Let me begin by acknowledging that over the centuries, right up until our present times, many people have been hurt by the way the church has used the text that we just heard to justify the prohibition of divorce and remarriage. Divorce is painful enough without having it made worse by having someone use scripture against you in a judgmental way. It wasn’t until the 1970s that our church, the Anglican Church of Canada, changed its canons to allow the remarriage of divorced people. Some churches have yet to do so.
A few weeks ago at our Wednesday bible study, we raised the question of how to deal with difficult scripture passages. I hope that we can shed some light on that today, as we work with this gospel text. Let me start with a couple of principles before we get into specifics.
The first is this: we start by viewing scripture through a lens of grace and compassion rather than a lens of judgment, especially when that means the judgment of others. Our God is a God of grace and compassion. The scriptures are intended to bring good news.
The second principle is to understand the text in its context, both the cultural and literary context of the text itself, and its context in the overall library of scripture. We tend get ourselves in trouble when we view a particular text in isolation with our own cultural assumptions.
Today’s gospel reading finds itself in a section of the gospel of Mark that we started reading two weeks ago. This section begins with Jesus taking a child into his arms and saying “whoever welcomes this child welcomes me”, and it concludes in today’s reading with Jesus once more taking children into his arms and blessing them. These two “bookends” create a section of Mark’s gospel within which a principle theme is the welcoming and care of those in the community who are vulnerable and powerless, and how that contrasts with our usual way of doing things.
In Jesus’ world, those who were vulnerable and powerless included women and children. Marriage was a sanctuary which provided economic and social protection for women and children, those who were most at risk of harm in the event of divorce. Marriage was not, and is not to be treated lightly.
But we also need to realize that in first century Palestine, marriage and divorce were deeply patriarchal institutions in which women and children were technically considered the property of men. When the Pharisees come to test Jesus with their question, it is a question posed by men, addressed to men, about what men are permitted to do.
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
In those days, the question of whether divorce was lawful and on what grounds it should be lawful was a hot topic. The Pharisees wanted to test Jesus, knowing that whatever he says will be controversial.
Jesus turns the question back to them. “What did Moses command you?”
Which is a way of asking, where in scripture do you turn for in order to understand marriage and divorce?
And the Pharisees’ answer is revealing. They turn to Deuteronomy 24.1-4, which allows men to issue a certificate of divorce to their wife. And this is permitted, apparently, on the flimsiest of grounds. The certificate may be issued because “she does not please him, because he finds something objectionable about her.”
But Jesus opposes them, saying, in essence, you are focusing on the wrong scripture! This is not where you should begin. That commandment was an accommodation, given to you because of your hardness of heart. Yes, marriage can be hard, yes we live in a messy world, yes things can go wrong, yes divorce is permitted as a last resort, but divorce was never intended, and certainly not for the flimsy reason given in that text. Don’t start with Deuteronomy 24 as the basis of your understanding of marriage and divorce.
Start instead with the book of Genesis. If you want to learn what God intended for marriage, that’s where you start. No single verse of scripture should be viewed in isolation but it matters where we begin, and we need to focus on what’s really important.
In Genesis, after God has created the first human, God looks upon the earth-creature and says something profound about us: “It is not good for the human to be alone.” I think that’s something that we can agree on.
And so God creates another human being, a partner for the first, and gives us the gift of marriage.
“For this reason, a man shall leave his mother and father and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
This is God’s intention for marriage, God’s vision for marriage, that the two shall become one flesh. It is a vision that we in our time have come to understand applies equally to any two partners, regardless of their gender.
The two shall become one flesh. It is a beautiful, yet challenging, intention for marriage, as anyone who is married would know. To care for my spouse just as much as I care for myself, to consider ourselves as two and yet one, as having become one, to commit to a union that is intended to be mutual and life-long, these things are big. This is a beautiful thing, it’s what we hope for when we say our marriage vows. But sometimes it doesn’t work out the way that we, and God, intends.
But Jesus is saying that that’s where we start. We begin with the gift of marriage, with what God intended. Jesus in this text has deliberately shifted the focus of the debate with the Pharisees from the grounds for divorce to God’s intention for marriage – so maybe we shouldn’t expect that we can come to this text and find a detailed explanation of the grounds for divorce and remarriage when things go wrong. The focus is on what God intends.
There’s another shift that happens in this text as well. It is a shift from patriarchy to mutuality, to gender equality. The Pharisees, men, all of them, ask other men whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife, and they use a patriarchal scripture as their reference point.
But Jesus, in every word that this text has recorded, speaks of men and women equally. There is a mutuality in his vision of men and women that we may, or may not, take for granted in our time, but which would have been stunning in his day.
That mutuality continues right into the most difficult section of the text, verses 10-12, where Jesus says that “whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
How we hear and understand scripture depends a lot on where we’re coming from and the questions we bring to it.
We hear those verses and it sounds to us like Jesus is saying that divorced people shouldn’t remarry.
But the disciples that Jesus is talking to would have heard these same words, and said to themselves, “Holy crap, Jesus just said that women are allowed to divorce their husbands the same way that husbands are allowed to divorce their wives”.
That was revolutionary! Jesus insists on mutuality in the marriage relationship: not that one becomes the property of the other, but that the two become one flesh. Any discussion of marriage, divorce and remarriage has to start from this vision.
Can we use this one text to make the case that Jesus prohibits remarriage after divorce? In a word, no! In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that the remarriage of divorced people is permitted in certain situations, and in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul also permits divorce and remarriage in another set of circumstances. Nor does Jesus in this text overturn the law of Moses which permitted divorce. He simply puts it in its place, as a last resort, given as an accommodation when a marriage can no longer be what both the marriage partners and God had hoped and intended.
At the end of this gospel, Jesus takes little children in his arms, lays his hands upon them and blesses them. Jesus cares deeply for those who are vulnerable, who are hurting, and who are wounded. And that includes all of us who have suffered the pain and loss of divorce, and those who find themselves in difficult marriages. Our God is a God of grace, of mercy, of compassion and forgiveness, who loves us no matter where find ourselves, no matter what has happened, no matter how and why we have been wounded or have wounded others.
Know that our God wants nothing more than to take you up in her arms, to lay her hands upon you and bless you.
Homily. Yr B P27. Oct 1 2021. Trinity
Readings: Job 1.1, 2.1-10; Ps 26; Heb 1.1-4, 2.5-12; Mk 10.2-16
Image by Caio, Pexels.