Sometimes when a preacher gets a little too close to home in a sermon, someone will say to him afterward, “Well, now you’ve stopped preaching, and you’ve gone to meddling!” This is what Jesus does in today’s passage. He’s gone to meddling, talking about marriage, divorce, remarriage, parents and children. The scripture connects to everyone in some deep and specific way. Some of us here are married or getting married or were married or wanting to be married, but nobody’s asked. We are widows and widowers. We are children of parents who are children of parents who are children of parents.
And, please let me say right now, as I’ve clearly gone to meddling right off the bat in this sermon, that this is not a if you’ve been divorced you’re bad sermon. Like all our sermons, this sermon will end with news that is good for everybody. If you’re not hearing good news, then you’re not hearing authentic Christianity.
So what is happening in this passage? The Pharisees test Jesus. The Pharisees are self-righteous religionists concerned with moral appearances. They spend their days holding people accountable. I saw a funny t-shirt yesterday that could be a Pharisee tweet: “I’ll try to be nicer if you’ll try to be smarter.” Yet, Jesus calls them hypocrites and whitewashed tombs: gleaming on the outside, but filthy inside.
Camus, writing about revolutionaries in the French Revolution, described the heart of a Pharisee – someone who cannot accept the reality of human weakness, someone who cannot accept a person as he actually is. “Virtue, in that it has too much pride, is not wisdom…. His principles do not allow him to accept things as they are; and things not being what they should be, his principles are therefore fixed, silent, and alone. To abandon oneself to principles is really to die – and to die for an impossible love which is the contrary of love…”
This is one of the reasons that Quentin Compson commits suicide in The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s story of the disintegrating Compson family. Quentin cannot accept his sister’s loss of virginity and subsequent shotgun wedding – her failure to live up to the sexual mores of the south for women. He abandons himself to principles and really does die for an impossible love, which is the contrary to love. He cannot accept her weakness so he drowns himself with 2 6-pound flat irons in the Charles River.
Pharisees believe in principles and try to force others to live by principles. In the Jewish culture divorce was permitted based on Deut. 24.1, which says a man could divorce his wife if she did something “shameful.” There were varying opinions about what was shameful – from adultery to not keeping house the right way. A respected teacher in 200 BC wrote, “If she go not as you would have her go, cut her off from your flesh and give her a bill of divorce.” This should get your hackles up.
It got Jesus’ hackles up. So in response to their question Jesus, as he often does, asks them a question in return. Jesus asks them what Moses commanded. He was fishing for Gen 2:24 – a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife and they shall be one flesh. That is the heart of the Bible’s teaching on marriage. But, the Pharisees respond not with what Moses commanded, but with what he permitted. That is another tack of the Pharisee: look for some lesser law to follow to justify yourself, yet still condemn others.
Jesus responds with Gen 2 because he not only cares about the heart of marriage as God intended it but because he cares about hearts! And he is concerned about the Pharisees “hardness of heart”, the lack of empathy or compassion for human weakness. And, btw, when Jesus says what God has joined together let no man put asunder, “man” there, means, “man.” Only the man had the power to initiate divorce – leaving the woman in a terrible predicament, in many cases just because she did not go as he would have her go, either in the kitchen or the bedroom.
Jesus leaps in to protect the rights of the weak. He says that the husband who dissolves what God joined together stands under divine judgment. And, behind the solemn prohibition there is, as always for Him, a deep concern for human relationships – there is loving care “for every broken heart, for every heart that cries.”
And who doesn’t know about broken hearts and broken relationships. Divorce touches nearly everybody. The percentage of first marriages that end in divorce is 50 percent. The percentage of second marriages that end in divorce is 60 percent. My parents divorced after 27 years of marriage. They separated while Christie and I were on our honeymoon in Europe! Many of us have stepfathers and stepmothers and stepbrothers, etc. that require complicated emotional connections – especially at Thanksgiving or at weddings. And, especially at funerals, with estates involved.
I share a basic emotion with other children whose parents waited to get divorced until the kids were out of the house. Most of us in this situation feel that our entire lives together were some kind of sham. We’ve got to reinvent, reinterpret the Christmas’s and beach vacations we thought were kind of happy. A fundamental security is torn away, forcing us to reevaluate our deepest assumptions.
However, God knows (literally) that sometimes divorce is the only option. Nearly everyone who has been divorced will tell you that divorce is always a tragedy. But sometimes, given the emotional wreckage of life, inherited from our parents and our parents’ parents, together with the maelstrom of our own consuming need, we are just unprepared to weather the storms of life long marriage until death do us part. People tell me that staying in a marriage sometimes is death and they can no longer take it. I believe them.
I don’t blame my parents for their divorce, just as I’m not in the blame game for anyone else’s fidelity or infidelity. Remember, Jesus also said, “He who is without sin may cast the first stone.” Yes, of course, there are situations in which one party may bear more of the blame than the other. Yet, every story has two sides. The closest we can come to totally accurate blame is to blame our universal condition.
Our relational brokenness is undeniably bound up in sin – our own sin as well as the ways people have sinned against us. It’s useless to look to some loophole in the law like the Pharisees did to justify ourselves. The reality is that our own self-interest or lust or pride or greed plays into our broken heartedness, individually and collectively.
The teacher in 200 BC said: “If she go not as you would have her go, cut her off from your flesh and give her a bill of divorce.” We have not gone as God would have us go. We all have done some shameful thing. In some ways, we have broken our own hearts as “we have erred and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep.” Not really a newsflash, is it? But our inner Pharisee works hard at justifying ourselves and blaming others, keeping this insight at arms length.
And yet, here’s the gospel. Here is the good news that makes this authentic Christianity. Unlike the hard hearted Pharisees, God has compassion for human weakness. Even though we have not gone as He would have us go, he did not cut us off from his flesh and give us a bill of divorce! In fact, He gave us his own flesh – his body on the cross – as proof of his love in the face of our sin. He died for love that is real love. He even calls us His Bride!
Right now, you may be divorced happily or unhappily, you may be married happily or unhappily, you may be single happily or unhappily. I don’t know. But I do know that you have wounds, some wounds very deep, enough to break your heart. Well, the psalmist tells us, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.”
The passage ends with an arresting scene of Jesus welcoming little children on his lap. Children are the fruit of the one flesh of holy matrimony. Children are the ones, frankly, who suffer and are brokenhearted when families break. Perhaps that is why Jesus says, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
The still point of hope in the crumbling world of the Compson family is Dilsey, the long-suffering servant. She loves each member as they actually are, in their weakness. On Easter morning, Dilsey goes to church. The preacher pictures Mary with Jesus on her lap as a little child. “Sometimes maybe she helt him at de nightfall, whilst the angels singin him to sleep; maybe she look out de do en see the Roman police passin…. I hears de angels singin’ de peaceful songs… I see de closin eyes. I sees Mary jump up, sees de sojer face: We gwine to kill! We gwine to kill! We gwine to kill yo little Jesus! I hears the weeping and de lamentation of de po mammy.” Talk about brokenhearted.
The scene moves to the Father in Heaven witnessing the lamentation of human suffering, sin and brokenness. “I sees de whelming flood roll between; I sees de darkness and de death everlasting upon de generations. Den, lo! Breddren! Yes, Breddren! Whut I see? What I see, O sinner? I sees de resurrection en de light; sees de meek Jesus sayin’ Dey kilt me dat ye shall live again; I died dat dem what sees en believes shall never die.”
Faulkner concludes, “Dilsey sat bolt upright, crying rigidly and quietly in the annealment and the blood of the remembered Lamb.” And there lies the hope for us all – in the annealment and blood of the remembered Lamb.
- Mark 10:2 - 16