Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost -- Proper 22B (10/4/2009)

Divorce and Remarriage

Lessons:     Genesis 2:18-24     Psalm 8 (5)     Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12     St. Mark 10:2-16     Semicontinuous Series         Job 1:1; 2:1-10        Psalm 26 (3)   Prayer of the Day     Sovereign God, you have created us to live in loving community with one another. Form us for life that is faithful and steadfast, and teach us to trust like little children, that we may reflect the image of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

10:2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" 3 He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" 4 They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." 5 But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 7 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."  10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."  13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

St. Mark 10:2-16 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

There is nothing easy about this week's Gospel lesson. Confronted publicly by the Pharisees, Jesus declares that divorce is allowed in their time only because of "hardness of heart." Questioned privately by the disciples, Jesus teaches that anyone who "divorces... and marries another commits adultery..." These teachings are followed by yet another example of Jesus' love for children (themes we've noticed in the Gospel lesson for three weeks now).

Is this passage about divorce? I'm not sure. There are many answers to the question: "What does the Bible say about divorce?" It describes divorce as acceptable (Deuteronomy 24:1, 1 Corinthians 7:15), sometimes necessary (Ezra 10:2-3, 44, Matthew 1:19), and unacceptable (Mark 10:8-9, 1st Corinthians 7:12-13). There seems to be no consistent scriptural word about divorce.

Is this about a political battle of wills? Jesus has just entered the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas (Mark 10:1). The Pharisees have conspired with the Herodians against Jesus before (Mark 3:6). Herod suspects that Jesus is John the Baptizer, come back to life (Mark 6:16). Herod has John beheaded, over a conflict related to divorce (Mark 6:17-18). Now the Pharisees approach Jesus to test him -- are they trying to make Jesus incriminate himself by agreeing with John, and standing at odds against Herod (setting the wheels in motion for Herod to do away with Jesus, as he did with John)?

Or is this text all about the children? After all Jesus heals a man's son (9:25), directs his followers to welcome children (9:37), warns them against causing little ones to stumble (9:42), and follows these hard words with the command to let the children come to him and be blessed (10:14). Strong words about marriage are surrounded by deep concern for children. Perhaps there is a message there for those who are married.

I doubt that a definitive answer will ever come as to exactly what this passage is about. But I find it interesting to observe the groups questioning Jesus. The first group is made up of Pharisees. They are "testing" Jesus -- trying to set some sort of trap for him. To them, he begins with a rebuke that chastens them for their "hardness of heart." The second group is made up of his followers. They are trying to understand what Jesus believes about marriage. To them, he focuses on the importance of the marriage vows (and their connection to blessing children within the setting of a family).

The question for us is this: "Why do we turn to this passage of the Bible?" Are we reading in order to test the message (like the Pharisees)? Do we want to hear whether or not this Jesus, or this Gospel, or this church, or this Pastor agrees with our preconceived notions regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage? Are we tempted to reject anything that disagrees with our sentiments, and embrace anything that supports them? If so, some reflection on our own hardness of heart is in order.

Or do we read this passage in order to better understand what faithfulness means (like the disciples)? Do we want to hear what Jesus has to say about our relationships, our marriages, and our efforts to bless children? Are we willing to hear a strong word from Jesus, even if it challenges us to reconsider our own positions, or our own actions?

Far too often, we read these texts in order to pass judgment on others. (Is that much different from the Pharisees?) This time around, let us read this passage with an eye to how it might strengthen our discipleship, and encourage our faithfulness.

How do you read this passage?

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week's Gospel:

  1. Why were the Pharisees seeking an answer from Jesus regarding divorce?
  2. Was the motivation of the disciples different from that of the Pharisees?
  3. What does Jesus say about marriage, divorce, and remarriage?

Connecting with This Week's Gospel:

  1. What do I believe about marriage, divorce, and remarriage?
  2. Does this text speak a word of grace to me, or a word of challenge?
  3. What can I do in my own life to keep my relationships strong, and be a blessing to children?