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Sermon for Proper 22/Ordinary 27B Mark 10:2-9 divorce and children

October 4, 2015

one fleshA friend of mine was so angry when this gospel passage was read out that he walked out of church. He’d stayed in a loveless marriage for years until he met his soul mate and remarried.

Jesus, in this morning’s Gospel, is caught up in a religious conflict about sexuality with some people who quote Scripture at him. Sound familiar?

People who use the Bible to make rules are inconsistent. They manage to wriggle out of Jesus’s direct teaching against divorce yet insist that the Bible always condemns homosexuality.

If Jesus was against divorce – why? Maybe he was attempting to change a major structural cause of prostitution: the ease with which a man could divorce a woman. The severity of his pronounce­ment —he allows no cause for divorce, not even adultery —is intended to prevent the wholesale dumping of ex-wives onto the streets. Engaging the Powers – W. Wink (Fortress 1992) p132

Note the male-centred form of the Pharisees’ question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” But Jesus doesn’t just say that a man who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery in general; he says that man commits adultery against his wife. In the ancient world, if a man was unfaithful to his wife he was considered to have committed adultery not against her but against her father and her family, the ones who entrusted her to him. A Jewish male could not commit adultery against his own wife, but only against the sexual property of other men. Jesus redefines adultery. He says it’s against her. So concern for the vulnerability of the woman seems to be the paramount concern.

And he adds something very new: “If a woman herself divorces her husband, and marries another, she commits adultery”. Jewish women were not free to divorce their husbands. Binding the Strong Man – C. Myers (Orbis 2008) p. 265

Roman wives could. Herodias divorced her husband to marry Herod Antipas, but the Jewish Mishnah, only centuries later, granted women the right to divorce their husbands under certain exceptional circumstances, such as impotence.

I’m wondering whether Jesus was making a pronouncement for all time or was addressing a particular set of circumstances. Look at the context. He’s in ” the borders of Judea beyond the Jordan” v. 1 – Perea, the territory of King Herod Antipas

who earlier divorced his wife, Aretus, to marry Herodias, who had been his brother’s wife. John the Baptist’s criticism of that marriage led to his beheading 6:18-29. The Pharisees’ surely understand that if they can get Jesus to condemn divorce, Antipas and Herodias might well rid them of his troublesome presence. Mark has already told us that Herod is aware of Jesus and believes that Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead 6:14-16.

The Pharisees loved this kind of debate for its own sake, rather than with a view to lay down rules for all time. The two current views were from Rabbi Shammai, a hardliner and Rabbi Hillel, a liberal. And elsewhere Jesus allows one exception for divorce – porneia – where we get our wordc ‘pornography’ from. He might have meant that the wife was adulterous or more likely that she wasn’t a virgin at the time of the marriage. Another opinion comes from St. Paul – that a convert can divorce a non-believer. Also, alarmingly, he states that a person becomes one-flesh, for ever, with the first person with whom they had intercourse. Bad news about that fumble in the upper 6th.

So was Jesus making a legal ruling after all. In his response to the Pharisees’ question, Jesus actually refuses to render a legal judgment on divorce/ His seemingly hard pronouncement was said to his disciples in private, afterwards.Publicly, to the Pharisees, he turns their question on its head, shifting the conversation from legal to relational categories as he seeks protection for the most vulnerable. And he rejects one particular text about the teaching of Moses. He says “Moses only allowed divorce in the first place because of your hardness of heart.”

What is he saying here? He’s saying that you can’t assume that, just because it’s in Scripture, it’s the will of God! Some Bible verses express nothing more than the hardness of heart of the people who received them in the first place and, who knows maybe of the people who read them now?

Jesus dismisses Moses’s permission with a sharp rejoinder.  “For your hardness of heart” Moses allowed divorce.

“hardness of heart”–sklerokardia—where we get our word schlerosis. “Hardness of heart” is associated with resistance to the ways of God Jer 4:4, Ez 3:7. Pharaoh, their ancient enemy, also had “hardness of heart.”  No Jew would want to be lumped in with Pharaoh.  And Pharaoh is a representative figure for patriarchy.  Nobody is higher up the social ladder than Pharaoh.

Jesus responds that God did not create or intend patriarchy but created male and female to become one flesh . He’s quoting Genesis, where Eve was described as Adam’s ‘handmaid’ – not just a little helper – God is often described as handmaid to Israel Tina Beattie and

 Jesus’ conclusion, then, is not meant as an absolute prohibition upon “divorce,” which would both overturn the Mosaic statute and return to a legalistic solution. Indeed, he drops the term for divorce apoluse in favor of a different term – to “separate,” chorizeto. He protests the way in which patriarchal practice drives a wedge into the unity and equality originally articulated in the marriage covenant.’  

So when Christian clergy use this ban on divorce in quite the opposite fashion, to lock men, women and their children in abusive or unhealthy relationships in the name of a loving God, what began as a revolutionary teaching based in justice and equality becomes a rule dogmatically rooted in oppression.

When I was a teenager, there were two classes of people who weren’t allowed to receive communion – remarried divorcees and children. They went up for a blessing instead. So note that today’s gospel does not end with the stuff about divorce. Instead, we have the brief story of people bringing children to Jesus, an act the disciples try desperately to curtail.

To what extent is the question “to whom does the Kingdom of God belong” (10:14) at the heart of the test posed by the Pharisees? Is the issue at stake less about divorce and symptomatic of the larger subject of vulnerability?

These people were bringing children to Jesus “so that he might touch them.”  Interesting:  Every other use of the word “touch” in Mark has to do with healing.  The disciples “rebuked” those who were bringing the children. “Rebuked” epitimao is a strong word, one often used against demons and their powers in Mark.  “Seeing” the disciples turn the children away, Jesus was “indignant” aganakteo. Aganakteo was also a strong word.  It meant displeasure, annoyance, strong irritation, and is used only here in Mark’s gospel.

In Mark’s gospel, the phrase “truly I say to you” occurs 14 times. It indicates a special pronouncement, and means the listener should underline what follows.  Then Jesus says, “Whoever might not receive the kingdom of God as a child might surely not enter into it.” The saying is not about the “simple faith” of innocent children and how we all should emulate their unquestioning trust.  Rather, it’s about the precarious state of children, their vulnerability, their lack of status.  60% of first century middle-eastern children died before their 16th birthday.

Childlike, we are invited to receive the gift of God’s kingdom as people of no social status, delighted to be given something rather than defending rules that exclude others from admission.

Jesus didn’t discard the scriptures. He rejected one particular text because it was used by those with hard hearts. He called upon another text and interpreted it in a way that nobody else had undertood before. May today’s church stop quoting the Bible against the vulnerable out of its hardness of heart.

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From → My Sermons, Sexuality

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