Leaving and Cleaving

SERMON: October 7, 2018

Mark 10:2-16 (RSV)

And Pharisees came up and in order to test Jesus asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”  They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.”  But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 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.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And 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.”

And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them.  But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.

Weddings are complicated things. There are so many moving parts involved in getting two people legally married that some ministers greatly prefer officiating at funerals instead.

A friend of mine told me about one wedding where the minister seemed to have a hard time getting through the ceremony. There was a lot of starting and stopping because the minister kept choking up. Later at the reception, a college buddy of Andy – the groom – asked Andy’s best man about it. “What’s the deal with the minister?” he asked, “She cried through the whole service.” “Dude,” the best man replied, “she’s his mother.”

Apart from going through all the mechanics of a wedding, no minister wants the unthinkable to happen: that, years later, the couple they had so lovingly married will divorce. Before I am willing to officiate at someone’s wedding, I spend a fair amount of time with the couple in premarital counseling. It is good for the couple, and also a good way to spot red flags. Happily, I have never needed to refuse to marry anyone. However, there was one time when I looked at the groom and thought, “Good luck Buddy, because you’re going to need it.”

In our Gospel reading this morning, some Pharisees approach Jesus with a pop quiz about divorce. Mark tells us right off the bat the Pharisees test Jesus so they can trap him with a question that has no good answer. Often the Pharisee’s questions reflect ongoing controversies between two factions, so any answer Jesus gives is guaranteed to offend someone.

Good luck, Jesus, you’re going to need it.

But Jesus takes up the challenge. He talks about both Mosaic Law itself and the approved exceptions to it by citing God’s real intent behind the law. The law should be something that protects people and allows them to flourish.  These laws are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

This scripture passage is a difficult, because there are so many ways to bend it to our own situations – both rightly and otherwise. Like Jesus responding to the Pharisees, almost any reading of it is bound to offend someone. To make this passage even trickier, Mark ends with a seemingly unrelated story about Jesus and the children. But I think that rather than roll our eyes at the disciples for failing to understand yet another teaching about Jesus blessing the little ones, we should instead notice that the last part of the story helps us to understand the first part.

Jesus’ teaching on divorce is hard to hear for a number of reasons. Divorce is so painful, and tangles up so many parts of our lives that it leaves us feeling raw and vulnerable. It is easy to read this passage as a way of shaming us. Unfortunately, some people can even think divorce makes us a bad person, one that is harder for God to love. Even if the marriage was abusive, we still come away with the idea that leaving means we are weak.

But we all have our limits. We make promises we deeply want to keep, and with all good intentions, we plan to stay with our spouse forever. The King James Version of our lesson says that in marriage “A man leaves his father and mother, and cleaves to his wife.” Usually, partners can do reasonably well with the “leaving” part, but can’t always manage the “cleaving part.” For some reason or another, two people cannot become one, as Jesus commands.

Marriage is not for everyone. In fact, marriage is a call and not all people are called to that way of life. Nor is marriage attainable for some, no matter how hard they try. There is no evidence Jesus himself ever married.

No one I know wants a divorce, but as William Willimon writes, “People get sick, people disappoint, people become trapped, addicted, distant, estranged. We all have our limits. Sometimes we find it impossible to keep our promises. Sometimes promises are broken for all sorts of ‘good’ reasons.”

The Pharisees begin with the assumption that any conversation about divorce applies only to men. This would make sense to someone of Jesus’ day. That is the law – men can divorce their wives under certain circumstances. The ancient world is patriarchal, and wives are the property of their husbands. As a result, a divorced woman faces ruin. She is abandoned with no way to support herself. She loses status, her reputation, her home – everything.

“What did Moses command you?” Jesus asks. Of course, he already knows the answer. Moses wrote a loophole into the Law, a convenience, just in case a man needed to get rid of his wife. The Revised Standard Version says he can “put her away” – as if she is an old coat he no longer needs.

Jesus is not being critical of Moses, but he can see beyond the Pharisee’s question. The Law is supposed to be about protecting the disenfranchised and the hurting, not about ruining the life of a vulnerable person.

Jesus reminds them that God created two types of humans, not one, and they are equally beloved in God’s eyes. In God’s kingdom, it is not about what is permissible, but about what is ethical. God is the one from the time of creation who brings everything together, and wants us all to flourish and grow. God calls us together into communion.

God brings us together, but we are, of course, only human. There are limits on our ability to love, and to stay with other people, especially those in great need. That is the truth about being broken, limited people.

But there is another, deeper truth: the love of God has no such limits. We can attempt to separate ourselves from God, but Jesus tells us God never separates from us. Look how far God – in the person of Jesus – is willing to go for us. All the way to the cross.

God will always be reliably present for the weak, the vulnerable, and the hurting. Those at the edges of humanity: women and children, those marginalized by ritual or tradition, ethnicity, race, or gender will be welcomed with open arms in the Kingdom of God. Anyone willing – by circumstance or desire – to be as open and vulnerable as a child belongs in God’s kingdom.

Yes, Jesus’ teaching here in Mark is difficult. He sets the bar high – some would say impossibly high. Disciples of Jesus are to marry and stay married. If we are disciples of Jesus, we are to love and care for and have mercy for the “little ones” whether they are children or not. We should turn our attention to those on the margins – the sick and disabled and poor. After all, these are kingdom practices.

We may not always live up to God’s commands because, after all, we humans have limits. But our unlimited God loves us and forgives us, despite our limited ability to love back.

Jesus may sound severe in our scripture for today; as if he is setting moral standards so impossibly high that we can never attain them. Yet the really good news is that, in spite of ourselves, our broken promises and failures, God is always faithful. Amen.