It Was A Test

Posted: October 5, 2018 in Uncategorized

Mark 10: 2-16

It Was A Test

I don’t think the reading this morning has anything to do with Divorce. Not only because the text actually relates to marriage but also because I don’t think the text is addressed to individuals. It is in my view more likely to be a descriptive of and a helpmate to community. I am here suggesting that we approach this text in a different way to the traditional literalist way and a way different from an intensely personal way. This will not be all that easy because most of us will have had some contact with divorce, be it personal experience of family experience or someone close to you. What such an experience does is influence us to hear this passage as addressed to particular individuals and feeling ashamed or angry or hurt or embarrassed, and that’s totally understandable. Especially if Jesus imagined these words being addressed to individuals.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think he did. I don’t think this text is anything to do with the personal but rather is about the communal. We note, for instance, how Mark sets up this scene: “Some Pharisees came and to test him, said ‘Is it lawful…. Here we have the suggestion that this isn’t a casual – or even intense, conversation about love, marriage, and divorce. It’s a test. And not even a test about divorce, but rather about the law. We remember here that there were, in that time, several competing schools of thought about the legality of divorce. Not so much about whether divorce was legal – everyone agreed upon that – but rather under what circumstances. And with this question of test, the Pharisees are trying to pin Jesus down, trying to label him, trying to draw him out and perhaps entrap him so that they know better how to deal with him. I felt a little like Jesus might have felt at a recent Auckland Council hearing where the issue was about Church verses buildings and the Council was trying to test my understanding of heritage in a lawful sense.

But Jesus was having none of this. He deflects their question away from matters of the law and turns it instead to relationship and, in particular, to God’s hope that our relationships are more than legal matters but instead help us to have and share more abundant life. Hence the turn to Genesis: questions of marriage and divorce, he argues, aren’t simply a matter of legal niceties, but rather are about the Creator’s intention that we be in relationships of mutual dependence and health.

In fact, Jesus goes one step further and takes what had turned into a legal convenience – typically for the man who sought a divorce – and pushes his interlocutors to see that this law – indeed, all law – was and is intended to protect the vulnerable. When a woman was divorced she lost pretty much everything – status, reputation, economic security, everything – so how can they treat this as a convenience, Jesus asks, let alone a debating topic. The law is meant to protect the vulnerable and hurting and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter. One could also say that when we literalize this text, when we see it as about the legalities of marriage and divorce we are placing the law before the people as opposed to the people before the law.

The thing to see here is that Jesus isn’t speaking to individuals, he’s instead making a statement about the kind of community we will be. In fact, he’s inviting us to imagine communities centered in and on real relationships; relationships, that are founded on love and mutual dependence, fostered by respect and dignity, and pursued for the sake of the health of the community and the protection of the vulnerable. Marriage and divorce in his time was a time when women were chattels, vehicles for the man’s child. Procreation was the primary purpose for women’s existence. There are several brief articles from the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible about this text.  First, the article on divorce (IDB, I, 859) reveals that “something objectionable” (NRSV) in Deut. 24:1 was very loosely defined.  Indeed there were two schools of thought as to what this meant:  “The Hillel school viewed this as a general term, and the Shammai school took it to mean adultery only.”  A woman’s inability to bear children was a common reason for divorce.  The article on marriage is also instructive (IDB, III, 278f).  We note the following:  “The husband has the power over his wife…She has rights and freedoms only within the context of this authority…  The husband may even revoke a vow that his wife made to God, if he sees fit. (Num 30:10-13)…” Finally, the article on woman is also revealing:  “The father received a bride price for his daughter and thus engaged in a contract with the prospective husband to make her sexuality available to him.  This transaction, however, was not a transfer of chattel property.  Rather it was the surrender of authority over a woman by one man to another.” (IDB, IV, 864f) All of this reveals why Jesus viewed wives as “the little ones” (in other words; vulnerable ones needing protection).  In his critique of law, Jesus was championing the cause of women who would be living in abject poverty, without support, if dismissed by their powerful husbands.

The background to this world was a past where female children were exterminated at birth, and despite the fact that we now think that women played a significant and founding role in the Jesus movement, in fact may have been instrumental in the survival of the movement, Jesus here was challenging all the historical cultural assumptions by challenging the use of marriage and divorce as a tool for the law when trying to protect their world view.

The interesting part about this is that even though the discussion has been about divorce, I don’t think that’s really the heart of what’s going on here. We can be grateful the lectionary includes the next verses describing the reaction of Jesus’ disciples to those bringing children to Jesus to bless and, more importantly, Jesus’ reaction to the same.

We go back to the context and remember that Jesus has announced his intention to go to Jerusalem to probably or maybe die and, in response, his disciples argue about who is the greatest. Jesus in turn tells them that to be great is to serve, and that the very heart of the kingdom he proclaims is about welcoming the vulnerable. In fact, he says that whenever you welcome and honour a child – one who had the least status and power in the ancient world – you were actually welcoming and honouring Jesus. Now, on the heels of this conversation about the purpose of the law, some folks bring their children to be blessed and the disciples try to keep them away. And Jesus intervenes, forcefully, saying that welcoming the kingdom pretty much means welcoming children, that is, the vulnerable, those at risk, and those in need.

This suggests that this whole passage, is about community. But it’s not the kind of community we’ve been trained to seek. It’s not, that is, a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent. Rather, this is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk. It’s a community, in other words, of those who know their need and seek to be in relationship with each other because they have learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place.

Here we have the seeds of what a church might be about – in traditional language, a place for all those who have been broken by life or rejected by the powerful and who come to experience God through the crucified Jesus as the One who met them precisely in their vulnerability, not to make them impervious to harm but rather open to the brokenness and need of those around them. And let’s be very honest here. This is not easy to remember! The Church is not for us who have made it. Even Paul speaking into the movement before it became known as Church had to remind the Corinthians of this.

When we consider our own call to walk the Jesus Way, in hindsight we could say that not many of us were wise by human standards, not many of us considered ourselves powerful, not many of us were of noble birth. There is a sense that we were foolish and weak and were chosen to shame the wise; chosen as weak in a world to shame the strong. Perhaps we were not chosen as low and despised in the world but chosen because we are vulnerable in the face of something like the law. Not in the sense of woe is me, not as a need to reduce to nothing things that are real, but rather as one who is vulnerable to the systems and intentions of a world that can alienate, isolate and destroy the very fabric of life.

We are reminded that part of being human is to be insecure, to be aware of our need and, in light of the cultural preference for strength, power, and independence, to maybe even be embarrassed by our need. For this reason, Paul, following Jesus, reminds us that to be broken isn’t something to be ashamed of. Rather, to be foolish, unfinished, incomplete and broken is, in fact, to be human. And to be human is to be loved by God and drawn together into relationship with all the others that God loves. Which means that our gatherings on Sundays are local gatherings of the broken and loved, of those who are hurting but also healing, of those who are lost but have also been found, of those that know their need and seek not simply to have those needs met but have realized that in helping meet the needs of others their own are met in turn.

The challenge today is to look at our text, not so much as instructions about divorce but instead as an invitation to see our communities as those places where God’s work to heal and restore the whole creation is ongoing, not by taking away all our problems but surrounding us with people who understand, and care, and help us to discover together our potential to reach out to others in love and compassion? We can tell people that we are communities of the broken, but we are those broken whom God loves and is healing and, indeed, using to make all things new?

We are then, in short, communities of the broken and blessed. And let’s be honest here, that can be a hard message to hear because it runs contrary to conventional wisdom about strength and security. To be strong is to be blessed. To be in control is to be blessed whereas we are seen in today’s environment as people in therapy, in need of religion to get through life. Dependent on an old story. We are seen as foolish, but we know it can also be life-giving, not only to those who know themselves to be broken and wonder if this is a place to them, but also to those in denial, seeking relentlessly to make it on their own, even if it kills them. Our text rather than being about those who have failed in marriage or whose ideals are foolish and unattainable, is rather about how one might discover God’s life-giving grace, love, and mercy. Amen.

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