I am a lectionary preacher and that means that I listen for God’s word to us today at this place through the readings that have already been set for this specific Sunday—the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (the year that is focused on Mark). That is all a long way of explaining that I did not pick this scripture passage thinking it would make a GREAT World Communion Sunday sermon, or a GREAT first Joint Worship Service sermon, or a GREAT sermon for anything. In fact, when I first read the passage I groaned, and I thought—maybe I should pick my own passage—there are all kinds of up-beat words, just right for the beginning of relationships. Something that will make us all “feel good.”
But sometimes the good news isn’t nice and cuddly. Sometimes God’s good news has sharp edges to it. In fact, one commentator said of this passage,
This week’s readings are challenging. There might be a natural
inclination to avoid the difficult conversations that these readings can
spark, but if we rejected all of the difficult passages, we would miss
an opportunity to grow deeper in our trust with God and with each
other. Can you [the preacher] create a safe atmosphere to have radical conversations about the painful issues of divorce, heteronormative gender roles, and oppression that are highlighted in these passages?
(from Seasons of Spirit, Fusion, Week for October 7,2018)
Well, there we are. What more honest thing could we be talking about today, than having an opportunity to grow deeper in our trust with God and with each other? And isn’t that what we are doing here between 8am and 10:30am? Trying to create a place, a safe place, to have radical conversations about all sorts of painful issues and topics? That has been my wish for our world since I was little; and it has been my dream for at least 10 years for this patch of ground with these people.
So let’s delve into this passage, and see what Jesus can teach us about how to talk about difficult things.
We start with the Pharisees, the people who always need to do things by the book (as long as the book benefits them). The Pharisees come to Jesus asking a question about divorce.
Now Pharisees rarely come into one’s life as good friends just throwing out a “topic for discussion” so that you can argue both sides like a debate team. No, Pharisees are usually trying to trip you up. They have an agenda, and it usually is not a positive thing for you. Divorce was one of the “hot topics” of the day since Herod had just recently beheaded John the Baptist-- who had gotten into trouble declaring that Herod’s marriage to Herodias (both of them divorced) was a transgression of Mosaic Law. So the stakes in answering this question were fairly high!
First thing Jesus teaches us is: Be wise about what the real question/situation is! This wasn’t a professorial discussion on divorce—this was a trap about power. Jesus throws the question back in their faces. What does Moses command you? What the Pharisees hear is: what does the law say about divorce? And the answer is: “That it is allowed.” And that could have been that. Jesus could have said “So say I.” But he didn’t.
He pushes the argument. He has asked about Moses; they have responded with Levitical code. Jesus one-ups them. He starts quoting the creation story (which was part of the Torah, and in Jewish tradition Moses had written all of the Torah). “God created male and female, and when they are put together they make a new unit, one not to be separated.” That seems to say that divorce should not be allowed (and probably was similar to the argument John the Baptist had used). It was Moses vs. Moses. A stalemate.
I do notice that this has not stopped people for the next 2000 years misunderstanding what was going on here--Jesus matching his power, knowledge, and understanding of Scripture with those who want to use it for their own ends. Be wise I hear Jesus saying. Be knowledgeable in the Word so you too can match power with power.
Second, don’t forget that God’s image is intrinsic in each of us. We move from the Pharisees and their power games to the disciples and their dimness. They didn’t get what Jesus had been doing. They asked more questions. We don’t get to see much of this discussion, just a final quote about “legal” divorce really being Godly adultery. I have a feeling this is a quote taken out of context. I also wonder what “side” the writer was on in this long-standing argument about the ideal versus the reality of relationships.
You see, we don’t necessarily remember that in Jesus’ time there wasn’t a Hebrew word for marriage. Everything that we translate “marriage” is really the “giving” or the “taking” of women. Women had little legal standing in Jewish law. Notice that the Pharisees talk about a MAN writing a certificate of divorce. In addition, in neither Hebrew nor Greek were there the terms husband and wife, just man and woman. And let’s not forget that in the Torah men were allowed more than one wife.
So, Jesus talking about women divorcing men is a seismic shift in things! And in his quoting of the first creation story, the one where men and women are created at the same time—in the image of God, he is underscoring an equality that was rare not just in those days, but in these days.
I wish we could hear the rest of Jesus’ remarks to the disciples, which I’m sure bemoaned the fact that we lived in a world where we do not always see the God-ness in the other. And in this fallen, imperfect world, sometimes what even God wishes for, just can’t hold together. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t lift up the beauty of being in partnership—and the difficulty in creating such a thing, and the rarity of a lasting covenant.
Be wise but also be a dreamer. Don’t let go of what could be and should be. Hold God’s vision before your eyes. It is the prize we race towards.
And then there are the children—it almost seems like this is another story—detached from this adult conversation about divorce and adultery and Pharisees and disciples. No, it is the third and most important thing Jesus says to us about tough talk. It is the bedrock of who God is—God’s primary focus on the little ones, the least and the lost, the down and out, the oppressed.
When we are talking with one another, we must never forget to listen for those who have the least voice. And in Jesus’ day that would have been women and children, children most especially. Putting a child in the midst of them, when they were having this esoteric conversation about power and relationships, signals “don’t’ forget” the bottom line—who needs to be protected and loved, who needs our help.
We, the church: We, the Presbyterian Church, have not always gotten it right. We have forgotten Jesus’ teachings. I’ll give you one example from 200 years ago. Maria married William A. Cowles in 1839. He was a drunk, “ill-natured and abusive” and Maria fled after 11 years of marriage. In 1853 the Wayne County court granted her appeal for divorce and she married a Presbyterian minister, James H. Shields.
His presbytery (probably looking at verses like these) charged him with adultery, convicted him, removed him from the ministry and excommunicated him. The case went to the Synod of Iowa which reversed the decision. Then it went to the General Assembly which reversed the Synod. Rev. Shields was no longer a Presbyterian minister.
A piece in the New York Times said, “Adherence to the Westminster standards [overrode] compassion for abused women. A decision that was in the Times’ opinion ‘unwarrantably severe.’”
We can ask: Were those Presbyterians wise? Did they hold up the image of God in each person? Did they listen to the voice of the vulnerable, the least of these?
It is clear to me that difficult topics, whether it be divorce, or how one roots out racism in a society, a town, a church, and any number of other topics aren’t solved in an afternoon. But that doesn’t mean we should shove them under the rug, or choose sides and arm ourselves to the teeth.
What I hear the Scripture saying to us today, is that we have work to do. Because it takes work to be wise, to parse the context, to listen to the history, to drill down to the root of the issue. And I hear that in doing so we must never forget the importance of relationship, with each other, and with God. We were made in God’s image—each of us, all of us—and that God-like-ness demands respect and honor. In addition, we were made to form bonds of family and friendship and equal partners along the way.
But most of all, we need to be willing to let go of our power, our privilege, and our pride. To follow in God’s footsteps, to enter the Kingdom as Jesus said, we need to place at the center those who have the least, those whose voices are discounted, those who stand on nothing but God’s grace and mercy.
It isn’t easy, for anyone. It isn’t the way the world works. It takes time, and trust, and opening the way for the Holy Spirit to move.
But I want to be in the conversation with Jesus.
I want to be held in his arms.
I want to have his hands on my head.
I want his blessing.
I want it for all of us.