This morning, we continue our journey through the gospel of Mark. We’ve been walking with Jesus and the disciples on the way to Jerusalem and the cross. And it seems like the closer we get, the harder Jesus’ teachings become. In the last few weeks, Jesus has told us we must be last of all and servant of all; he’s told us that we must lose our lives in order to find them; and just last week, he told us that if our eyes or hands or feet cause us to stumble, we should cut them off!
Today’s reading from Mark hits us even closer to the heart with this difficult passage about divorce. You can tell that even the disciples find this teaching harsh, because they bring it up again with Jesus later – like maybe when the pharisees asked him, he was just a little hangry and needed to relax. But when they ask him about it in private, Jesus not only reaffirms this teaching, he doubles down on it and makes it sound even harsher.
It’s hard to read this text. It has been used in such harmful ways in the church: especially against people whose lives have been touched by divorce and against members of the LGBTQ community. I’m sure there are people sitting here who know how it feels to have this text used against them – people who have been made to feel shame by other people wielding this text like a weapon.
What’s ironic is that that sort of thing is exactly what the pharisees are trying to do at the beginning of this story. They have come to “test” Jesus. They’ve been trying to figure out a way to trap him in a bad answer, trying to trick him with difficult questions so that they can hold him up for scorn and judgment. But Jesus is having none of it. In classic Jesus fashion, he turns the question around on them and completely reframes it.
The pharisees ask him whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife, so he asks them what Moses – Mr. Ten Commandments – had to say about it. And they respond, “Well, Moses said we could do it!” Now, we should note that the law that they are probably referencing comes from Deuteronomy 24, which says: “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.”
Divorce was a pretty cold business for women in ancient times, and so Jesus rightly calls out the pharisees for their hardness of heart. He saw that they didn’t really care about how divorce affected the community or about who got hurt in the process; they were just trying to prove that they were right and Jesus was wrong.
But Jesus shows that he cares about the human aspect of divorce. He goes back even further than Deuteronomy, all the way to the beginning of Genesis, to the creation of humans; and he lifts up the dignity and importance of people of all genders. In those days, divorce often left women and children homeless, without social standing or a way to support themselves. Jesus was angry that the pharisees dithered about the legal details of divorce when the human cost was so high. Jesus is concerned for the safety and well-being of all people.
Even in his denouncement of divorce and remarriage, Jesus gives women rights that they did not actually have in ancient Jewish society. By law, only men were allowed to initiate a divorce, but Jesus draws on the image of creation from Genesis and talks about women and men as equals. And at the end of our reading for today, he even welcomes children, who had even less social standing than women. Jesus not only welcomes them, but he sets them as the model for those who wish to enter the kingdom of God. This is radical stuff!
By returning to Genesis, Jesus is also emphasizing God’s desire that two people should come together to become “one flesh.” God wants to see people united in love and committed to one another in love. And God is invested in protecting those relationships. Instead of hammering on the letter of the law, Jesus is trying to lift up God’s original vision of marriage as a relationship of love that benefits the whole community.
And marriage is lifted up throughout the bible as an image for the kind of relationship that God wants to have with humanity. God wants the same kind of joyful, creative, dynamic relationship with humanity that the first marriage was intended to be – a relationship of mutual love and solid commitment, a relationship of joyful discovery of the other and of creative collaboration.
God also desires that we have these kind of relationships with one another – that we be fruitful and multiply, that we leave our families and be joined together to create new families. God wants all people to join together in loving relationships that reflect the loving relationship we have with our creator.
It should be noted that marriages that end in divorce don’t usually look like this. Divorces don’t end happy, loving relationships; divorces end unhappy relationships, relationships where there has been suffering and even abuse. Divorce grieves the heart of God – but it’s not because a law has been broken. It’s because divorce is a sign that there is already brokenness and hurt. And that makes God’s heart hurt. Sometimes things must end in order for the hurt to stop and for there to be healing.
God is grieved by broken relationships. And as Jesus shows us in our passage for today, God is grieved and angered by those who deliberately set out to break relationship. It’s worth noting that the two times that Jesus gets angry in this passage are 1) when the pharisees seem to be fishing for an excuse to be divisive and judgmental of others and 2) when his own disciples try to send the children away. In the words of the text, he is “indignant” when this happens! Both of these are moments in which the people around him are actively contributing to the breaking of relationship.
I think this is perhaps the most important message for those of us living in these days to take away from these readings. God wants loving relationship among God’s people – not division. This is a theme that seems to emerge in scripture again and again: it’s a repeated theme both because it is a priority for God, and because we are so relentlessly bad at it.
Division is something we struggle with in family and personal relationships. Even if you’ve never experienced a divorce, I’m sure each of you can think of strained relationships in your personal lives. Our closest relationships can get torn apart by things like jealousy and gossip and misunderstandings, by petty disgreements and stubbornness and spite.
And division is something we struggle with in our life together as a community, as a nation, and as a global society. We have seen the ugly depths of the division in our country over the last couple of weeks, as the Senate has fought over this Supreme Court nomination. Regardless of who was right and who was wrong – or who was bad and who was worse – it was painful to see how little respect either side has for the other. We are growing increasingly polarized, increasingly isolated into little bubbles of people who think like us. And when we are only in relationship with people who think and act and live like us, it becomes really easy to dehumanize other people and to stop caring about the issues that affect them. It’s easy to paint others as broad stereotypes and villains and to dismiss their ideas as being crazy.
It is hard to let down our guard and actually listen to what people who disagree with us are saying. It’s hard to be in relationship with people who think and act differently than we do; it’s hard to assume the best of them and to seek to understand why they do the things they do instead of judging them for being different.
In many ways, we are often like the pharisees. We get hung up on being “right” rather than on being in relationship. We let our hearts harden until they are like stones that we can throw at each other. And when we harden our hearts toward our neighbors, we are also hardening them against God.
But the good news, as we have seen, is that God is invested in enveloping all creation in loving relationship. And, well, God is God! – which means that God can overcome even our stubborn resistance. No matter how hard we try to divide ourselves from God – and we have tried – God will not be moved. No matter how deeply we have been hurt by broken relationships with others, God will never stop working to heal us. God is like a faithful spouse to the church, teaching us what loving, healthy relationships look like by helping us to live into our relationship with God and into our relationships with one another.
Brokenness and division are a reality of human life, but God will never be divided from us. God has joined us to Godself and to all creation in a bond of love – and what God has joined together, no one can separate.