The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Watch the sermon here.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
Early in September in 1973, I left my home town, Amherst, Massachusetts, where I had joined Grace Episcopal Church and graduated from Amherst College, and journeyed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I enrolled in the Episcopal Theological School, in hopes of one day becoming an Episcopal Priest. (Eventually, the Episcopal Theological School became the Episcopal Divinity School, which in recent years became affiliated with Union Theological Seminary here in Manhattan.)
At the end of my first semester of seminary, the Rector of Grace Church, Amherst, invited me to preach my first sermon in that parish. I suppose it may have been a fairly typical seminarian’s first sermon in which I describe many things that I had learned during the first four months of theological studies. I remember excitedly telling them of the wonderful course on “Marriage, the Family, and Pastoral Care,” in which we had read a wonderful new book entitled, Creative Divorce.
After the service as I was standing greeting parishioners at the door, a woman I knew to be the mother of one of my high school classmates, ran up to me and slapped my face, as she screamed: “What do you mean creative divorce? I have endured thirty-five years of marriage with an abusive husband because Jesus says, “Christians do not get divorced!”
Understandably, since then I have been rather nervous about preaching about divorce. I hope I will not get slapped today.
There are times when it would be tempting to skip over a Bible passage which has just been read in Church and simply pretend that it doesn’t exist or does not deserve attention. Yet, if we were to skip-over it, what would keep us from skipping over other parts of the Bible when we struggle with their messages. Jesus often gives hard words to the disciples and to us. This week is no exception.
Today’s Gospel begins with a difficult conversation on divorce. For many people, divorce is still hard to talk about because it radically changes the lives of, not just those ending the marriage, but also their family members, friends, fellow parishioners, and their communities.
Mark’s original readers probably found Jesus’ uncompromising statements about divorce and remarriage as challenging and counter-cultural, as indeed we do today.
Divorce in the first century was a generally accepted part of life, both among Jews and perhaps more so within the wider Greco-Roman culture. Some writers and public leaders spoke against divorce as bad for society, but for the most part people debated only details of its legal basis. Among Jewish legal experts, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was a key text, one that assumes divorce will occur and prescribes procedures for carrying it out. But other scriptures call the possibility of divorce into question, such as Malachi 2:13-16 and Genesis 2:24.
The Pharisees who ask Jesus about divorce do so “to test him.” The scene therefore proceeds as a confrontation in which Jesus tries to show the Pharisees how they have misunderstood scripture. More precisely, they misunderstand God’s design and misuse scripture and interpretive traditions to justify their errors. As for the Pharisees’ intentions, they might hope their question will expose Jesus as a religious leader who is dangerous to families.
Jesus turns the conversation with the Pharisees away from the legal foundation for divorce to God’s design for marriage. That is, he dismisses the law (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) as a concession to human weakness and offers a different perspective rooted in Creation. His brief argument describes marriage as a strong and literally unifying bond between two people. It is because he sees marriage in such a way that he speaks against divorce as he does.
We need to keep in mind that divorce in Jesus’ time and divorce in our time are very different. In Jesus time, if a woman were divorced from her husband, she would be incredibly vulnerable. The world wasn’t (and still isn’t) built to protect vulnerable women. Jesus answers the questions from the religious authorities forcefully because vulnerable people are being hurt and it makes him mad.
In asking them how a man may divorce his wife according to the Law, Jesus is talking about what people currently knew and understood. There were structures in place to protect vulnerable populations. Yet structures created by people with good intentions often don’t go far enough. Divorce, says Jesus, is an unfortunate concession to the fact that we do not always live with love and respect in marriage. Instead of having people trapped in situations where they were powerless and unhappy, divorce may happen, but it is not God’s intention for marriage.
Jesus tells us to protect the most vulnerable among us. It seems that the disciples didn’t get that memo, because immediately after the conversation on divorce, they tried to keep children away from Jesus’s presence. Jesus speaks in support of both divorced women and the little children, people who often don’t have power, both then and now. Jesus is all about being with and empowering the weakest and most vulnerable in society. The Beloved Community is for all people, especially those who are made vulnerable by the sometimes well-intentioned, but faulty power of the structures of the world.
The disciples, as close as they are to Jesus, don’t understand him. In preventing people from bringing children to Jesus so that he may bless them, the disciples assume authority over who is in and who is out. Jesus tries to turn them around to a new and better way of being,
Jesus welcomes those on the outside, those who are vulnerable. Such a welcome challenges our notions of who belongs in the realm of God and who is the greatest. Those whom the world calls outsiders, Jesus calls insiders and welcomes them in the entirety of who they are. Jesus continually challenges our expectations and reminds us that inclusion is incredibly radical.
We should recall that marriage in the ancient world, at least among the majority of social strata was primarily a means to insure economic stability and social privileges (by creating both offspring and inter-family alliances.) A woman’s sexuality was essentially the property of her father, then of her husband. During the life of Jesus, polygamy was a legal reality in both the Jewish and Roman worlds, and concubinage – essentially the taking of loosely connected partners of the other gender without marriage – was practiced in much of the world.
The Pharisees neglect to mention a key piece of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which requires a husband to give a certificate of divorce to his ex-wife. Such a document might provide a divorced woman with a defense against rumor and slander. For a most women in that culture, survival depended upon being a member of a household – sometimes necessitating that a divorced woman might flee to the home of her family of origin, or to enter some sort of liaison with another man. The certificate of divorce might give a woman with children, but without a husband, a means of explaining why she was unmarried, and thus avoid exposure to physical risk or personal judgement.
Much about marriage, divorce, and remarriage has evolved in the Two Millenia since the passage from Mark 10 was written, and its interpretation has evolved as well.
We now have legal structures in most states which attempt to protect all members of a family affected by marital break-up. The Episcopal Church greatly liberalized its mechanisms for allowing remarriage of divorced persons beginning in the 1970’s. Even the Roman Catholic Church now has somewhat easier structures to grant permission for remarriage in that Church. In parts of the Third World, the Episcopal Church will now baptize and confirm Polygamists and allow their full participation in the Church, on the condition that they not take additional wives, something that ironically the Roman Catholic Church did very much earlier.
Our Church also take pre-marital counseling very seriously. Helping men and women, as well as same sex couples, have greater insight into the issues in their own lives and relationships, and making them aware of when and how they might seek out professional counsel or pastoral care is a high priority. I do not officiate at a lot of weddings, but when I do premarital counseling, one of the things which I do with each couple is to teach them how to do a genogram of their family systems and invite them to anticipate pinch points in their impending married life.
I would close by reminding all of us that married couples, as well as other kinds of couples, and their families, need and deserve our personal care and support, our friendship and neighborliness, and our regular prayers throughout each, day, week, month, and year.