For the last several weeks, we have been steadily making our way through the Gospel of Mark, following Jesus and the disciples as they draw closer and closer to Jerusalem. And it seems like the closer Jesus gets to Jerusalem – and to the cross – the more difficult his teachings are becoming. Just in the last few weeks, we have heard Jesus say that anyone who wants to get ahead must be last of all and servant of all; we heard him say that we must lose our lives in order to find them; and just last week you might remember his teachings that if your eyes or hands or feet cause you to stumble, you should cut them off!
Today’s reading from Mark manages to hit us even closer to the heart with this difficult passage about divorce. You can tell that even the disciples find this teaching harsh, because they bring it up again with Jesus later – like they think that maybe when the Pharisees asked him, Jesus was just a little hangry or something and needed to have a snack and relax. But when they ask him about it in private, Jesus not only reaffirms this teaching, he doubles down on it and makes it sound even harsher.
It’s hard to read this text. It has been used in such harmful ways in the church: especially against the many people whose lives have been touched by divorce and against members of the LGBTQ community. I’m sure there are people sitting here who know exactly how it feels to have this text used against them – people who have been made to feel shame by other people wielding this text like a weapon. I’m not here to do that.
What’s ironic is that that sort of thing is exactly what the Pharisees are trying to do at the beginning of this story. They have come to “test” Jesus. They’ve been trying to figure out a way to trap him in a bad answer, trying to trick him with difficult questions so that they can hold him up for scorn and judgment. But Jesus is having none of it. In classic Jesus fashion, he turns the question around on them and completely reframes it.
The Pharisees ask him whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife, so he asks them what it says in the law, which was handed down from Moses. And the Pharisees respond, “Well, Moses said we could do it!” Now, we should note that the law that they are probably referencing comes from Deuteronomy 24, which 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, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.”
As you might guess from this passage, divorce was a pretty cold business for women in ancient times, and Jesus rightly calls out the Pharisees for their hardness of heart. He sees that they don’t really care about divorce or about its effect on the community or about who it hurts; they are just trying to prove that they’re right and Jesus is wrong.
But by taking up this question, Jesus shows that he cares very much about the human aspect of divorce, the human cost of divorce. He goes back even further than Deuteronomy, all the way to the beginning of Genesis, to the creation of humans – which is what we read today in our first reading. Jesus lifts up the dignity and importance of people of all genders. In those days, divorce often left women and children homeless, without social standing or a way to support themselves. Jesus is angry with the Pharisees for dithering about the legal details of divorce when the actual practice of divorce at the time was causing so much real harm.
In his denouncement of divorce and remarriage, Jesus gives women rights that they did not actually have in ancient Jewish society. By law, only men were allowed to initiate a divorce, but Jesus talks about women and men as equals, with equal agency, drawing on the image of creation from Genesis.
Jesus also draws out of Genesis this idea that “two shall become one flesh.” This idea is at the heart of the biblical vision of marriage. And even more than that, this idea is at the heart of what it means to be human and to live in community. The first humans are literally made from each other – and so are all the humans that followed (spoilers: it’s where babies come from!). We belong to each other. We are all one flesh. There is no separation – we are all made of the same stuff, of one piece with each other and with all creation. We are one flesh. And God wants us to live like it. God wants to see people united in love and committed to one another in love, whether that’s through marriage or through the many other kinds of relationships that we form with each other.
Marriage itself is lifted up throughout the bible as an image for the kind of relationship that God wants to have with humanity. God wants the same kind of joyful, creative, dynamic relationship with humanity that the first marriage was intended to be – a relationship of mutual love and solid commitment, a relationship of joyful discovery of the other and of creative collaboration. These are the kinds of relationships that God wants to have with us and for us to have with one another.
It should be noted that marriages that end in divorce don’t usually look like this. Divorces don’t end happy, loving relationships; divorces end unhappy relationships, relationships where there has been suffering and neven abuse. Divorce grieves the heart of God – but it’s not because a law has been broken. It’s because divorce is a sign that there is already brokenness and hurt. And God grieves with those who are experiencing that brokenness and hurt.n
God is grieved by broken relationships. And as Jesus shows us in our gospel passage for today, God is grieved and angered by those who deliberately set out to break relationship. It’s worth noting that the two times that Jesus gets angry in this passage are 1) when the Pharisees seem to be fishing for an excuse to be divisive and judgmental of others and 2) when his own disciples try to send the children away. In the words of the text, he is “indignant” when this happens! Both of these are moments in which the people around him are actively contributing to the breaking (or preventing!) of relationship.
I think this is perhaps the most important message for those of us living in these days to take away from these readings. God wants loving relationship among God’s people – not division. This is a theme that we have seen emerging in scripture again and again – every week, I feel like I preach the same sermon! – it’s a repeated theme both because right relationship is a top priority for God, and also because it’s something that we continuously struggle to get right.
Division is something we struggle with in family and personal relationships. Even if you’ve never experienced a divorce, I’m sure each of you can think of strained relationships in your personal lives. Our closest relationships can get torn apart by things like jealousy and gossip and misunderstandings, by petty disgreements and stubbornness and spiten
And division is something we struggle with in our life together as a community, as a nation, and as a global society. And you don’t need me to tell you that, over the past year and a half of dealing with a global pandemic, we have seen this dividedness go from pretty bad to even worse. It’s not just that we disagree with other people; it’s that we stop seeing the people who disagree with us as people. Especially with the rampant spread of misinformation, it can sometimes feel like some of the people we share this planet with are living in a different version of reality altogether. And it’s all too easy for us to forget that we are all one flesh.
But the good news for us is that God does not forget this. God in Christ is so devoted to relationship with us that he likewise took on flesh and became one flesh with us. In fact, if you keep reading in Hebrews after the passage we read today, the letter continues:
“Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, [Christ] himself likewise shared the same things… For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God… Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”Hebrews 2:14-18 (abridged)
God responds to our struggle to love one another by loving us all the more. Jesus came as a living, embodied example of human love, so that we might learn from him how to love as God loves. God knows that brokenness and division are a reality of our human lives, but that doesn’t stop God. God will never be divided from us. God has joined us to Godself and to all creation in an unbreakable bond of love – and what God has joined together, no one can separate.