[This was shared during the 10:15 worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus points us to God’s intention for human beings when it comes to marriage, divorce, sexuality, and family living.
We may want to run from these words of Jesus. As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright notes, to some people in these times, anyone who dares to publicly read Jesus’ words here “is likely to be called cruel, unfeeling, unforgiving, exclusive...'unchristian'...”
But as we dive into Jesus’ words for us today, it’s important to remember Who is speaking them. This is the God Who loved us enough to take on human flesh, Who was, in the words of Hebrews 4:15, “in every respect tested as we are, yet without sin.” This is the sinless Savior Who took our punishment for sin on the cross, then rose from the dead, to offer the undeserved gift of new and everlasting life to all who willingly repent, daily submitting to the death of their own sins and sinful desires and entrusting their lives to the loving will of the God we know only in Jesus Christ.
Jesus words aren’t those of a closed-minded religious bigot, but of the God Who loves us more than anyone else could!
Jesus says to His followers, including you and me, in John 15, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” I find that when Ann, who loves me, criticizes for something I’ve said or done, I’m initially defensive. But, after awhile, I remember how much she loves me and I’m ready to listen and learn from what she has to say. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Well meant are the wounds a friend inflicts...” So, let’s listen to what our Friend, God, and Savior Jesus has to tell us today.
Please turn to our gospel lesson, Mark 10:2-16.
In verse 2, a group of Pharisees asks Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
It’s no coincidence that the Pharisees ask this question by the Jordan River out in the Judean wilderness, the same setting in which John the Baptist ran afoul of King Herod not long before.
John, you’ll remember, challenged the legitimacy of Herod’s rule because this Herod, Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, had married his brother’s wife, Herodias. Herodias had divorced Herod Antipas’ brother in order to marry the king. John claimed that Antipas and Herodias had defiled marriage and the royal throne by their adultery. Herodias, you’ll also remember, took particular offense at John the Baptist calling her husband and her out for their unrepentant sin. That’s why she made sure that John was beheaded.
The Pharisees, already anxious to get rid of Jesus, hope to entrap Jesus into offending the royal couple in the dominion of Antipas in the same way John had offended them.
Notice too, the thrust of the Pharisees' question. They ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
But Jesus isn’t interested in talking about whether it’s lawful for a person to divorce their spouse. In Deuteronomy 24, some 1500 years before the birth of Jesus, God revealed through Moses that it’s legal for a person to divorce a spouse. But as the former Pharisee turned Christian preacher and evangelist, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial...’ ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.’”
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus talks about how adultery can be a legitimate grounds for divorce.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says that when an unbelieving spouse leaves the believing spouse--what has been called “spiritual abandonment”--the Christian may have grounds for divorce.
And no loving Christian would insist that a spouse remain tied to someone who perpetrates violence against them, since clearly an abuser isn’t interested in being married, but in dominating another human being.
But Jesus wants to move beyond the law to talk about the intention of God, the will of God, for human beings when it comes to marriage and divorce.
Jesus responds to the Pharisees by asking them, in Mark 10:3, “What did Moses command you?” Alluding to Deuteronomy 24, they reply correctly, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her.”
The Pharisees were sticklers for Biblical law. They checked all the right boxes. Warmed a pew? Check. Gave my offerings? Check. Did my time in Catechism? Check. Gave to the poor even though I didn’t want to? Check. But they weren’t interested in surrendering to God so much as getting God to do what they wanted Him to do and to validate what wonderful, worthy, hard-working people they were.
This is what Martin Luther called “works righteousness”: the idea that I can be a good enough person to earn my way into God’s good graces. But it doesn’t work! At birth, you and I are so polluted by the sin we inherit from our fathers and mothers that, in the words of Isaiah, “all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags.” Instead, righteousness comes as a gift only to those who surrender to and entrust their whole lives to Jesus Christ. Surrender to and trust in Christ is what the Bible means when it talks about faith. Turn to Romans 3:21-22: “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law [apart from the demands of the little boxes the Pharisees tried to check off] is revealed...the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe...” in Christ.
Back in our gospel lesson, Jesus points to God’s original intention for marriage. Look at what Jesus says, starting at Mark 10:5: “Because of the hardness of your heart [Moses] wrote you this precept.”
God gave people the option of divorce as a concession to their hard-heartedness. But look at what Jesus says next in Mark 10:6-9. He points back to the book of Genesis: “But from the beginning of the 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 then they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man [or woman] separate.”
Even though God makes allowances for human sin, Jesus says it’s God’s will that marriage, the union of a male and a female made one flesh by the grace of God, should be inviolate. Just as war should be a last, dreaded option for nations, to be deferred until every peaceful resolution has been tried, so divorce should be a last, dreaded option for husbands and wives who have become one flesh!
After this time of public teaching on marriage and divorce, verses 10-12 find Jesus sitting with His followers in a house. He uses the time-worn method of hyperbole, exaggeration, to underscore His teaching. Jesus says that whenever a husband or a wife divorces a spouse and the ex-spouse remarries, the ex-spouse is made an adulterer. By expressing things in this way, Jesus is telling His disciples how seriously God takes the marriage vows of husbands and wives. Divorce may be unavoidable, even justifiable at times. But it is always the result of human sin and it always spreads the misery of sin around, even to helpless bystanders.
And the most helpless of all bystanders to divorce are children, which leads inevitably to the last verses of our lesson, Mark 10:13-16.
While Jesus sits with His disciples, people bring their children to be touched by Jesus. The disciples, verse 13 says, “rebuked” people for doing this. The disciples were reprimanding parents and grandparents for bringing their children to Jesus for blessing. Jesus says to let the children come to Him. It’s to people who come to Him in childlike trust that God’s kingdom belongs.
At the end of our lesson, in verse 16, we’re told, “And [Jesus] took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them.”
When we were kids, we were taught to sing, “Jesus loves the little children.” He does! But I wonder sometimes how much some parents love their children when they press for divorces from their spouses just because they’re finding life together difficult or challenging.
Unless there’s abuse, adultery, or spiritual abandonment, kids--even grown kids--need their parents to persevere in staying together.
Listen: In twenty-eight years as a pastor, I have seen far more people, whether children or spouses, damaged by divorce than I ever have by marriages in which the husbands and wives have gone through tough times, yet tenaciously prayed, gotten counseling, surrendered each day to Christ, and, in effect, told each other, “No matter how I feel today, by the grace of God given in Christ, I will be with you tomorrow and until death parts us. Period.”
God, I’m convinced, is not calling married people to simply “stay together” while living separate lives. That is NOT what it means for a husband and a wife to become “one flesh.”
But when wives and husbands approach Jesus each day like little children, heeding His commands, trusting in His grace, speaking the truth to one another in love, forgiving each other, praying for one another, and asking God to help them to see the best in each other every day, they will do more than, as some have put it, “divorce-proof” their marriages.
Their marriages will become, in Martin Luther’s phrase, “little churches,” built on the rock of Jesus Christ, where the prayers go up and the blessings come down, and the peace of God that passes all understanding is most intimately and wonderfully known. Amen