Text: Mark 10:2-16
Now, I have to admit that ever since I started reading the Bible for myself, in junior high or high school, Mark has been my least favorite of the four gospels. John is all mystical and symbolic. Luke has all kinds of interesting characters. Matthew is focused on Jesus as a teacher. But Mark—Mark is abrupt, and minimalist. It’s just the basics, and very often Jesus comes across as terse. He has kind, caring gestures to those in need, but most of Jesus’ words in Mark are spoken to people he is challenging, and they sound more than a little harsh to our ears.
This passage is one like that, and it’s complicated by the fact that our views on divorce and our experience of divorce are so different from Jesus’ day. Unfortunately, very often this text is used to criticize people who have gone through, or are considering a divorce. My paternal grandfather and his second wife both spent the second half of their lives ostracized from their church because they were both divorced before they married each other. And they were far from being alone. I’ll bet that every person in this room knows someone with a similar story. This is a passage that adds salt to wounds.
And yet, that’s not the kind of person we believe Jesus to be—he’s not someone who kicks people when they’re down. And this is why I’m very grateful for the little story that comes after this interaction—the moment where Jesus welcome the children into his company and tells his disciples to be more like those children. I think this little story reminds us of who Jesus is. Jesus is the one who welcomes and cares for the vulnerable. And because of this it gives us a lens to use to look at his response to the Pharisees in a new light.
And here’s the angle I’d like us to look from—I believe that Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is not about making stricter rules, or redefining whether divorce is a sin or if it is, what kind. No, Jesus’ response is drawing the Pharisees out of their legalism and political posturing—and drawing them into consideration of the real people—the human lives impacted by these legal matters.
Divorce in the ancient world was not a matter of mutual decisions or negotiation. It was nothing like the divorces we experience in our culture—even at their worst and most messy. No, divorce in the ancient world was primarily a property transaction, and the property involved was the woman. Women typically could not initiate a divorce. If a woman wanted or needed a divorce from an abusive or neglectful husband, she needed her father or another adult male relative to initiate the process. A man, however, could initiate a divorce on a whim, and the process the Pharisees mention—of getting a certificate of dismissal—was the minimum requirement of the law. It was something the woman could present to her family as proof that she had not committed adultery or done anything else that warranted shunning from the community. With that piece of paper, it was more likely that a divorced woman’s family would allow her to live with them, again, but it was still not guaranteed.
The divorce Jesus and the Pharisees are discussing was a process in which women had little to no rights at all and which almost always left women begging for help in order to survive. It is in that context that Jesus speaks these words discouraging divorce, even when the law allows it. He’s discouraging exploitation—a practice that left women with no legal or morally-acceptable means of providing for themselves or their children.
The second part of refocusing our lens involves wondering why the Pharisees asked Jesus this question about divorce in the first place. They were not hoping to learn from his wisdom. No, our passage tells us that they were testing him. This was a political baiting question. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to land on one side or another of some political fence. They wanted him to expose his political biases, so that they could, hopefully, write him off.
When we hold this new lens up to this passage, what I see is Jesus calling attention to vulnerable people. When the Pharisees try to test his stance on a political issue, Jesus shifts the focus from that political or legal debate and onto the people. The law was not there because divorce was okay. The law wasn’t there because it was perfectly fine to discard a woman and leave her bereft of income or security, so long as your gave her the right piece of paper, first. No. The law was there to protect the women involved, because Moses knew prohibiting divorce was unrealistic—human hearts are hard.
Then, when the disciples are busy fending off annoying and irrelevant children, Jesus stops them, brings the children forward and teaches them: these children are not irrelevant—they have more to teach you about God and God’s priorities in this world than any adult. Two stories, back to back, of Jesus drawing attention to the vulnerable.
So what does this story have to say to us, in 21st century North America, when every family has been affected by divorce in one way or another?
Well, let me start by listing the things I don’t think Jesus is telling us.
Jesus is not telling us that divorce is evil. He is not telling us that anyone who has been divorced has broken God’s commandments, or God’s design for human relationships by doing so. He is not telling us that someone who has been divorced should never remarry. In fact, I don’t think that this story tells us very much at all concerning the modern legal practice of divorce.
I also don’t think this story tells us very much about marriage. I don’t think Jesus is telling us that marriage is some kind of magical bond that God seals in a way that can never be broken. I don’t think Jesus is telling us that marriage between one man and one woman is God’s special design for human relationships, and anyone who doesn’t achieve that is less important, or less human, or less moral.
Here’s what I think we can learn from this passage: God values humans and human relationships, and we must not lose sight of that in the midst of our own political and legal processes.
And, wow. That’s a powerful message at any time, but especially in an election year.
What if, instead of asking “What is your stance on abortion?” we asked political candidates, and each other questions like, “How have unplanned, unwanted, or dangerous pregnancies affected your family? What resources were available? What resources do you wish were available?”
What if, instead of asking “What is your stance on same-sex marriage?” we asked questions, like “Where does our definition of marriage come from? Why? How do those definitions line up with human experience? Who do we know with beautiful, inspiring marriages? What makes a good marriage so good? What can we be doing as a society to support healthy relationships of all kinds—to prevent abuse, to improve communication, to support people through times of conflict, to foster realistic expectations for marriage?”
What if, instead of asking, “How will you fix the economy?” we asked questions like, “How do we define quality of life? Can it be reduced to income and consumer statistics? Why do we flip-flop between two political parties and their economic policies, when over the last half-century, no matter who has been setting the policies, we’ve seen longer work-hours, more job-related anxiety, more personal, consumer and national debt, more outsourcing and damage to local economies? Why is it that some people who have lost their jobs or their homes are living happier, more fulfilling lives now than they were before? How can we redefine what it means to be a successful worker, or a successful business, or a successful nation, based on the actual happiness, satisfaction and health of the humans involved, especially the most vulnerable ones?”
What if, instead of using children as political props, we actually put children, and other vulnerable members of our society at the center of our nation’s decisions and policies, like Jesus pulling the children to the center of his crowd of followers and announcing that God’s kingdom belongs to them—those children with no legal rights and no political voice are the most important, the highest priority? Like Jesus taking the Pharisee’s political baiting as an opportunity to teach them that laws are not in place to tell us when it’s okay to exploit people or when it’s okay to leave someone destitute, but to try to prevent the exploitation from happening at all and to protect the vulnerable when the exploitation happens, anyway. What if we used our political voice as voting members of a democratic society to call attention to the value of all those people in our country who have no political voice? What would that even look like?
So, it turns out that this is still a challenging passage, and it still might make us uncomfortable, but for very different reasons than we might have first imagined. Mark is growing on me, when I remember that the blunt, pointed words of Jesus are not intended to wound. No, they are intended to grab our attention—to challenge our assumptions—to redirect our focus so we can begin to understand what really matters to God, and allow that to shape our behavior and priorities. And isn’t that pretty much the definition of being a Christian? Being Christian isn’t a political lobby, or a social grouping, or a result of joining a church. It’s not something that happens once in our lives at baptism; it’s a choice we continue to make every day that we follow Jesus’ example and let God’s priorities shape our own.