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'...” (If you can imagine Jesus Christ being "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, in the words of Hebrews 4:15, “has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not 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.”
When a friend who loves me criticizes for something I’ve said or done, I’m initially defensive.
But, after awhile, I remember that person’s love and friendship for me and I’m ready to listen and learn from what he or 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.
Let’s look at 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.
So, the Pharisees want to entrap Jesus in the domain of a king who's a little touchy about the question of divorce.
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. And when it comes to many of today's hot button issues, we Christians should be less interested in what the law permits than we are in what God's will for our lives in relationship to God.
The lawfulness of divorce which the Pharisees raise is indisputable. Divorce was lawful. In Deuteronomy 24, some 1500 years before the birth of Jesus, God revealed through Moses that it’s a legal right 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: “‘I have the right to do anything,’...but not everything is beneficial.”
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 spiritual abandons the believing spouse--and that can happen even when spouses continue to live under the same roof--the Christian may have grounds for divorce.
And no loving Christian would insist that a spouse remain tied to someone who perpetrates physical or emotional violence against their partner, since clearly an abuser isn’t interested in being married, but only in dominating another human being and running the show.
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 send her away.”
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 class? Check. Gave to the poor? Check.
But they weren’t interested in surrendering to God so much as they were in getting God to do what they wanted Him to do for them and to validate what wonderful, worthy, hard-working people they were. They effectively believed in 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.
The problem with works righteousness is that 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 acts are like filthy rags.” Instead, righteousness comes as a gift only to those who surrender to Christ.
Back in our gospel lesson, Jesus points to God’s original intention for marriage. Look at what He says, starting at Mark 10:5: “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law...” God gave humanity the option of divorce as a concession to our hard-heartedness.
But look at what Jesus says next in Mark 10:6-9. He points back to the book of Genesis: “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one 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 been made one flesh and have expended every reasonable effort at ensuring that their marriage actually is a marriage.
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 often, 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 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, He says, that God’s kingdom belongs.
At the end of our lesson, in verse 16, we’re told, “And [Jesus] took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.” (I love that verse!)
When we were kids, many of us 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, not after at least one of them has tried and tried again to make things work.
Unless there’s abuse, adultery, or spiritual abandonment, kids need their parents to persevere in staying together.
In thirty-one 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’ll be with you tomorrow.”
I’ve been inspired by people I pastor who had ample grounds, under God’s law, to leave their spouses, but soldiered on. They didn’t keep on with their marriages because they were weak, but because God made them strong.
Some of these people chose to keep on because they realized their spouses needed them and that God could use them to reach those spouses with the gospel.
Some of these people who have decided to stay have even experienced better marriages after staying.
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 be “one flesh.”
But when both wives and husbands (BOTH) approach Jesus each day like little children, trusting in His grace, heeding His commands, speaking the truth to one another in love, forgiving each other, praying for each other, 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. (Whatever that means.)
Their marriages have the potential for becoming, in Martin Luther’s phrase, “little churches,” built on the rock of Jesus Christ, where God is worshiped and served, even in tough times, and the peace of God that passes all understanding is experienced. May this congregation be filled with wives who experience this with their husbands and husbands who experience this with their wives. Amen