Sunday, October 3, 2021
TOUGH TALK OR IS IT?
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
Job or divorce, some choice our lectionary presents us today. I do plan to pick up on the theme of children and faith however, but I can never read this passage from the aisle and say the Gospel of the Lord, without feeling an obligation to offer at least my brief thoughts on the first half of this passage. This passage has been used so harshly and bluntly that it begs for interpretation in today’s world.
First of marriage in that time period, was not about love. Marriage was a contract and in fact an exchange of property, the woman. Marriages were made for money and power especially among the wealthy part of the population.
By this time in Mark the Pharisees have challenged Jesus on paying taxes to try to trap him. They have also questioned him about if a woman is married to all seven brothers whose wife will she be in heaven. This is another set up for Jesus to try to get him in trouble with Herod among others. They do not really want to know anything about divorce this is all about a gotcha question.
The first thing to do is to look at the context and the setting that exists as Jesus answers this question. The question was a trap to be sure however it was a topic of debate at that time and there were various schools of thought. The important piece of the setting was that John the Baptist has been executed over his criticism of Herod’s divorce of his wife and then marrying his brother’s wife. So this question could be seen as ascertaining if Jesus was a supporter of John’s criticism of Herod. This means there is a political element to the question aside from the religious implication. The political reason was really at the root of the question. The point is that the Pharisees did not really want to hear his thoughts on divorce and they certainly got more than they bargained for in his answer.
A Jewish man could divorce his wife by simply saying, “I divorce you” and give the woman a writ of divorce. The hard-hearted part is that according to the Hillel school of thinking the divorce could be for any reason or no reason other than he wanted a different wife. One rabbi wrote that a man could divorce his wife if she burned dinner. It is also important to remember that for most of Jewish history, multiple wives were allowed and while not common in the time of Jesus, there was no prohibition. All the great figures of the bible from Abraham through David and other kings had multiple wives. Monogamous marriage was a relatively new idea.
Jesus is actually overruling scripture and tradition in his teaching. The passage he quotes is
Deut. 24:1 ¶ 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; she then leaves his house
In the Torah, only the man is allowed to get a divorce. This divorce then left the woman in a very dangerous position. Please remember women were property at that time and had no rights. The husband kept the wife’s property because it was his once they were married. She would be left destitute. Jesus gives the woman an equal right to divorce a husband in this passage and that was totally new idea. Now they got more than they bargained for when he then prohibits remarriage. Jesus sets a high standard for marriage in the ancient world and for us today. Jesus however is talking about how things would be in the kingdom. In an ideal world, divorce would not exist anymore than illness, misfortune etc.
I wonder though, would Jesus condemn a couple to stay in an abusive marriage today? Would Jesus condemn a person to never have the opportunity to be in a loving relationship again? I doubt it. What Jesus was speaking against was a very casual attitude towards divorce held by some in that time period. This was an issue that put women in a vulnerable even dangerous position. I sincerely doubt that this is a once and final judgment on the subject. Rather this was a ruling for a specific time and place. Again I remind you the question was politically motivated to begin with
You see this is the problem with proof texting, taking individual passages out of the bible and removing them from their context. You cannot demand that we take some passages literally and then skip over the ones that are inconvenient or might reflect badly on you. Either you follow good biblical exegesis, the systematic analysis of the bible, or you have to take all of the Bible at face value. You cannot have it both ways.
The bible is a living document that still speaks to us today. God still speaks to us today, through scripture and through other ways. Remember we as Episcopalians work on the principal of Hooker’s three-legged stool. The three legs are scripture, tradition and reason. This is what makes us different from many other faiths.
The big question and the standard for judging is does our biblical interpretation bring the kingdom closer or does our interpretation move us farther from the kingdom. That is the essential question, at least from my standpoint. That is why I can draw the conclusion with this passage that I do. Does the same categorical teaching apply in our time that applied in the time of Christ?
Jesus however presents the ultimate corrective in his closing words of this passage. Once again we are called to embrace the children, all God’s children. This is the third time in one and half chapters that Jesus uses children as an example of those favored by the kingdom. Jesus constantly calls for preferential treatment for the poor and oppressed. The child and children as Jesus uses them are in fact a metaphor for all those who are least and last. That teaching, that essential message runs through all the gospel lessons especially for the last three weeks.
Any interpretation that sets those children, whomever they may be, outside of our circle, outside of Christ’s embrace must be questioned. Interpreting this passage literally in today’s world does put a large segment of our population outside of God’s kingdom and I believe that is wrong.
Ultimately we can get ourselves in a real bind by over thinking some of these bible passages. Jesus praises the faith of a child. Children readily believe in what psychologists call magical thinking. They accept with an openness that we need to look at. They are willing to accept mystery and do not always need an explanation. Sometimes that is what Jesus is asking us to do; to accept on faith as a child and be content to live in the mystery and ambiguity. Faith in fact does not equal certainty. Understanding this is the sign of a mature faith.
That said, I am certain of one thing. I believe that God loves us no matter what. God heals and forgives our sins. Nothing can separate us from the love of God as long as we continue to seek his forgiveness. More than any piece of biblical gymnastics I may do, I rest in the fact that God loves you and me all the same. Single, married, divorced, remarried, straight, gay, male or female, child or adult, able, disabled, it really does not matter for God loves everyone, no exceptions.