Sermon - 7th October 2012
Scripture - Mark 10:1-16
Rev Andy Braunston
This is one of those readings that we want to skip over. I noticed the service on the radio this morning was devoted to a totally different theme entirely. As you can see from the decorations, our friends at Wilbraham St Ninian’s celebrated their harvest festival today. Not surprisingly this is one of those passages that we like to ignore – but I think it’s better that we grapple with texts like this as they contain hard teachings that we need to ponder intelligently unless we fall prey to the trap of fundamentalism.
Mark’s gospel is generally believed to have been the first Gospel to have been written. We can see that St Luke and St Matthew took much of St Mark’s material and adapted it to suit their own contexts. In these adaptations some things were changed to make passages work a little easier in their own context. St Matthew, for example, took this passage and changed it so Jesus allowed remarriage after divorce in the case of adultery. St Luke follows St Mark and doesn’t change the saying. We read this passage today and are profoundly uncomfortable – no one thinks divorce is a good thing – we all recognise it’s profoundly painful, disruptive and deeply wounding – or at least arises from deep wounds. However, very few of us would say that remarriage after divorce is wrong. We’re not alone in being uncomfortable: as we’ve seen St Matthew recorded the saying differently and the disciples in today’s passage asked Jesus about his teaching indicating that they weren’t in immediate agreement. Clearly most contemporary Christians don’t follow this passage literally as most churches allow remarriage after divorce – and even the Roman Catholic Church which doesn’t recognise divorce has a process which can allow people to marry after a civil divorce. So what is going on with this difficult passage?
So What’s Going on?
The first thing to note is that Jesus is being led into a trap. The Pharisees who ask him “tell us, does our Law allow a man to divorce his wife?” knew very well that the Law did allow this. The provisions in Deuteronomy in the Old Testament concern the how of divorce not the why so contemporary debate in Jesus’ time was around the reasons for divorce not whether it was lawful. Some rabbis thought that divorce was permissible for any reason – famously one rabbi held a man could divorce his wife if she burnt his soup! Other rabbis held divorce was only permissible if a woman committed adultery. Aside from the rather glaring fact that all this debate was about men divorcing women – not women divorcing men – there was something of a debate on the subject going on. The trap for Jesus then was to get him to pigeon hole himself into one or other position and so be discredited by the other side of the argument. I’m not sure that Jesus’ answer was a successful strategy as both sides would have disagreed with his teaching that remarriage after divorce was wrong. But there was a trap being set.
Jesus answer to the question refers back to the creation narrative – ie a time before human sin. In the original created order divorce wasn’t needed as human sin didn’t exist. Some people feel that when Jesus is referring back to before sin came into the world he is also looking forward to the coming Kingdom where sin will be extinct. In other words he is looking at a perfect world – past and future – not the imperfect world in which we live.
Others highlight the plight of women in this discussion. First, women couldn’t initiate divorce they could only be divorced. Orthodox Jewish women still are in this situation today and they can’t remarry in their faith if their former husbands haven’t given them a religious divorce. This keeps women in a subservient role secondary to the man. More seriously, in Jesus’ age divorce could be devastating for a woman. She would have to leave her husband’s home and make a life for herself. If her family didn’t want her back, or were dead, she would have had nowhere to go. The man didn’t have to provide for her needs so her economic choices were very limited. Destitution, prostitution, despair and poverty were the only realistic future many such women could look forward too. Jesus’ teaching, then would have protected women from this desperate plight. What is ironic, however, is that a teaching that would have the effect of protecting women has, over time, been used to oppress, limit, beat and terrify women.
What Can We Make of it?
So what can we make of this passage and this teaching. After all we use the Bible as a source for our faith and our thinking about ethics, so what do we make of this passage in a world where a third of all marriages formed in 1995 had ended in divorce by the year 2010. We also know that, over time, many Civil Partnerships will also be dissolved. Since they were introduced in 2005, over 53,000 Civil Partnerships have been formed of which a few thousand have been dissolved. Clearly many of those forming Civil Partnerships had been together for years and were having our relationships formalised so the likelihood of divorce is less. This is the world in which we live so what do we take from this passage?
Many of us know the pain of divorce, the pain of a long term relationship ending, the devastation that results, the stress, the heartbreak, the numbness and the anger that comes in the aftermath of relationship breakdown. We know that illness can follow and that the breakdown of a long-term relationship like marriage or civil partnership can be traumatic.
Some of us may have been, superficially, the cause of a divorce or breakdown – if we came out with regard to our sexuality or gender then marriages (and as time passes Civil Partnerships) can break down as a result. Some of us have been treated so badly that divorce, dissolution or splitting up was the only healthy viable option for us. Some of only found ourselves and formed a healthy view of ourselves after leaving a bad relationship.
All of this due to human sin – the sin of homophobia and transphobia that meant we couldn’t be ourselves and open and honest and so married wrongly. The sin of violence and patriarchy, which beats its victims into submission, may have led us to make wrong choices to either enter or stay in a dreadful relationship. The sin of self-hatred, which gives us a false view of who we are, may have kept us in relationships which do us positive harm.
So we have to discern the powerful truths in the passage with an eye on our own reality. We can agree that God’s desire in the creation narrative is for humans not to be alone. In one of the creation stories in Genesis humanity is made at the same time, in the other Adam is made first and then Eve is created as “it is not good for humanity to be alone”. Both stories underline the truth that we are made to be social creatures.
We can discern that relationships between couples are holy and blessed by God and taken seriously. This is a truth that many in our communities who are Christian need to take to heart – our relationships are as holy, as blessed and as serious as any others. We have marched and campaigned for this to be recognised by the state and by the church – and need to remind ourselves of this too. Jesus used the example of the creation stories in order to be understood by his hearers but it’s not so much the gender of the couple that we should focus on but the quality of love, support, commitment and devotion each has for the other.
In the Kingdom to come we will live in right relationship with each other and with God. Wounds will be healed, self-love and self-esteem will be appropriate, no one will be seeking to harm or control us and we will be able to make better choices. In the meantime we have to look at the ideas of love and compassion in Jesus’ ministry and seek to make our lives examples of both and to strive, as much as we’re able to live by the values of the coming Kingdom in our imperfect world.