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October 4, 2015 - Mark 10.2-16

“Valued Families”

Mark 10.2-16

October 4, 2015

 

2Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation,‘God made them male and female.’ 7‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

13People 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.

 

When we think of Jesus, we are conditioned to think of him as loving, by which we mean Jesus is open, warm, and accepting, particularly toward us. In his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom claims that Americans have one predominant faith and that is that God really, really likes us; that God is thrilled to be with us on any occasion, and that God couldn't be happier with our moral progress. We've come a long way from Jonathan Edward's sermon, "Sinner In the Hands of an Angry God." We are "basically good people in the embrace of a completely permissive God."

In this view, Jesus is the friend rather than the savior, the one who comes to encourage us, to support us, to stand beside us, but never to chide us. And there is good reason for us to see Jesus in this way. As the novelist Reynolds Price has said, "He never turned anyone away." There were those who turned away from Jesus, but he did not turn away from them. Jesus got into all sorts of trouble for befriending sinners and reprobates.

In numerous places in the Gospel, Jesus appears to be the foe of legalistic, literal interpretations of the Jewish tradition. He gets into trouble for breaking Sabbath laws, saying to his critics, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." He appears to be shockingly nonchalant when it comes to observing the strict laws on ritual purity. "This man eats and drinks with sinners!" his critics charge.

So it is a bit surprising to hear Jesus' hard-line response to his critics who ask him one of the hot questions of the day: is it OK for a man who has divorced his wife to remarry?

Let’s put in context the question that is put to Jesus. Deuteronomy 24:1 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." The rabbis hotly debated just what was meant by "something objectionable." Some believed that the objection ought only to be for infidelity; others were open to divorce on grounds that we might consider to be rather trivial.

When asked about remarriage after divorce, Jesus comes down rather solidly on the side of those rabbis who had a strict interpretation of the possible grounds for divorce. Furthermore, Jesus stresses, as did the rabbis, that God is the basis for this stricture against remarriage after divorce.

This saying of Jesus must have been considered a hard saying from the first. Matthew appears to soften Jesus' words on divorce just a bit, seeing adultery as a valid reason for divorce. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 7:12-16) admits that the Lord has clearly spoken against divorce, but sometimes believers are caught in marital situations in which they have little choice but to divorce (7:11). The church seemed to struggle from the first to uphold this hard saying against divorce and remarriage after divorce, and at the same time to realize that individual believers found themselves in situations where there is conflict between one good and another.

Wow! Is Jesus having a bad day or what? All of us either are people who have divorced and remarried or else we love people who have divorced and remarried. What about them? Would Jesus tell a woman who has suffered terrible domestic abuse, "Stay married. You promised." And when that woman finally summoned the courage to leave her evil husband, would Jesus say, "Now that you have divorced, you may never remarry?"

Let me say a few things about this tough saying of Jesus on marriage and divorce. I hope to put this saying in a proper theological context for you because I'm sure that, while you might not have heard a sermon on it in a long time, it is a passage that has caused you trouble.

In ancient societies, where women rarely owned property, marriage meant a guarantee of support for the most vulnerable members of the society women and children. Without the protection of the laws against divorce, women were totally at the mercy of their husbands and fathers. In criticizing those who advocated easy divorce (and there were many in Israel who did so in his day), Jesus puts himself on the side of the weak and the vulnerable.

Jesus justifies his tough position against divorce and remarriage by an appeal to the creation in Genesis 1. God intends that married people stay together. God is on the side of unity, community, and togetherness. This gives order and stability to the world that, without people who show enduring commitment to one another "in sickness and in health, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, until death do us part," would be a heartless, unstable, and chaotic place. Alas, with the rate of marital separation in our society, with poorly enforced child support laws, our world has become unglued for many, and it's the children who suffer. "From the beginning it was not so," says Jesus.

Which reminds us that the very next words of Jesus are about the love and care of children. What he says against divorce and what he says for children in today's Gospel are related. It would be a sad perversion for the church today to take what Jesus said against marital breakup and use it to beat up on those persons who, for various reasons, have decided to end their marriage and separate, as if divorce were the one unforgivable sin. Marital separation hurts people, and hurting, vulnerable people are those who are especially loved by Jesus hence today's Gospel defends those who are victimized in marriage and divorce and defends little children. What he says here is not an all-inclusive, once-and-for-all final word about divorce and remarriage. Rather, it is his response to a question that was put to him by his critics who were hoping to trip Jesus up. And what Jesus does is not to once-and-for-all condemn all divorced persons, but rather to come down clearly on the side of the weak, the vulnerable, and the defenseless. We live in a broken world where people make and break promises, where people find it difficult to keep their commitments, and where people have promises broken by other people. Jesus is clearly on the side of those who are hurt by such human chaos.

 

In his book The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch dared to tell the truth about much of our moral chaos. We have created a world (not the world as God created it to be) in which we live more like lawless animals than as providentially guided human beings. Lasch urges us to try to look at the world from the perspective of a loving parent, in the way that God as parent might look at our world. In so doing, he comes up with a powerful argument for the necessity of the law in governing human life together:

To see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in the worst possible light. This perspective unmistakably reveals the unwholesomeness, not to put it more strongly, of our way of life, our obsession with sex, violence, and the pornography of making it; our addictive dependence on drugs, entertainment, and the evening news; our impatience with anything that limits our sovereign freedom of choice, especially with the constraints of marital and familial ties; our preference for nonbinding commitments; our third-rate educational system; our third-rate morality; our refusal to draw a distinction between right and wrong, lest we impose our morality on others and thus invite others to impose their morality on us; our reluctance to judge or be judged; our indifference to the needs of future generations, as evidenced by our willingness to saddle them with a huge national debt, an over-grown arsenal of destruction, and a deteriorating environment; our unstated assumption, which underlies so much of the propaganda for unlimited abortion, that only those children born for success ought to be allowed to be born at all.[1]

Looking at the world as parent, I can envision God reaching for a switch.

Now I say all this with some trembling, not because I am afraid to say tough things to my congregation, but because I'm sure that there are some of you who, no matter how I contextualize all this, will be hurt by these words from Jesus about divorce and remarriage after divorce. A broken promise, including the broken promises of marriage, is a serious moral matter, no matter what reason we might give for thinking that we are justified in breaking those promises.
I think we've got to fight the tendency just to explain away Jesus' words on divorce. We have come here this morning to be with Jesus, to listen to Jesus, even if what he has to say to us makes us uncomfortable. Remember, the one who says that divorce and remarriage after divorce is a sin is the same one who repeatedly says (so many, many more times than he condemned divorce!) that he has come to seek and to save the lost, and to forgive sinners.

One of the ways that God cares for us is through the gift of the law grace, taking form as structure for faithful living. Jesus does not abrogate God's law, but rather intensifies, perfects, and graciously commits us to fidelity to God and to one another. As Christians, we are called to exemplary, faithful lives.

In every congregation, there are people who, for a variety of reasons, have felt it necessary to break their marriage vows and divorce. Our challenge is similar to that faced by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 to uphold the undeniable saying of Jesus against divorce, and at the same time to offer some gracious word to those who struggle in real life situations in the face of marital dissolution. Today’s sermon is a defense of the law as a gift of God, including a defense of those demands of Jesus that seem severe and difficult, and also an affirmation that the same God who, in Christ, demands so much of us, also grants us merciful forgiveness when we do not live up to those demands. Jesus manages to offer demand and mercy at the same time. So should we.

 

If you have been hurt through divorce, then today's Gospel is the good news that, from the beginning divorce is not what God intended. If you have hurt someone through divorce, then today's Gospel is a good time to be reminded that Jesus came into the world to save sinners, to forgive us, to offer us the gracious means whereby we can pick up and start over. That is what I believe to be the word for us from today's tough talk by Jesus.[2]

 

Jesus is on the side of the broken hearted, the powerless, the vulnerable.  Jesus is no legalist, but Jesus is a champion of those who might be cast aside.

 

Our society is not “family friendly.” These are tough times for marriage and for children. The church can play a creative role in ministry to marriage and family today, a role which increases in importance as the stresses upon families increase. 

 

Some years ago, I had an epiphany. Changing the diapers of one of my children, it suddenly occurred to me that someone had done this for me. This most intimate and disagreeable of acts had been done for me. 
     And yet, I had never thought about it until I became a parent. I had never thanked anyone for it. That’s amazing. Greater love has no one than to...Well, you get the picture. It’s a rather stunning thought – we come into this world, we go out of this world, so utterly, completely dependent upon the love, sacrifice, and care of others.
    A parent asked Will Willimon, “On the basis of your work [at Duke] with students, what is the number one ethical problem facing today’s young adults?” I thought I knew the one she had in mind. But I answered, “The number one problem facing today’s young adults? Your divorce.”[3]
     It was not the answer she wanted to hear, perhaps not even the answer I wanted to give.
     In the Atlantic, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead published a bombshell of an article in which she argued that the two-parent family is better on the whole for child-rearing than are single-parent and stepfamilies. All she did was courageously report what sociologists and psychologists have known, indeed what each of us has suspected, but lacked the guts to admit. Three out of four teenage suicides occur in households where there is an absent parent. Eighty percent of adolescents in psychiatric hospitals come from broken homes. Five out of six adolescents caught in the criminal justice system were raised by one parent.        
     Vanderbilt political science professor, Jean Bethke Elshtain, writes that if one considers all factors in the current assault upon children and the family, including decline in government aid or the worsening economic status of the family, “father absence is the single most important risk factor for children. Let me repeat: The most important indicator of childhood problems – from poor health to poverty to behavioral problems – is whether a child grows up in a two-parent or a single-parent or no-parent household ... The strongest predictors of domestic violence are single-parent house-holds ... a stable, two-parent household is the best protection not only against abuse, but against the possibility that a child himself or herself will be abusive”.[4]
     While we must admire those heroic single parents (the vast majority of whom are mothers) who persevere against the odds, it is essential that we as a society take an honest look at what we are doing to our children when the one-parent family gradually becomes the typical American family. Even in our support of single parents, if we move to a public philosophy that acts as if nothing is at stake ethically, psychologically, or spiritually in the rise of fatherless homes, we are ignoring the facts and abandoning this nation’s children to a future which no government program can remedy … No government program can deflect the rage of a child who feels abandoned, bereft of the most reliable, trustworthy love any of us can hope to have (the love of two parents) [Elshtain].
    Our society has become unfriendly for parenting. Most Americans (more women than men) believe that parenting is tougher today than yesterday. In the seventies, 15 percent of our children lived in poverty. During the Reagan years, that percentage nearly doubled. Much of this poverty is produced by divorce and out-of-wedlock births.
      Most women, after their divorce, find themselves in considerably worse financial circumstances. For their children, not only is there the national scandal of fathers who refuse to pay child support, but there is also the problem of the psychological scars of absentee fatherhood. Furstenberg and Cherlin (Divided Families, 1991) reported that after divorce, less than half of the children surveyed had seen their fathers in the twelve months preceding the survey. Fathers of children born out of wedlock visit and pay even less.
      Yet above all, what happens to parents and children is more than a matter of public policy, a governmental, economic issue. I am talking about children now, talking about parents because there is something deeply ethical, definitely spiritual going on here.  This idea of a “Baby Mama” and “Baby Daddy” doesn’t work for baby.
     When, in today’s text, Jesus not only commands the indissolubility of marriage in the strongest terms, but also reaches out and blesses children, he was putting family matters at the center of our Christian concern.
     The church has traditionally taught that being a parent isn’t just something you decide to do, a lifestyle choice for as long as you find it pleasant. Parenthood is a Christian vocation which requires everything you’ve got, your whole life. Parenthood is something you give back to God in gratitude for your life. You don’t have to be married or to have children in order to be a Christian. However, for those Christians who do feel called to marriage and parenthood, being the best husband, the best wife, the best parent you can be is something you do for God.

We don’t brow beat people who have suffered through divorce and mistakes – we love them – that’s what Jesus does. 

Churches must do more to support those heroic single parents who, against great odds, are attempting to be faithful to their children. When I see a single-parent mother appear on Sunday morning after having at last gotten her two little children dressed for church, and when upon seeing these children arrive, some of this congregation embrace those children, take them to their Sunday school class, invite them to lunch after church, I as pastor cheer.  Here is the church’s creative response to the issue of single-parent families. In the church, there are no ‘single-parent families, nor any ‘two-parent families.’ In church, we’re all family.” Bless those churches who are creatively grappling with what it means to be faithful to our children in a society which is unfriendly to children.
 

 

[1] (Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, W. W. Norton, 1991, pp. 33-34.)

[2] Copious amounts of this sermon were taken from Will Willimon’s Pulpit Resource, October 8, 2006.

[3] Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, October 4, 2015.

[4] “Family matters: The Plight of America’s Children,” The Christian Century, July 14-21, 1993.