Sermon – October 8, 2006

Hard Words

Well, these are some hard words this morning.  This is a profile of Jesus that we see from time to time that causes us to squirm in our seats.  Let just do a show of hands if you are someone in your family has been touched by divorce.  I join you in raising mine.  My brother is divorced.  It is not even news anymore that 50 percent of marriages today fail; half the covenants made are broken.  So maybe we do need to hear some hard words about divorce. 

Former Education Secretary William Bennett attended a modern wedding where the bride and groom pledged in their wedding vows to remain together “as long as love shall last.”    Bennett said, “I sent paper plates as my wedding gift.”

Maybe we do need some encouragement to take more seriously our covenants, and to honor commitments more deeply.  Surely we do.

And we get them in these hard words.  Now this is not unprecedented with Jesus to speak so categorically to us.  After all, he says if your eye causes you to sin pluck it out, if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  He’s the one who says ‘be perfect as my Father in heaven is perfect.”  Jesus is not beyond challenging us to an ideal.  So, let’s not dodge his words today.  Instead, let’s look in them for good news.

Let’s start with whom Jesus is talking to.  He is talking to 1st century Jews whose only notion of religious of behavior is that which is passed on to them by the law.  He is being challenged by the stewards of the law, the Pharisees, who again are trying to catch him in some trap so that they might accuse him.   So, we have to be clear about the motive of the Pharisees, who in their jealous protection of the law are looking to trip him up.   But Jesus is talking about a different community now.  When Jesus speaks about the kingdom, he is talking about the kingdom he is ushering in with his ministry, and life and earth resurrection.   He is talking about the community he has come to give his life for.  Please not that this story is wedged between his own predications of his passion.

Embedded in the Pharisee’s question was their understanding of the prerogatives of the law, the givens in their minds.   For starters, under the law only men could divorce.  And, what’s more, depending upon which line of interpretation you adhered to a woman could be sent away, divorced for any reason that displeased the man.  That was an understanding articulated in that time.    Jesus was not going to fall into that trap.   He says, in the kingdom, in the new community, not only is there equity, but also everyone is equally accountable.

So, his response was, in the kingdom, all of us are accountable.  None of us are to be lorded over or victimized.  So he challenges this, saying in effect, you are wrong from the start.  Your assumptions, your interpretations are fundamentally wrong.  That’s the first thing that would be shocking to the Pharisees, that women are elevated by the demand of mutual accountability.  In the kingdom one is bound to the other in equity and parity.

This would be shocking in another way.  In a marriage of parity, there are economic implications.  Would one who was so disenfranchised with regard to inheritance, property rights, etc. be enfranchised to the point that the man of the house could lose his traction and hold on the traditional economic culture? 

And, thirdly, by demanding such parity, Jesus is taking sides with the one who has no power.   A divorced woman dismissed with no legacy, no support, no children, might, if she is lucky, return to her family, and unlucky, to the streets.  It is just that the interpretation of the law that so easily victimizes another must be challenged.

Now, having said all that, these are probably not the primary motives behind Jesus’ difficult words.   As he does so often and so well, he reinterprets the question in view of his own authority and his own wisdom.  Here, the question the Pharisees posed to Jesus meant to ask, what is allowed, what can we get away with under the law.    Jesus responds, turning the question, to what God intended.   The Pharisee’s question kept the institution of marriage and divorce in the hands of humanity.   Jesus places these covenants, this model in the hands of God.  He turns to the intention of human beings becoming partners in love, and he brings us to the second chapter of Genesis where Adam declares, “here is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.”  Here is one bound in the ideal arrangement of creation, of two becoming one under the blessing of God.   Jesus says, “not what is allowed, but what is intended” when two enter into a covenantal relationship in faith—it would be that which God intends and participates in.   And to break that covenant, Jesus says, has consequences.

He says it is hardness of heart that the whole notion of divorce was instituted, as a reflection of the hardness of the human heart, so the laws does what the law does, restricts, guides, convicts.

Jesus says the Pharisee’s question is how one might protect one’s interest, and his response is ‘here is the ideal, the intention of God.”  This is an ideal that is vital not only to the couple, but to the community, where the community is blessed and supported by the model, and the couple is supported in respond.  

Jesus’ challenge to the status quo elevates the woman to the position of parity and equal accountability, and returns to the notion of the ideal of God.   We need to hear these words–that the covenants that we make under God’s blessing are to seek to reflect God’s ideal.   When we marry we, seek that ideal.  That is our intention.  And sometimes we fail, or others fail us.

This Jesus who brings us these difficult words today, comes to this point in Mark’s gospel, calling, announcing the coming kingdom, healing and forgiving and challenging the status quo, placing himself between us and death, placing himself between our conviction and our forgiveness, placing himself between that which was and that which is to come.

Jesus hasn’t changed here.   He is still the forgiving, gracious one.  He is the one who even says, as he picks up and blesses the little children, here are ones who are vital to our community, no longer disposable, no longer property, but citizens in the kingdom.  Because of his compassion, because of grace he invites us to enter and live without fear in the kingdom that he establishes, and kingdom that reflects the ideal community and reflects the integrity of God. .    Listen, do we want to worship a God who gives us wishy washy terms for living in the new community?  We have to know the terms. And he gives them to us.

Jesus speaks these words in between his announcements of his going to the cross for our salvation, our forgiveness, our eternal salvation, knowing full well that this journeys to death and new hope us utterly necessary.

Those of us who have been touched by divorce are not exempted from the passionate grace of God to all believers.   Christ, laying out a standard we may not have achieved, awaits us as we return in repentance, to embrace us with his compassion and his forgiveness and his love.  These hard words, this ideal, this Jesus has not changed that character of Jesus that is essential for us to follow him, to have hope and to change.

May God bless all of us who have struggled with divorce, who have been hurt by it.  May that blessing be in the form of hope, and new life, and the faith to dare to follow him today.  Amen