I saw a cartoon recently that features two churches directly across the street from each other. Both churches have signs out front presumably announcing the message for the upcoming Sunday. The sign at the church on the left-hand side says, “Sermon series: What God Has Said,” and beside it stands the lonely pastor, waiting for the people to arrive, shooting a menacing glance to the pastor at the church on the right who stands, by contrast, surrounded by a crowd of interested people who are trying to enter his church. His sign, over which he gloats with a face of smugness, reads, “Sermon series: What You Would Rather Hear.”
I would imagine that’s how many of us feel about many Sundays, and don’t go thinking preachers feel any differently than you do, as smug as we may sometimes come across! On the one hand we’d like to think any of us would come to worship or Bible study to learn what God has said, to explore the meanings of Jesus’ teachings or the letters of the New Testament, but on the other hand we know that hearing things that make us feel good or that help us ignore and smooth over the more uncomfortable sides of our lives is a lot more easy to do.
This particular Sunday’s readings may take the cake, though, and those who have been affected by divorce, or who have been unfaithful to a spouse, may feel especially put on the spot. Indeed, those who find themselves in an abusive marriage, for example, might, because of Jesus’ words, feel forced to choose between continuing in a harmful relationship or seeking an end to the marriage, then re-marrying at the risk of being labelled an adulterer. We’re not used to Jesus giving us no good options.
It must be said: if you are feeling that any of these situations applies to you, take heart that you are not alone today. You need to know that you are surrounded here by people who no doubt have experienced divorce and infidelity and broken relationships in some way, whether as a child, a sibling, a parent, a friend, or another divorcee. And while the topic that Jesus is forced to address by the religious authorities’ question may initially seem to single out certain ones of us, the truth God has something to say to everyone this morning.
First of all, the specifics of marriage contracts and divorce agreements were much different in Jesus’ day, and that’s something to keep in mind. Marriages, in first century Israel, were largely contracts arranged between families and were used as a way to combine wealth and power between the families of the bride and groom. It goes without saying that in these arrangements, the woman was treated more or less as an object to be owned. She had few rights, as we would understand them nowadays, and, in fact, was not often permitted to write a letter of divorce to free herself from her husband if needed. Men would regularly abuse their power in this scenario, writing letters of divorce for their wives simply so they could take up another partner, and in many cases they had already secretly done so. That’s really what Jesus is addressing here.
In the law of Moses, Jesus reminds the Pharisees, God had certainly allowed for the possibility of divorce. It was not an option for which anyone should strive but the realities of sin would taint any aspect of the human experience, even marriage, and there would be times when that sacred bond between a man and a woman would need to be dissolved. However, the use of divorce as a cover for infidelity was clearly a misuse.
But besides all of that, there is a deeper level to Jesus’ words which were very groundbreaking, although he was not saying anything totally new. In answering the religious authorities’ self-serving question meant to trip him up, Jesus bypasses the laws of Moses which speaks to the contractual and property aspects of the marriage bond and hearkens instead all the way back to creation, and the original nature of marriage. Jesus explains that in both creation stories that Israel told, which are contained in Genesis, God places man and woman on equal footing.
|"The Creation of Eve" (Michaelangelo Buonorroti)|
In fact, in one of those stories, when God looks at man, who is alone, God declares that he needs to have an ‘ezer, which is typically translated as a helper or a partner. There is nothing subservient or secondary about the term ‘ezer, as if the fact that woman is created second she must be just a variation on a prototype. In fact, ‘ezer literally means “one who corresponds to him” and is, in fact, the same word used for God in several others places in the Old Testament. Created together as one humankind, then, male and female complement and correspond to each other, and marriage becomes the sacred union of the two, these two fleshly counterparts becoming one flesh, creating an intimacy so profound that it can only be described poetically or, better yet, lived.
Frederick Niedner, a professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, tells the story in a recent article about a couple in a parish he served at the beginning of his career, decades ago. By the time he arrived there, the couple had been married nearly 70 years. They had wed in 1902 at the ages of 16 and 18 and had “eked out a living, sometimes just barely,” he says, “on a small farm at the edge of the city.” They never had children, they had no pension and very little savings, so they continued to raise a few pigs to cover expenses into advanced years. One day, Niedner says, the wife didn’t wake up. Having outlived all their kinfolk and most of the few friends they’d made, only a scattering of people attended the funeral a few days later. When the moment came for the funeral director to close the open casket, Niedner writes, “the wiry little husband, dressed in an old suit he may well have worn at his wedding, jumped from his seat a few feet away and, before any of us could stop him, climbed into the casket and lay there clinging to his beloved. ‘Just bury me with her, please!’ he begged, over and over, between his sobs. In all the years since,” Niedner goes on to say, “I may have done something more difficult than helping to pull a weeping old man from his last embrace that day, but I don’t know what it might have been.”
“What God has joined together, let no one separate,” Jesus says, as he shuts down the religious authorities with their pesky questions. Certainly even the most wholesome marriages are still influenced by sinfulness, but this union is something God has blessed, and the joining together of two equal ‘ezers is something to be respected and revered, not manipulated for personal gain or denigrated.
I’m not sure the Pharisees got all of what Jesus was trying to say. I’m not sure the disciples got much of it either, even after Jesus takes the time to explain the issue of divorce to them in private. To be quite honest, I’m not sure any of us ever really get it, even though we constantly come to God with our silly attempts to clarify and define God’s love for humankind merely as a series of cases and for-instances: Does God’s law apply here? And what about here? What would God say about this? And while verbal answers to our questions are fine now and then, while sermons about “what God has said” and how he wants us to live are helpful up to a point, they end up falling short of grace in the long run.
For Christ did not come to earth primarily to answer people’s questions and solve theological riddles about the law. In fact, Christ came not so much to say something for God but to do something. Christ came not to explain and illustrate God’s love for all people but to embody it. His kingdom is always about grace, always including sinners and the insignificant in spite of themselves. This is why is it so significant that in both gospels where this prickly issue about divorce and marriage comes up, Jesus immediately follows his answer by doing something that illustrates the powerful grace of God’s kingdom.
People (probably women) are bringing him small children (probably even ones that are sick), which is the kind of nonsense that a theological riddle-solver and Bible expert would never have time for. After all, children can’t understand the finer points of the law, right? They haven’t experienced enough, haven’t developed the life skills to know what’s good for them. Surely they don’t appreciate just who this is that they are being brought to. Surely the don’t understand what kind of gift, for example, is being offered at the communion rail even as they stick their little hands out in trust. With their screaming and crying, their weakness and recklessness, their diseases and disfigurements, they’re just bound to get in the way.
That’s when Jesus’ rebuke, “Let them come to me! Do not stop them!” reminds us again, that Jesus brings a kingdom that automatically seeks out the lost and little. If we must talk about not separating something that God has joined together, then don’t separate Jesus from the little children. It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. God has joined himself together with them. For, my sisters and brothers, the kingdom isn’t intended for those who’ve figured out the key to marriage, or who’ve managed a lawful divorce, and it’s not for those who know exactly which rules and laws apply in every case. It doesn’t belong to those who go to church for the “right” reasons, either, or preachers with their clever signs and clever sermons. The kingdom, rather, is for those who look at the cross and learn to trust a God who takes them in his arms and blesses them, no matter what. It is for those who look at a dying Son of God and don’t even know which clever question to ask because they’re so broken, as well as for those who never seem to have their questions answered. The kingdom is for those who look at the one who hangs there and see God who will jump right into the casket along with us because he loves us and nothing, nothing, nothing will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Now, I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing what we want to hear, but my guess is it’s what we need to.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.