Sermon for Sunday, October 4, 2015 || Proper 22B || Mark 10:2-16
“Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.” By the end of this year, I will have said these words eleven times after hearing the marriage vows of eleven couples. Jesus says these words in today’s Gospel lesson. And he says many other words about marriage and divorce, about fidelity and desire, and about relationships with the most vulnerable. Beneath these words, no matter how hard they are to hear or to speak, beneath these words shimmers Jesus’ surpassing dream for all creation – that none of us and no part of that creation will ever truly be alone.
Let’s start at the beginning and see what we shall see. The Pharisees come to test Jesus. Whenever this happens in the Gospel, we can bet that Jesus is not going to fall into the Pharisees trap, for a trap it is. They are not being genuine. They are not actually curious about what this great teacher has to say about a certain hot button issue. They just want to make Jesus look bad. This is not the way to begin a conversation of such consequence, and yet testing Jesus is their motive. Thus, we have our first notion of aloneness – the Pharisees desire to set Jesus apart, on the wrong side of an issue, in order to ridicule and debase him, to say to his followers, “See, your teacher is callous and wrong. How could you listen to him?”
You can see how the test is rigged to put Jesus on the wrong side. They lay their trap with this question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The answer to this question in the Jewish society of the time was simple: “Yes, it is lawful,” as described in the Law and codified in the book of Deuteronomy. But the Pharisees suspect that Jesus might have something else to say, something they could use against him.
Of course, Jesus doesn’t fall for the trap. Instead, he turns the question back on them, in effect drawing them closer to him, into a conversation instead of a courtroom proceeding. “What did Moses command you?” The Pharisees reply, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” Notice there are two separate actions in this process: writing the certificate of dismissal and completing the divorce. The reality of this two-step process spurs Jesus’ next statement: “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.”
You see, Moses created the “certificate of dismissal” in order to protect the divorced wife. Men held all the power in the relationship. Women went from being under their father’s power to being under their husband’s. They had no freedom of choice. They were closer to property than people. There was no such thing as mutuality in the relationship. According to some schools of rabbinical thought, a man could divorce his wife for burning his dinner.
In today’s society, some divorced women feel a sense of liberation when they finally tunnel out of the pit their husbands’ misplaced power had dug for them. These women are models of resiliency and courage. But in Jesus’ culture, a woman simply couldn’t leave her husband. If he divorced her, she might feel some small sense of liberation, but this would most likely be snuffed out by fear: fear that she had no protection, no connections; fear that she was now a ripe target for exploitation.
That’s why Moses created the “certificate of dismissal.” It was something a divorced woman could carry with her to show potential employers or future spouses that the divorce was her husband’s idea and everything had been done according to the Law. The “hardness of heart” Jesus speaks of comes from husbands who kicked their wives out of the house with absolutely no thought to their future welfare. So the certificate of dismissal was an oh-so-small gesture to keep the divorced woman from feeling completely abandoned, completely alone.
But Jesus isn’t willing to let the conversation go with an oh-so-small gesture. Instead, Jesus reaches back, past Moses and the Law, all the back to the creation narratives of the book of Genesis. In the first creation story, humanity is made after everything else, so there was no chance for loneliness. But in the second creation story, which Jesus’ references, the “person of earth” (ha adam in the Hebrew) is created first, so this person is utterly and hopelessly alone. So God makes every animal to see if it would alleviate the human’s loneliness, but to no avail. And so God makes another person. And finally the human being finds deep connection, deep relationship. Of course, this is before the fall, before domination and isolation had entered into the story.
Jesus dreams for all creation to embrace living lives of deep connection, so no one need be alone. That’s why he spends so much time with people whom others completely ignore. So the question is, does this mean Jesus prohibits divorce, in all cases, for all time?
I don’t think so. Because domination and isolation are the sad realities of our fallen state, they often become the sad realities in our relationships. Sometimes dominance is the hallmark of a marital relationship, and so one person’s desire guts the relationship of its presumed mutuality. Sometimes the debasing feeling of aloneness is most acute when a marital relationship is supposed to be warding it away and isn’t. In these toxic cases, separation often leads to new life, new possibilities, new chances for mutual connection with other people. Sometimes divorce is the merciful choice, because mercy is all about second chances.
Jesus knows a thing or two about mercy. And so, like he often does, by appealing to a deeper reality, Jesus reorients the conversation to what really matters: not the Pharisees’ insincere test, but the sacredness of relationships that chase isolation away. Jesus ignores the Law, which the Pharisees bring up, and sidesteps the legal ramifications, so I don’t think his energy is invested in legislating new territory for his society’s divorce debate. The last two scenes in the passage show where his energy really sparks.
First, he clarifies something for the disciples. If someone initiates a divorce specifically to marry someone else, then that person has already committed adultery. In other words, the adulterer has satisfied his own craving without thought to the welfare of his spouse.* That person is now alone, and all because the adulterer couldn’t keep himself from straying. This lack of fidelity, this wanton disregard for the welfare of another really gets Jesus’ blood boiling. Again and again throughout the Gospel, his underlying dream surfaces: no one need ever be alone.
And so the final scene in our passage makes perfect sense with the others. We mentioned children two weeks ago: how they were the lowest of the low in Jesus’ society; lower than farm animals, they weren’t even thought of as people until they were old enough and strong enough to work. And yet, Jesus welcomes them into his arms, lets them cling to him, offers them the kingdom of God. In effect, he says, “You are not alone. You may be treated as if you don’t matter, as if you don’t exist, but don’t you believe it for a moment.”
He says the same thing to each of us. This is the conviction he breathes into our souls. In a world where domination and isolation reign, his good news reports a different story, one of connection and deep relationship. Too often, people fall victim to such domination and isolation, which infect the marital relationships that are designed to ward off such evils. In these cases, Jesus’ promise still holds: “You are not alone. I am with you. You need not seek fulfillment where none is to be found. Come to me and together we will begin your story again, so you may find new sources of connection and deep relationship. Remember: you need never be alone.”