I was caused this week to visit again Jesus’ difficult statement in Mark’s Gospel about divorce.

I went looking for what I might have said about this passage in the past. Fourteen years ago, I was in the habit of writing out my sermons. So, I am able to reproduce here exactly what I said in 2001.

While this is not the sermon I would preach now, it seems to me to be not without some value in approaching this difficult passage.

SUNDAY SERMON FEBRUARY 4, 2001
GOD WELCOMES SINNERS
MARK 10:1-16

I have been warning you for two weeks that, in this morning’s sermon, we are going to look at the question of divorce. You may have wondered why I felt the need to give advance notice of this fact. I can only say that I am conscious that divorce is a sensitive and delicate issue. It touches peoples’ lives at a vulnerable place and inevitably deals in an area that involves tremendous pain. I think you should have the freedom to not have to deal with this on Sunday in church if you don’t want to. So, we will all close our eyes now for thirty seconds and if anyone wants to sneak out, we won’t notice.

Having given my little warning let me begin by saying that I don’t actually believe that a preacher preaching on Mark 10:1-16 should really be talking about divorce at all. I don’t actually think that the passage is about divorce. In fact, it is not Jesus who raises the issue. It was the Pharisees who brought up the question of divorce in an attempt to trap Jesus.

Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’(Mark 10:2)

Jesus does not set out to talk about divorce. He simply meets the Pharisees where they are and responds to their preoccupations. But divorce is not Jesus’ issue.

In fact the matter of divorce comes up in only one other place in the Gospels, in Matthew chapter 5 in the context of the Sermon on the Mount. This is the passage where Jesus also says such choice things as

If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire, or, ‘everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery,’ if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well,; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

So, there is not much room in the Sermon on the Mount for any of us to point fingers at anyone. The primary issue in the Sermon on the Mount is not doing the right or the wrong thing. The primary issue is our inability to measure up to God’s perfect standard.

So what is the issue in our reading this morning in Mark 10:1-16?

You may remember last Sunday I suggested that in Mark 10:38-50 Jesus is primarily concerned about the break down of human community. Well, I think that this continues to be an issue here. Jesus wants, in the strongest possible terms, to restate the principle that, at all costs we should do everything we can to avoid the break down of human community. This principle applies to the community of marriage as much as it does to the community of the church.

Now please remember that last week we read Jesus’ instruction that,

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.

I don’t think anyone thought we should take Jesus exactly literally at this point. We understood that Jesus was using an enormously exaggerated picture in order to make a point. So, when, just ten verses later, we hear Jesus say,“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery,” we need to understand that again Jesus is using an exaggerated statement in order to make a point that will really stick in peoples’ minds. But remember, the point is not so much about divorce or adultery. The point is about the sacred bond of human connection and the danger to our spiritual lives when we break human community lightly.

You see these Pharisees had a real problem in the area of marriage. They were operating in the context of extremely liberal divorce laws, liberal that is for men, not for women. Deuteronomy chapter 24 describes the standard assumptions about divorce under which these Pharisees were operating. Deuteronomy 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.

Think about that for a moment. Husband gets out of bed in the morning, stumbles downstairs to the kitchen, coffee is not made, scrambled eggs aren’t cooked, matza is burnt, wife is scrambling to get lunches ready for children to head off for school. Husband wants breakfast. But there is no breakfast.

This is “objectionable.” I think it is time to find a new wife. Husband scrawls out a note saying, “Wife I divorce you.” Wife and children leave the house, to live in squalor and disgrace in the village streets.

Now I hasten to add, Deuteronomy is not recommending this procedure. It is simply acknowledging that these are the marital standards under which men operated in ancient times. In the strongest possible terms Jesus wants to overturn this cavalier attitude towards marriage. He wants to drive home the point that human relationships constitute a sacred bond. And, above all, he wants to offer protection to women, who in his day were utterly powerless in the marriage relationship.

Jesus is not speaking here to a culture in which there are fairly stringent and rigorous divorce proceedings that aim to provide protection for both parties equally. He is certainly not mandating that a woman, or a man should stay bound to each other when they are both being destroyed by the unresolvable violence of their relationship. And I do not believe that Jesus is mandating in this passage that a person whose marriage has died, is condemned to live the rest of their lives without the possibility of ever re-marrying.

Remember, Jesus uses exaggerated expressions to make a point,

everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery.

But Jesus did not want us to get stuck on these high demands. Can it be a mistake that Mark 10:1-12 is followed immediately by Mark 10:13-16?

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

What does it mean to “receive the kingdom of God as a little child”?

To “receive the kingdom of God as a little child” means to cast ourselves completely upon the grace and mercy of God. It means recognizing that none of us measures up. We all fail. We all fall short of God’s perfect standard of love in our lives. We are not as faithful as we should be. We make messes and we let each other down. We fail ourselves and we fail God. And it is at that very point of failure that Jesus wants to take you “up in his arms,” lay “his hands on” you, and bless you. There are no dead ends with Jesus.  There are no irredeemable failures. There is always a second chance.

When Jesus tells his disciples that “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery,” they are supposed to hear the echo of his voice on another occasion. These disciples are supposed to hear Jesus say, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery.” We are supposed to understand that we are all murderous, adulterous thieves. Paul the Apostle says, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.” Jesus says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.”

Origen, that great 3c. father of the Church said, “The Church is the harlot whom Christ unendingly washes with his blood to make her his spotless bride.” It is a level playing field. We all need to be washed and then washed again and washed again. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s mercy. We can only throw ourselves at Jesus’ feet and receive his blessing. Jesus upholds the absolute standards of God in every area of life. God’s perfect plan is that man and woman should live together for their entire lives in faithfulness and love. This is the goal. But, the fact is, none of us measures up to God’s perfect goal all of the time.

God’s standard for those who stay married is that husbands should “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephs. 5:25). I am not divorced. But I fall short of God’s standard for marriage every day. There are broken places in my marriage relationship which do not measure up to God’s perfect sta

Jesus did not come to replace one outmoded legal straightjacket with another. He came to bless children. We are the children he came to bless. We are completely dependent upon God’s mercy.   Our only task is to open ourselves to receive the blessing that Jesus desires to pour upon us.

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