Is it lawful...?

September 28, 2009

Beginning preachers often assume that only after they have built up the
trust of the congregation by assuring them of God's lovingkindness will
they have earned the right to deliver the harder words of scripture.
They quickly discover that the opposite is the case: congregations are
grateful to preachers who tackle hard or unpopular biblical texts with
exegetical care and pastoral sensitivity. Preachers who win a
congregation's trust by doing so are more likely to be heard and
believed when it is time to preach good news that seems too good to be
believed: the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead.

But
how to approach Jesus' strict teaching about divorce and remarriage as
it appears in Mark's Gospel, without the somewhat more lenient
amendments of Matthew and Paul?
Most congregations contain people who are married (happily and
unhappily), people who are divorced (some of whom are remarried) and
people who have not married for various reasons (including the fear of
failure and divorce). Clearly the point of the gospel is not to reopen
old wounds or to increase feelings of guilt or failure; therefore
neither should the sermon do that.

A good starting place might be a review of Deuteronomy 24:1
and its interpretation during Jesus' time. Both marriage and a man's
right to divorce were assumed in Judaism; what was debated were the grounds
for divorce. The law says that if the wife "does not please him because
he finds something objectionable about her," then he can write her a
certificate of divorce. There were several schools of thought about what
constituted "something objectionable": one school said it was enough if
she burned his dinner; another insisted on serious and substantial
reasons for divorce. Mark's Gospel remembers that Jesus' opinion was
sought on this controversial topic and remembers it in a context (Rome?)
that seems to assume a woman's legal right to separate from or divorce
her husband as well.

What is striking about Jesus' answer is that
he redirects the issue from what is lawful or allowed to what God has
intended from the beginning about marriage. Quoting from both creation
stories in Genesis 1 and 2,
Jesus stresses permanence, exclusivity and God's initiative. "The two"
called into marriage are to leave behind even their parents to become
joined in mutual support and affection. Jesus' conclusion—"What God has
joined together, let not human beings separate"—can be read either as a
pronouncement or as a plea. Some marriages implode from within; others
are sabotaged by external forces. Marriages require community support to
flourish.

The pressures on a marriage are intense. I once
praised a couple for their long marriage, only to hear one of them say,
"It is only by the grace of God that we have remained married all these
years" and to see the other nod and laugh in agreement. The "hardness of
heart" Jesus warns about is not limited to married people, and it
certainly isn't limited to those who have experienced the agony of a
failed marriage. Nevertheless, marriage is hard work, and the continuing
softening of our hearts towards one another over time is one of God's
greatest gifts. No wonder the early church fathers and mothers taught
that marriage, like monasticism, is a training ground for the reign of
God.

Perhaps that is why this passage is paired with the story
about Jesus welcoming and blessing the little children over the
objection of the disciples. The reign of God is open to those who
receive it the way a little child receives it—as sheer gift to those
with no power, no rights, no demands, no status and no sense of their
own achievement.

Whether we have married or not, whether we have
succeeded in marriage or failed or some of each, we are not rejected
children. We are not kept away from Jesus. We are loved, welcomed and
blessed by the God who made us, both male and female, for God's own
self. What God has so joined together, no human being can ever separate.

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