By Jackie Falk, M.Div.
This is an essay drawn from a sermon preached on World Communion Sunday, October 7, 2018, at Peace United Church of Christ, Duluth, Minnesota
As an instruction on Family and Marriage, Mark’s Jesus begins his lesson very oddly. The Pharisees’ ask a hostile and antagonistic question about divorce. “Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” [Mark10:2 NRSV] Jesus pushes back with a question that forces the Pharisees to reveal the content of their question is incomplete. The Pharisees had to answer Jesus: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”[Mark10:4 NRSV] That correction - the addition of the certificate of dismissal - is important. A divorced woman without the certificate could not explain why she was unmarried. The certificate was her essential protection. When dismissed without it, and some were, the women were at risk of harm. The ancient world was patriarchal; women belonged first to their fathers then to their husbands. If they were unmarried, they had to prove why. Marriages were not founded in human relationships, but based on considerations of property, status, and honor. Women were exposed to great vulnerability when they were caught in the machinery of men negotiating a divorce that would impact their rights, their future, their children and their safety. A man could issue a divorce dismissal “for any cause” or “none at all” according to Deuteronomy.
Jesus then shifts the conversation with the Pharisees to new ground. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10:6-9)
Jesus turns away from Moses’ legal foundation for divorce. Jesus instead grounds the definition of divorce in a definition of marriage, a definition rooted in God’s design at creation for humans to live in life-long partnerships. A life partnership and therefore a divorce cannot be merely a contractual obligation or an economic utility. Human life partnership inside of marriage or outside of it is a matter of utmost seriousness because it is now rooted in the human identity that God bestowed on us at creation. Women, once vulnerable in the patriarchal structure that gave men the sole prerogative to use divorce for their own benefit, are now safeguarded by the greater value Jesus places on the marriage relationship itself.[i]
After closing the public conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus goes inside with his disciples who bring new questions that call for new answers.
“Then in the house the disciples asked Jesus again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” [Mark10:10-12 NRSV] Jesus redefines adultery and divorce, and thereby Jesus redefines the terms of lifelong human partnerships whether inside our outside the bonds of marriage. No one is the property of another. Men and women alike have full personhood, are beloved children of God and equal participants in the Kingdom of God. Ideally mutually dependent on one another, partners are equally able to nurture their relationship and equally able to end it. However, Mark’s Jesus likewise makes whomever ruptures the bond take responsibility for the cost to the estranged partner.
The relevance of Scripture never ceases to amaze me. The question is still really one of vulnerability, isn’t it? We have watched over the past year and more so just these past weeks how girls and women are still vulnerable, still at risk of being treated like objects and not people, vulnerable to harm when caught up in power transactions of the privileged. How boys and young men have been victims of clerical abuse and then beyond there are those who have suffered abuse but never revealed their experience.
The question is still really one of vulnerability, isn’t it? “Those persons on the edges of humanity, women and children, and for Mark’s Jesus, any outsider, marginalized by ritual, tradition, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, will find their place in the Kingdom of God. The reality of divorce, of not being married, of not having children, has made all of us outsiders for a time. I wonder if Jesus calling us back to the created order is not simply to hold up an ideal vision of the perfect relationship, but to remind us that to be human is to be in relationship, whatever that relationship might look like.[ii]It is on the field of human relationships, in the ritual transactions of our everyday lives, at the heart in moments of human intimacy that we replicate the Image of GOD – not just in pairs, but in families, among friends, and in faith communities. If those rituals of relating explode with joy and despair and pain then the Image of GOD embraces joy and despair and pain.[iii]
The question is still really one of vulnerability, isn’t it?
Mark’s Jesus turns to children as the touchstones, the very definition of the Kingdom of God. One of the oldest sayings attributed to Jesus by John Dominic Crossans is, “Enter the Kingdom. Become a Child. Become a Child. Enter the Kingdom.”[iv]In Jesus’ time, to be a child was to literally be “nobody,” always the most vulnerable and the furthest out on the margins.
Jesus places a child in the midst of the disciples and tells them “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”[Mark 9:37 NRSV]
In patriarchal societies the newborn had to be claimed by the father. When Jesus took the children up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them, he was like the patriarchal father claiming them for life, not death.
The question is really one of vulnerability isn’t it?
How are the children? Who is welcoming them, taking them up in their arms, laying hands on them and blessing them into life?
The question is really one of vulnerability isn’t it?
The question never was about divorce. The question always was, “What will the Kingdom of God be like?”
May it be so for you and for me and for all of those whom God loves.
[i]Matt Skinner, October 4, 2009 https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=401, accessed October 5, 2018.
[ii]Karoline Lewis, October 7, 2012, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1482, accessed October 5, 2018.
[iii]Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Mark, Mark 10:2-16
[iv]John Dominic Crossans, The Essential Jesus, #16 and page 151.