Scripture readings: Mark 10:2-16; Genesis 2:18-24
“Raw.” That is the word my friend who was going through a divorce used to describe the experience. He felt raw, as if his whole being was an open flesh-wound, unbearably vulnerable to even more pain. I’m reading this morning’s scriptures with my friend in mind, wondering how Jesus’ words might play in his ears. Would they sound judgmental or compassionate?
I fear they’ve often been read as judgmental. One pastor tells of a woman who approached him during the installation reception at his first pastorate, and even before introducing herself, she asked, “Preacher, do divorced people go to hell?” “Almost dropping my fruit punch, I thought, ‘I just passed my ordination exam. What is this? Another test of some sort?’” His mind racing through everything he’d learned in seminary, the new pastor responded, “Better people than me get divorced.” Later, the pastor learned that she was a woman with rigid beliefs about sin and punishment, who knew the words of Jesus in this text, and her question came out of her deep concern for her son, who was about to remarry after divorce. She feared her son was endangering his soul.
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Thought most commentators think the Pharisees sprung this as a trick question on Jesus, trying to trap him, but I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt. The question is a test of sorts, but maybe the folks in this story are also asking from deep concern. They want to know how to live according to God’s instruction, to walk in ways that lead to life, wholeness, and salvation. They want to be faithful. But in the world around them, maybe among their own families, maybe, if they are really honest, in themselves, they see attitudes, behaviors, and practices which seem to result in pain and brokenness. Maybe they are just looking for a little clarity amidst the controversies of their day.
But as the initial back-and-forth with Jesus indicates, the controversy that concerns them isn’t merely whether divorce is lawful. When Jesus asks them what Moses commands, they readily cite Deuteronomy 24, in which Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorceand send her from his house because he finds something “objectionable” about her. Rather, the current controversy centered around the conditions by which divorce was permitted. Was the “something objectionable” limited to his finding that his wife had been unfaithful, could a man divorce his wife for something as trivial as “burnt toast,” as one rabbi suggested?
Also, noticeably lacking from their question is any clear concern for the social justice implications for women in that patriarchal culture. When a woman received a “certificate of divorce,” she lost most of her rights, and there were no provisions for legal recourse or alimony.A woman, was considered her husband’s property, and was not allowed to divorce her husband.
The Pharisees ask Jesus this question on the road to Jerusalem, a road that has just taken him beyond the Jordan and across the boundary between the known and the unknown, a road which will lead him to the cross. Amidst the crowds on that road, whether Jesus answers yea or nay, he is guaranteed to offend someone.
So Jesus reframes the question. He refuses to parse out the justifiable conditions, instead asserting that divorce is a concession of God’s law necessary because of humanity’s “endemic sickness,” hardness of heart. As one author puts it, “Divorce doesn’t represent God’s will at all since God does not accept as normal the hardness of heart that demands it.” Hardness is the nature of humanity after sin has entered into existence, and we are unable to live up to God’s loving intentions in creation.
The Genesis passage Jesus quotes tells the whole story. It begins with God’s awareness, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” God makes animals and the man gives them names, yet none is the partner he longs for. Finally, beholding the woman God has made, the man speaks these gorgeous words, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” and there is this grand statement, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” In the consummation of God’s intentions, the two are together, naked and unashamed.
But then there is the unfortunate incident with the serpent and the fruit, and shame enters in. So quickly we go from “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone” to “the woman did it” and “the serpent tricked me.” From a unity, a communion, made possible in a relationship of vulnerability and mutual self-giving, we go to division which results from self-service and self-justification. That is the story Jesus points back to because, while questions of lawful behavior within or outside of marriage are not unimportant, his mission is ultimately more radical.
We see this when he goes “in the house” with the disciples, who ask him once more to clarify things. To them he gives these very challenging words: any man or woman who divorces and remarries commits adultery. In our time we wonder with that fearful mother, is Jesus’ laying down a timeless principle which determines the eternal well-being of our souls?
Friends, Jesus is certainly clear that, were human beings operating according to God’s original intentions, there would be no divorce. God desires to heal us of the sinful nature which accepts divorce as a painful necessity. And I think his challenging words about remarriage reflect a painful truth that we might want to deny. Human beings who have come together the covenant of marriage cannot help but be impacted when that covenant is broken, however necessary the divorce may truly be. When what was once one flesh becomes two again, the raw wound of that separation may grow new skin with time and distance, or perhaps in the course of a subsequent marriage, but the scars do still remain.
But Jesus is not laying down a new law here. To hear these words as an eternal judgment upon divorced people, whether or not they remarry, is to misunderstand his mission.Jesus did not come to parse out for us all the do’s and don’ts of our existence or to help us self-justify our way to heaven. He came to proclaim and enact the coming of God’s kingdom. And perhaps his hard words here are to jar us, so that we quit asking, “How can I make sure I’ll get to heaven?” Only perfect purity of heart will get us there, and we—all of us, whether divorced, married, single, or remarried—are incapable of it without God’s help! The question Jesus wants us to ask instead is “How may I enter and receive God’s kingdom?”
And the only really clear answer we get in this scripture reading is this: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” These words are linked to the previous conversation, because the same hardness of heart that makes divorce a necessary loophole in the law also dismisses children as unimportant.
A couple of weeks ago, Keith noted how little status children had in the culture of Jesus’ time.So many of them died in infancy, that it was hard to consider them real people until they’d demonstrated their aptitude for survival. Yet their parents still longed for them to live—that’s why folks were bringing their babes to Jesus, seeking any blessing that might protect the children. But the disciples saw these babies as bothersome distractions they must clear out of their important master’s way. In so doing, they demonstrate what “another symptom of the condition of hardness of heart: intolerance toward vulnerability.”
But Jesus’ concern is always for the least and the last. So, Jesus gets angry. “Let the little children come to me, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs,” he says, enfolding and blessing them in his embrace.
It is in vulnerability, not self-justification, that we are able to receive and enter into the gift of the kingdom, the vulnerability of a baby who is utterly dependent upon a caregiver; the vulnerability of lovers, naked and unashamed, recognizing in the other “flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone;” the vulnerability of an innocent man, walking that road to Jerusalem all the way to the cross and resurrection, trusting himself fully to God’s loving embrace, giving over all his own power to move in the Spirit, and pouring his very life out as a blessing for others.
Admitting that it is not good for us to be alone, and give up our attempts to justify ourselves, we come before God, aware of our utter dependence, and finally we find ourselves scooped up in the arms of a Savior who lays forgiveness upon us with pierced hands. His tenderness will heal us of our hardness of heart, as we receive the blessings of God’s kingdom.
Friends, it is World Communion Sunday, an occasion first celebrated as a prayer for the unity of the church in a world fractured by war and division. Today we remember something that is true every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, that we receive from Christ our host the same meal as brothers and sisters vastly different from us, people of all colors, cultures, ages, and political persuasions all around the world (and in our own nation during election season).
We come to that meal with open hands, a gift we receive in vulnerability, acknowledging that our own merits are not enough, trusting that this bit of bread and juice will sustain us for a life greater than we can fathom. To paraphrase the U2 song, today we remember we are one but we’re not the same, and we get to carry each other, as we are all scooped up and blessed in the arms of the One love which carries us beyond the pain to heal the rawest wounds of separation.
In the name of the One Love which creates us, the One Love which redeems us, the One Love which sustains us, One in Three, Three in One, God in Community, Amen.
 David B. Howell, “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 10:2-16” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, 144.
 C. Clifton Black, 145, and David B. Howell, 142.
 David Lose, as above.
 Martin L. Smith, http://sojo.net/magazine/2012/09/when-bible-reads-you-october-2012
 Martin L. Smith, as above.
 Martin L. Smith, as above.