First Lutheran Church
October 4, 2015
I was young when I started seminary, just 23 in a class of folks in their 30s, 40s and 50s. I was eager to sit with these older folks who debated deeply what it means to live into discipleship. I remember one such conversation in which Bob said that divorced people have no business going in to the ministry. My roommate, Cheri, was older than me and divorced. She replied that where should she serve if not in the church of Jesus Christ. It was a debate that mirrored this debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. This is another difficult text, one that is usually heard either in an intensely personal way as Cheri did, or in an intensely legalistic way as Bob did. Such debates leave people feeling either ashamed and, hurt, or smug and condescending. A superficial reading does sound like Jesus is condemning all of us who are divorced. But as I studied this week it struck me that Mark does not present this as moral law for married couples but as help for a community struggling with the meaning of discipleship.
Note how Mark sets up this scene. Some Pharisees came and to test him, said ‘Is it lawful’… Did you catch that? This is not a conversation about love, marriage and divorce. It is another test with which they hope to ensnare Jesus, a test centered on the letter of the law. There were several competing schools of thought about divorce back then. Everyone agreed it was legal. The argument was about under what circumstances could a divorce happen. The purpose was not to edify each other but to defeat Jesus, but he is having none of it. He deflects their question away from the law and turns it to relationship. God through Jesus Christ is always more concerned about relationships and the needs of the people than about imposing legal matters on them. Jesus reframes the Pharisees’ question to help us have a more abundant life. He refers to the passage in Genesis to argue that marriage and divorce are not simply a matter of legality, but about the Creator’s intention that we be in relationships of mutual dependence, wholeness and love.
Over time, divorce had become a legal convenience for men who wanted to be rid of their wives. Jesus looked at the purpose of the law, which is to protect the vulnerable. When a woman was divorced she lost everything, her status, reputation, economic security, her children and family, for the convenience of her husband. Jesus said that whenever the law is used in such a way it twists and violates the Creator’s purpose. Jesus is not speaking to individuals here. He is making a statement about the nature of the church. He invites us to imagine communities founded on love, fostered by respect and dignity. Such relationships strengthen the community and protect the vulnerable. The vulnerable are divorced women and children. It is a natural progression from divorce to the treatment of children.
Recall the context. Jesus has announced he is going to Jerusalem to die. In response, his disciples argue about who is the greatest. Jesus tells them that to be great is to serve. The Pharisees pick a fight with him about the purpose of the law. And as children were brought to him for blessing, the disciples try to turn them away. Jesus forcefully intervenes, saying that that whenever children, least of these, are welcomed, Jesus is welcomed.
The Gospel is always about community, but not the kind of community sought in secular life. The kingdom is not populated by the strong and wealthy, the powerful and independent. To be human is to be loved by God and drawn together into relationship with all the broken people with whom God loves. When we gather to worship we create local communities of broken people seeking to be blessed. We are hurting but also healing, lost but also found, aware of our needs, while knowing that they are best met by helping meet the needs of others.
Paul addresses this beautifully in I Corinthians 1:26-29. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
When we understand the purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the purpose of His Church, we can read such biblical passage not as instructions about divorce but as an invitation to be communities which reflect God’s work of healing and reconciliation. In the church there is a place for Bob and for Cheri, for all of us who are broken and for all of us who judge the broken. And since all of us are both of those things at the same time, Jesus call us to discover together our potential to reach out in love and compassion. We are a community of the broken, but we are blessed in our brokenness because God loves us and makes all things new. To God be the glory. Amen.