“What Is So Difficult About Relationships?” Mark 10:1-16 10/7/2018
Now the two sections making up this week’s reading from Mark’s gospel give me a choice between a “safe bet” sermon and a “you’ll be sorry” sermon — sorry you ever opened your mouth.
The “safe bet” sermon would, of course, focus on the second section, verses 13-16, where Jesus appears loving, accepting, gentle and non-threatening as he rebukes his disciples for not “letting the little children come” as he sweeps the small ones up into his arms. The “you’ll be sorry” sermon is found in the first section of today’s text, verses 1-12 where Jesus talks about marriage & divorce.
And naturally, being used to having my mouth get me into trouble at times I have chosen the “you’ll be sorry” sermon knowing full well that many of you are in long term marital relationships, others are divorced and remarried, others are divorced and single, still others have never married. And many of you are widows and widowers coming from long term relationships.
I do believe that we have become so gun-shy of Jesus’ pronouncements on divorce and the feared explosions they may ignite within congregations that we fall silent on the startlingly radical understanding of marriage Jesus offered to his followers. And I believe this section of Mark also gives us continuing insight into God’s relationship with us which is, I believe, the key to understanding this passage.
We humans are often guilty of failing to say what we mean, thus big words allow us to actually say very little while speaking a lot. If that’s true, however, then so is the opposite idea — that, sometimes, small words allow us to say a lot while speaking very little. Big words may sound impressive because they are hard to pronounce, but often it’s the small words that are the hardest to say.
In this week’s text, Jesus is addressing some hard words about relationships. While the text is seemingly about divorce and the relationship between husband and wife, it’s also about a shift in the language of relationships from the language of law to the language of love.
The text begins with geography: “the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan” (10:1). Why would Mark do that? Listen carefully. Context is everything.
This was the region where Mark tells us at the beginning of his gospel that John the Baptist had operated during his ministry (1:5), and John’s ministry echoes through this passage.
In Mark 6:14-29, we read the story of how John the Baptist had died at the hands of King Herod Antipas. John was beheaded because he challenged the king’s divorce and his remarriage to his brother Philip’s wife Herodias.
Think of it as a kind of first-century soap opera: The king ditches his lawful wife, Phasaelis, and Herodias divorces Philip so that the two can be together. While this was legal according to Roman law, Jewish law was quite different, and King Herod was Jewish), and John the Baptist called the king on it, saying, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (6:18).
Herodias wanted John dead for calling attention to the sordid relationship and had to trick Herod into having the prophet beheaded. John the Baptist makes a legal argument & the king’s new wife comes up with a “legal” solution to bump him off; the king’s oath being legally & socially binding & all that.
It’s interesting, then, that when the Pharisees want to “test” Jesus, they do it with the vocabulary of the law court (10:2). “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” They’re hoping that Jesus’ answer will allow them to bring Jesus up on charges of treason against the king where the use of big words and legal arguments could get him convicted and executed like John.
At first, Jesus sounds like a lawyer, answering the question with a question: “What did Moses command you?” (v. 3). Jesus knew the law as well as any of them did and he already knew the answer.
Yes, it was technically legal in Jewish law for a man to divorce his wife by simply writing her a certificate of dismissal. Do the paperwork and it was done (v. 4).
But Jesus then shifts the nature of the language from the legalese of the court to the language of the Scriptures. Rather than the legal bonds his debaters are concerned about, Jesus is only concerned about the bond of love.
Forget the Law of Moses in this case, says Jesus, and look at what God intended from the beginning (vv. 5-6).
Going back to Genesis, Jesus outlines the intent of marriage in the first place: the leaving and cleaving of a man and his wife. What were once two separate people now become “one flesh” — one person joined together by God who designed them to fit together emotionally, physically and spiritually (vv. 7-9).
As God’s own nature is three-in-one (Triune God), so too is the nature of human relationships: husband and wife and, later, children all becoming one family and one flesh, reflecting the image of God they were created to be from the beginning.
And now we have wife & wife with children; husband & husband with children. All driven by LOVE.
- The legal language of divorce is all about separation.
- The language of love is always about bonding.
We live in a world that has taught us a kind of “no-fault” language when it comes to relationships.
We have “no-fault” divorces that make it possible for people to separate without taking responsibility for their actions.
We have “no-fault” insurance that makes it possible for people to act recklessly with fewer consequences.
We’ve handed over disputes between neighbors to litigation because it’s easier to sue in court than speak over the back fence. We’ve even taken a “no-fault” approach to God by sometimes abandoning prayers of confession for more upbeat music and a prosperity gospel in many of our churches.
We’ve become comfortable with being separate, but the will of God is all about togetherness, and bonding.
Jesus seems to understand divorce as a failure to use the right vocabulary. And what is that vocabulary? Well, rather than a bunch of words that are longer than your arm, this vocabulary uses short words that carry a lot of meaning. Words like:
- I am sorry (three words, 8 letters).
- I love you (three words, 8 letters).
- Please forgive me (three words, 15 letters).
Or, like the guy who’d just had this huge fight and breakup scene with his girlfriend.
- He sends her a text message: “I want to come back.”
- She texts back: “I need 3 words, 8 letters.”
- He texts back: “I got food!” She texts: “Get over here now!”
These shorter words sometimes aren’t any easier to say than some of the longest words in the dictionary, but they mean so much more. When our relationships become strained for any reason, Jesus calls us not to turn to the legal dictionary but to turn toward each other.
Now, one of the most important things to understand about Jesus’ words on divorce is this: The words were just as hard, just as uncomfortable, just as socially awkward for first-century Pharisees as they are for 21st-century Christians.
To his disciples in private, Jesus gets serious about the kind of cavalier attitude that people take when they ditch one spouse for another (vv. 10-12). Jesus understood that the kind of selfish individualism that characterized Herod’s court is all too common in our human relationships today.
We are a culture becoming increasingly characterized by broken relationships of all kinds.
It’s interesting that Mark follows up Jesus’ teaching on divorce with a scene of Jesus with children (vv. 13-16). They are the ones to whom the kingdom belongs. Jesus blesses them and calls us to bless them, too. A good marriage and any good relation does just that.
All of this is not to say that there aren’t times when separation in any relationship is necessary, such as in physical, emotional, or spiritual abusive situations
Jesus is not implying here that divorce is forbidden under every circumstance. What Jesus does say, however, is that we need to sharpen our vocabulary to use every word and every opportunity we can to bring reconciliation to our relationships with a spouse, with children, with grandchildren, with parents, with friends, with colleagues & most importantly, with God.
As Jesus says in the Gospel for today, the plan of God is for people to be together, not apart. That’s how we were designed by God to be: bonded together; one flesh, together – all of us.
I want to make it clear that I am not addressing past choices/mistakes, but speaking to present and future relationships and their possibilities. We are sinful people who make wrong choices, bad decisions, & who constantly struggle to do the right thing in all of our relationships & sometimes those relationships just don’t work out.
Divorce is a sin, but it is not an unforgiveable sin. Remember, that in our lives it is all about God’s Grace – the unconditional love & forgiveness we have from God.
Grace – Grace – Grace.
So, what words would you use to characterize your relationships? Your marriage? What words do you need to add to your vocabulary to strengthen the bond you have between each other; between you & your children; between you & your grandchildren; between you & others; and between you and God?
We are designed for each other in all relationships, and that’s the good word! Amen
@Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, October, 2018
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “ULC Sermon 10-7-18” name of the sermon.