Text: Mark 10:2-16 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,[a] 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Jesus Blesses Little Children
13 And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
Just what are we to make of this passage?
Of all the hard sayings of Jesus, this might be the hardest one of all. It was considered so by the first disciples, too.
At issue was a debate that was raging at the time in the Jewish schools. It had partly to do with Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which stated that, if a man divorces his wife because he found some unspecified “indecency” in her, and then she married another man, who also divorced her, the first husband could not then take her back. Additionally, there was that provision of Moses, quoted in today’s passage, regarding the requirement of a certificate of divorce.
Now, to the question the Pharisees asked Jesus, which was whether or not it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife, at the outset, it seems to me that the obvious response would have been “yes,” since there was a debate about divorce going on at the time in the first place and the Pharisees knew about the certificate of divorce, which more than implies that divorce was a “thing” back then, just as it is today.
But the Pharisees were not really interested in hearing Jesus’ view on the legality of divorce; what they were about was trying to trap Jesus so that they could use his own words against him. They were so wrapped up in their arcane machinations that they thought that everybody else thought that way, too. Coming up with ever more sophisticated twists on the Law was their stock in trade, but they had long since forgotten what they Law was for in the first place – people, and how people were to live in community with each other.
So, Jesus’ response gave them an unexpected shock. First, Jesus turns the tables on them by saying that that law Moses gave was because of their hardness of heart, their failure to work toward reconciliation, and their treatment of women and children as second- and third-class people.
Believe it or not, as harsh as Jesus’ words seem to our ears, they were meant as a way to defend women and children. The issuing of a certificate of divorce could be done on the spur of the moment, for any kind of real or imagined infraction, including something as minor as burning dinner. Once that decree had been issued, there was no going back; and the women who were given such a certificate had to leave hearth and home, with their children and nothing more than the clothes on their backs. And these women could not go back to their parents, either, because to be divorced was such a horrible stigma that it brought dishonor to their parents’ homes. They quite literally had nowhere to go.
It was a horrible situation, and by saying what he said to the Pharisees, Jesus was telling them to their faces that the responsibility for this horrible situation that so many women and children were in was squarely on their shoulders. “Your interpretations of the Law,” he tells them, “have real consequences for real people, which in many cases are devastating.”
Further, when Jesus says “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female,’” he’s quoting Genesis 1:27 where we read that God created humanity in his own image, both male and female. His next statement is a quote from Genesis 2:24, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,[a] 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ In other words, it is by God’s ordinance that the two become one, and men are given no authority to modify that ordinance.
We can only assume that, once they heard Jesus’ response, the Pharisees slunk away in embarrassment. But the disciples need a little more clarification, and Jesus’ answer to them tells them that in this, as in all things, both men and women equally bear the consequences.
OK, so what does that mean for us today? Does this mean that divorced people are just plain out of luck when it comes to God’s love and grace?
Of course not.
God does not want us to be miserable. Remember that Jesus boiled the whole of the Law down to two related commandments – Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. If you’re miserable, and stuck in a horrible relationship, you can’t do either one.
God’s plan is that our relationships are to be relationships of mutual dependence, mutual support, and mutual benefit. The Pharisees completely missed the point of the Law they were so diligent in following. The law is meant to protect the vulnerable, the hurting, the defenseless, those who are on the margins; and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan. We violate the spirit of the law even while we adhere to the letter of the law.
Jesus knew, as we all do, that there are situations where the best possible outcome for two people is to call it a day and part company. Jesus came to show us the love of God; he came to show us how much God cares for us, his children. The Jesus who ate with tax collectors and sinners, who brought God’s grace to a Samaritan woman whose daughter was ill, would never reject people out of hand, merely because their relationship had come to an end! As the great old hymn puts it: “Jesus, Thou art all compassion; pure unbounded love Thou art.” Jesus is the Lord of Love, not the Lord of Judgment.
That is driven home by the last part of today’s passage, which has to do with children.
“And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them.” When we read in Mark that Jesus “touches” someone, it’s most often to heal them. So maybe at least some of the children in that house were ill, which might explain why the disciples wanted to keep them away from Jesus. But as we know, Jesus would have none of that, and orders not only that these people, whoever they were and whatever afflicted them, be allowed to bring their children – dependent and vulnerable as they were – to him for a touch of blessing and healing, and further, that the kingdom of God belongs to them.
So, the point of this story is not the argument about divorce, but when Jesus takes a small child and places that child on his knee and says in effect, “Listen up, people! Here’s the unvarnished truth: Whenever you honor and welcome a child, you’re welcoming me, and even more, you’re living as God intends. That is what it’s all about!”
The church never was, and is not now, some kind of “winner’s circle” for those who have somehow “made it” and can now draw a line between themselves and the great unwashed multitudes “out there.” The church is a place for all those who have been broken by life; a place for folks who have been rejected by the powerful; it is the places where they can experience God through the crucified Jesus. And every one of us is at one time or another, a member of that multitudinous group. This is where we meet Jesus as the One who meets us in our vulnerability, who heals us, and blesses us.
Let us remember our own brokenness so we can be open to the brokenness and need of those around us.
For this is the place, and there is the Table, where all our welcome!
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.