was exploiting them.
Jesus turns the conversation to creation, to the purpose for relationships in the first place. In our reading from Genesis we heard that God realized, “it is not good for the man to be alone.” We were created from the very beginning as relational beings. We need each other. While we might like to assert that independence is a virtue, that we can do this on our own, God tells us it’s the opposite.
We are created to be in relationship with one another. Marriage is one of the many ways that we use relationship to build community. These readings are very marriage-centric, but it isn’t the only way that we support and uphold each other. And these words that Jesus speaks about marriage are also important for us to hear concerning other relationships, too.
What is God’s vision for our relationships? For our marriages, for our friendships, for our familial bonds? Respect, mutuality, compassion, companionship. God says that God is going to make the man a helper as his partner. Did you know that that word helper, here used for the woman, is most often used to describe God in the Bible? We hear it in one of the most quoted verses of the Psalms: “I look to the hills, from where is my help to come? My help is from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”
To say that the woman is the man’s helper should not imply that the woman is less than the man, although it is often read that way. We are all meant to be helpers for one another. To act in the way of God to one another. To act with love, to act with support, to act with accountability. The way that God intended our relationships, people are not expendable, but valued, respected, encouraged, and loved.
When those things aren’t there, especially when mutual respect is gone, the relationship is no longer what God wants for us. And in married relationships that sometimes means that divorce is the right thing. When the relationship is already torn asunder by selfishness, deception, violence, or disrespect, divorce can be the best thing for everyone involved. It can be a step towards reclaiming self-worth and dignity and respect. And yet we know that even when it is the right decision, it is still a painful decision. It still hurts the people involved.
And so, it grieves the heart of God. Not because some legal standard has been broken, but because of the damage done to God’s beloved children. For Jesus, divorce is not the personal failing of isolated individuals, but rather one example of creation torn asunder from God’s intention for it. And it is certainly not the only way that we as human beings hurt each other and hurt God’s creation.
When we treat each other as things to be used or exploited for our own ends, we tear asunder God’s purposes. When we value certain people or certain abilities over others, we tear asunder God’s purposes. When we look at another’s face and do not see the face of God reflected in them, we tear asunder God’s purposes.
We don’t always live up to our purposes as God’s people. None of us do. And because God cares so deeply for us, and for our well-being, God is grieved. We are not yet the people that God created us to be. But in God’s grace, in our baptisms, we are recreated as children of God. Children. Those to whom Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs. Vulnerable ones. Ones who depend on others. Ones who need others.
Our human promises fail sometimes. But God’s promises never fail. God promises us that we are God’s children. God promises us new starts and new beginnings when we have failed. God promises to be with us in the midst of relationships that are not what they should be, relationships that it might be best to leave.
And God dreams of a day when we all live the way that God intended. In support, in love, in respect for one another. Valuing each other. We’re not there yet. But by the grace of God we can continue trying. And we can trust on that one relationship that will never fail. Our relationship with God, who values, loves, supports, and cares for each of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.