Proper 19, B
Genesis 2:18-24, Mark 10:2-16
I don’t want you to get the idea I would in any way avoid talking about the Gospel today. I wouldn’t want you to think I might procrastinate before tackling this challenging text.
But have any of you seen the movie “The Princess Bride”? It’s a marvelous story of fighting and monsters and revenge and, most importantly, true love. One of my favorite scenes features Inigo, a delightfully flawed, down-and-out, hero-at-heart. He asks his leader Vincini if someone could be following their little band. Vincini answers confidently, “It would be absolutely, totally and in all ways inconceivable”. But someone is following them. Inigo then observes to Vincini that the pursuer is gaining on them. “Inconceivable!” answers Vincini. But their tracker continues to close the gap. Finally, Vincini cuts the rope their pursuer is using to chase them up a monumental cliff face. The persistent stalker is not dashed to his death on the rocks as expected, but continues to climb. “He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!” shouts Vincini. Says Inigo, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Jesus has tough words for us today. Few people go through life these days untouched by divorce. If you have not lived through it yourself, you have almost certainly lived through the devastation of it in the life of a child, or sibling, or friend or other loved one. His words are harsh. He seems to describe an impossible ideal for marriage, condemn divorce and pass the judgement of adulterer on anyone who picks up the pieces and goes on with their life with a different partner. This passage and several like it are the historical basis for hurtful practice of ostracizing divorced people from the life of the church. After all, Jesus said it was BAD (in all capital letters) right?
Yet, like Inigo, I do not think it means what you think it means. At least not entirely.
To understand the scope of Jesus’ intent, we have to go back a ways. In Moses’s time, and perhaps slightly less so in Jesus’s, marriage was primarily an economic and political venture. Marriage joined families together; allowing them to create mutual offspring, and pool their resources, or at the very least depend on one another for protection and economic support. It was the basis of inter-family alliances. The woman and her sexuality was understood by all parties to belong to her father and family of origin until such time as that ownership was transferred to her husband.
The Pharisees come to test Jesus. They are not looking for answers. They know the law. Their interest is in tripping him up. The scripture in Deuteronomy (24:1-4) they cite refers to a husband writing his wife a certificate of divorce if he “finds something objectionable about her” The big controversy of Jesus’ day is whether it requires a fault as grievous as adultery, or whether snoring at night, burning the bread or an unfortunate tendency towards bad breath is adequately objectionable to throw her away and move to greener pasture. Moses wasn’t clear on that point, but he was clear that she must be written a certificate of divorce. This certificate, while it did not provide for her financially (there was no alimony, no child support attached to this sort of divorce decree), did mitigate the risk she would otherwise face of slander, rumor and shame. Moses did not actually say in this passage that a man could divorce his wife. He recognized that it happened, that it would continue to happen, and he codified a procedure that would mitigate the harm that came from it to some degree.
Hence Jesus’s reaction, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.”
Jesus, as he so often does, goes on to not answer the question. The pharisees asked him if divorce was legal. He tells them instead what God intended marriage to be. Calling to mind creation itself, Jesus quotes Genesis and portrays the world as God would have it. As John and James Carroll write, “Jesus deflects concern from escape clauses to an embracing of the unity of partners that reflects the creative design of God” (Preaching the Hard Sayings of Jesus)
Jewish thought says God created woman not from man’s head to be above him, nor from his feet to be trampled by him or subservient to him, but from his side to be partners with him, side by side, on equal ground. Jesus here establishes God’s view of marriage as a relationship between two living, breathing persons, rather than an economic or political convenience.
Jesus’ words regarding adultery seem, to us, harsh and unforgiving. Yet, these words also serve to establish relationship and protect the vulnerable. We have seen that Moses protected women, to a limited degree, by codifying the certificate of divorce. Note though, that a woman could not initiate divorce. She had no rights, no personhood. Adultery was similarly male centered. In ancient Palestine, an unfaithful woman committed adultery against a man; an unfaithful man committed adultery against his wife’s family, not his wife. But Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” As John Kloppenborg writes, “In the Palestine of Jesus’s day, which did not permit women to initiate a divorce, the dignity of women was not…easily guarded. It is for this reason that Jesus uses the dramatic term “adultery” in so surprising a way. He thus brought sharply into focus the wife’s honor. It is as much to be protected and respected as the husband’s honor, and the woman is as vulnerable to damage [in the form of lost honor] as the male.” Crossan elaborates, “The opposition here is not just to divorce….The attack is actually against “[male centered] honor whose debilitating effects went far beyond the situation of divorce. It was also the basis for the dehumanization of women, children and non-dominant males.”
Interestingly, Jesus pronounces no judgement against the rejected partner. As one commentator points out, “He seems to be speaking specifically against those who leave their partners for others. His point is that divorce does not offer a legal loophole to justify adultery. That is, his strongest words are against those who initiate divorce as a means to get something else, sacrificing a spouse to satisfy one’s desires or ambitions.” (Matt Skinner, Working Preacher, 2009).
Jesus clearly does not like divorce. Which of us does? He makes no suggestion that it should be outlawed. He has the authority – he could. Instead, he holds up the ideal of relationship which calls all of us to recognize the humanity, the vulnerability, the honor of each person, within our marriages, indeed within all of our relationships.
It is no coincidence that we move from this discussion to the children – in Jesus’ day another group of non-persons, property of their fathers. Unnoticed and unimportant. The disciples try to shoo them away, but Jesus welcomes them. Children are open and trusting. They have not yet had time to learn hardness of heart. They have not yet had time to learn who is a real person and who is simple property. We must re-learn openness, trust, a willingness to be vulnerable. We do this through our relationships. The Rev. James Liggett was speaking specifically about church and marriage when he said this, but it applies to any relationship – to all community, “They are sacred mysteries, built into creation and into human nature. They are schools of love, gifts of a loving God. For it is not good to be alone; and the only way to goodness, to wholeness, is through commitment, relationship, community, and the grace of God.”
Jesus knows people. He knows not all relationships can or should stand. We are human and flawed. People change and bad things happen. But he holds up the ideal. Likewise, he knows we will not become children again, yet we must strive for open, trusting relationship, with God and with our fellow travelers on the way.
As we strive to touch Him, may Jesus take us all up in his loving arms and bless us on our way. Amen.