Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 7, 2012

2102.10.07 “Family Values, Jesus Style” – Mark 10: 2 – 16

Central United Methodist Church

Family Values, Jesus Style

Pastor David L. Haley

Mark 10: 2 – 16

October 7, 2012


“From there Jesus went to the area of Judea across the Jordan. A crowd of people, as was so often the case, went along, and he, as he so often did, taught them. Pharisees came up, intending to give him a hard time. They asked, “Is it legal for a man to divorce his wife?”

Jesus said, “What did Moses command?”

They answered, “Moses gave permission to fill out a certificate of dismissal and divorce her.”

Jesus said, “Moses wrote this command only as a concession to your hardhearted ways. In the original creation, God made male and female to be together. Because of this, a man leaves father and mother, and in marriage he becomes one flesh with a woman — no longer two individuals, but forming a new unity. Because God created this organic union of the two sexes, no one should desecrate his art by cutting them apart.”

When they were back home, the disciples brought it up again. Jesus gave it to them straight: “A man who divorces his wife so he can marry someone else commits adultery against her. And a woman who divorces her husband so she can marry someone else commits adultery.”

The people brought children to Jesus, hoping he might touch them. The disciples shooed them off. But Jesus was irate and let them know it: “Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” Then, gathering the children up in his arms, he laid his hands of blessing on them.” – Mark 10: 2 – 16, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson.


There is a line in one of favorite songs – Graceland, by Paul Simon – that has always stood out for me.  It says:

“Losing love is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody feels the wind blow.”

Anyone who has ever experienced the loss of love – whether by rejection, divorce, or death – knows how true this is. There is a coldness, a nakedness to it, that is frightening and chilling. Whether or not we ever heal, it leaves a gaping wound in our souls, a scar, which, if we can possibly help, we never want to open up again.

Like many of you – being divorced and remarried – I am such a person. When I got married in 1979, I never thought I would get divorced, no more than anyone – when we stand at an altar to get married – ever thinks we will get divorced. Unfortunately, it was a troubled marriage from the outset. Yes, there are two sides to the story. Yes, we did counseling. Eventually we had children, and even though I was increasingly miserable, for their sake I could not tolerate the thought of ending the marriage. I was married for 14 years. Either I am a slow learner, have a high threshold for pain, or both.

Eventually, after a particularly bad episode, I came to the realization that though divorce would be hard on the children, it couldn’t be worse than the situation we were living in. I filed for divorce, which took two years from start to finish. Because we lived in a church parsonage, my wife would not leave, and I had to remain living with her for most of that time. I can’t tell you how much I hated going to divorce court. Or how depressed I was to find out how little money I would have, after child support, to live on. I didn’t care about possessions, and in the divorce lost almost everything I owned, including the childhood pictures of my children. One of the most emotional aspects of my son’s wedding two years ago, was to see some of those pictures I had not seen in years. I slept on a futon in the floor for months, not even owning a bed. And yet, despite all this, for the first time in years I again had a horizon in my life, not just misery and darkness. After five years of being single, I met Michele, herself also divorced, with a different story but equally horrible.  It is because of such stories as ours – and perhaps yours – that the church has always acknowledged that while a good marriage is the without doubt the greatest good, in a bad marriage, sometimes divorce is the lesser of evils, kind of like amputating a limb to save a life.

Right now, one in two of us – 50% of us – go through this, sometimes more than once. The sad thing is that the divorce rate among Christians is worse than the population at large – even among atheists – so we’re obviously doing something wrong. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but that means half of us – maybe more – have gone through such a miserable experience.  Unless your divorce was amicable, you have a horror story and scars of your own. As Paul Simon sings, “you have a window in your heart, everybody sees you’re blown apart, everybody sees the wind blow.”

In light of this, why would we want to open old wounds, in church no less, by hearing Jesus’ comments about divorce?

Rightfully, this passage is often listed among the hard sayings of Jesus. Perhaps “painful” would be more like it, as each time it is read in church some of us cringe, either feeling assaulted directly or worrying that others are. One pastor said a parishioner once told him that hearing this passage read in church felt like having garbage dumped all over her; it didn’t matter that she’d cleaned up and put on her Sunday best, because after hearing these words she felt like she couldn’t get rid of the stink of her divorce.  Those of us who are divorced may feel the same way.

So, let’s take a look at what Jesus says, try to understand why he said what he said, and what it means today.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, to meet his destiny. His path takes him across the Jordan River, into unfamiliar territory. In Mark’s Gospel, that’s a clue that Jesus is crossing prescribed boundaries, both geographically and theologically, to proclaim God’s grace and mercy, even when it means challenging the status quo. Is that what Jesus is doing here?

It’s worth noting this is the area ruled by the tetrarch, Herod Antipas, who notoriously divorced his first wife Phasaelis, in favor of a new wife, Herodias, previously married to his brother. It was John the Baptist’s criticism of this that brought about his beheading by Herod. So this may have been on everyone’s mind, kind of like if we lived in California we’d all know what happened to Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Whether Herod wrote a book and did an apology tour, as Arnold currently is, I can’t say). So it may well be Jesus was addressing his immediate context (wink, wink) rather than “all time and everywhere.”

When Jesus made his statement, it was not like a press conference, but more like a question on the campaign trail. So it should be seen not as a comprehensive, exhaustive statement on marriage, but a response to a specific question: ‘Is it legal for a man to divorce his wife?’”  In other words, the question was a trap, to attempt to entangle Jesus in controversy.

One of the most important things to understand about Jesus’ words is this: they were just as hard, just as uncomfortable, just as socially awkward for 1st century Pharisees and Christians as they are for 21st century Christians. Divorce has always been controversial, but at the same time, it has always been allowed; the question was when and how.

There were two schools of rabbinic thought: one school was strict, that a man could divorce his wife only if she were unfaithful. The other was more loose, that a man could divorce his wife if she displeased him in any number of ways, including finding somebody he liked better or burning her husband’s toast in the morning.

It’s also important to remember that neither marriage nor divorce were then what they are now: a wife was a thing, the property of her husband. If she were dismissed through divorce, for whatever reason, the consequences were devastating; there was no social safety net. She would be disowned by the family and disgraced publicly, suffer economic hardship, and have severely limited prospects for herself and her children, including, perhaps, the necessity of resorting to prostitution to survive.

So it’s interesting that Jesus basically refuses to answer the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Instead he turns it from a question about divorce to a statement about marriage, as if to say, “You wouldn’t think so much of divorce, if you didn’t think so little of marriage. And he expanded his reply to be not only about men but also about women, specifically the divorced wife, previously not a factor in the discussion. I think it is in this context that Jesus goes on to talk about children. In that time and place children also had no social status, and, as women, Jesus lifts them up and gives them a place in his kingdom. For his time and place it was radical, boundary breaking.

It is in accordance with the pattern throughout the Gospels: Instead of reinforcing Pharisaic standards or setting in place new one rules which create more victims, it is the victims and all those hurt by the social holiness code whom Jesus lifts up, on earth and in God’s kingdom: people such as divorcees, widows, children, the diseased and the disgraced. In light of this, perhaps those of us who have been through such trauma should see ourselves differently, not as those shamed, but as those for whom God has a special care, after what we have gone through.

As for marriage, whether for the Pharisees or us, Jesus takes us back beyond the culturally bound practices of their time and our time, good or bad though they may be, back to God’s intention for us, to the book of beginnings, the book of Genesis:

Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one   separate.’” (Mark 10: 5 – 9, the New Revised Standard Version)

But really, in quoting this text, doesn’t Jesus raise as many questions as he answers? Male and female; but what about those in between, who have always existed, in every society?  And how do we in fact, become one? Does it refer to sex, or legal or religious union? If it is through sex, are we “married” to anyone and everyone with whom we have sex? If the two become one, “Which one?” Who has God joined together? Aren’t there some who are married, whom God never joined together, who should never have gotten married in the first place? And isn’t it too bad that Jesus didn’t go on to quote Genesis 2:18, which says, “It is not good that man (or woman) should be alone.” God said that, too. Where does that leave those who are single, either through choice or no fault of their own?

The point seems to be that God intended marriage not just as another legal contract, as it has wound up one way or another throughout history, but as a blessing, a form of human intimacy like no other. So perhaps the reverse is also true, that if any particular marriage is not such intimacy, not a blessing, is it a marriage as God intended it to be?  And isn’t it also true what all those of us are divorced already know, that anytime a marriage ends it grieves the heart of God, not because a legal standard has been broken, but because of the damage it does to all involved, all God’s beloved children. Which brings us back to where we began. Any of us who have gone through divorce knows that while we would not wish divorce on anybody, sometimes it still becomes the lesser of evils, and therefore allowed.

The truth also is, while God’s intent that marriage be a blessing have not changed, the forms of marriage are always changing. The passages from Genesis and Mark assume that marriage is between a man and a woman, but in those cultures it also assumes a man may have several wives, that he may take concubines, and that if a wife fails to provide a child a man may keep looking until he finds a wife who can bear him children. In Matthew’s Gospel, he adds an exception to Mark. Paul, who says more about marriage than anyone else in the whole New Testament, doesn’t seem too wild about it, saying that “It is better to marry than to burn,” and “Those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you all that.” (I Cor. 7:28) That’s not much better than Socrates, who said, “Whether you marry or whether you don’t, you’ll regret it.” In short, Christians have always struggled with these issues, so why shouldn’t we?

A generation ago, we would have looked to this passage for instruction about whether and how we could welcome divorced persons into our congregation. Today we engage in conversation about what constitutes marriage.  Should marriage be extended to same sex couples? Since we’re living longer than ever before – the equivalent of a couple of lifetimes compared to previously in the human race – is it even realistic to believe that marriage to the same person should last a lifetime? Should I – as a wedding officiant, seriously ask people to solemnly pledge, “Until death do you part?” Especially when we know that only every other marriage is going to last anyway? I welcome these questions, and if Jesus were here, wonder what he might say? To paraphrase what he had to say about another divine institution, the Sabbath: “Is marriage made for us, or are we made for marriage?”

And yet, whatever our beliefs might be,
whatever our experience has been, even those of us most jaded continue to believe that at its best, the true marriage of bodies, minds, and souls is one of the greatest blessings we can experience in a lifetime. At its best, it can barely be described in words.

When Ken Burns was researching his PBS series The Civil War, a professor sent him a letter written by a Rhode Island soldier, Sullivan Ballou. On July 14, 1861, just before the First Battle of Bull Run, Sullivan Ballou had a premonition he might not survive, and wrote these words to his wife, Sarah, 24 at the time:

“My Very Dear Sarah:

“The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

“Sarah, my love for you is deathless; it seems to bind me with   mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my    love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

“The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us….

“If I do not return my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

“lf the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and    in the darkest nights … always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple; it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.”

Sullivan Ballou was killed seven days later, July 21, 1861. Sarah Ballou never remarried, died in 1917 at the age of 80, and was buried beside her husband.



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