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Pentecost 19B Sermon
Genesis 2: 18-24,
Mark
10: 2-16
October 3, 2021


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Genesis 2:18-24

Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.’
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Mark 10:2-16

2 Some 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.’
10 Then 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.’
13 People 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.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God be with us in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

It is interesting that the appointed First Reading and Gospel Lesson for this day are about marriage and divorce. I spent Friday evening and all day Saturday with folks from my former congregation, St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oak Harbor. The main reason for the trip was to officiate at a wedding there. Since their interim pastor lives in southern Michigan and drives down twice on weekends - once for a 5:00 p.m. Saturday service and then for Sunday morning - I offered to preach and preside over that worship time. Still, then main reason was for the wedding.
Out of curiosity I went through my little red date books for the nine years that I served there (yes, I still have them in a shoebox in my office closet!). I roughly counted about 47 weddings over which I officiated in the nine years that I served here. That averages about five a year, and I know that the senior Pastor, Bill, probably did about twice as many I did! I have to admit, some of the names of the brides and grooms were not always familiar to me, and there are only a few that I still keep in contact with on social media or in person. Something else of which I am certain, because the statistics bear it out, is that not all of those 47 couples are no longer married. It always saddens me when I hear that because I know that it is God’s intention that marital relationships be for a lifetime, and we pray that they will always be; but they are not. And then, we hear stuff from the Bible like what Jesus says in Mark 10 which seems to be condemning divorce and re-marriage following a divorce, and if you are like me, you wonder how Jesus could be so condemning of so many people?

Well, I don’t think that he is, and here is why. The culture in which Jesus lived was so different than ours that these words cannot, on their surface understanding, be applied to most, if not all, of the divorces and marriages of today. I ask you to consider four things in this matter:

1. The ancient world was extremely patriarchal, and wives were regarded as the property of their husbands. Among Jews, technically only the husband could divorce his wife. In Roman society, a wife could divorce her husband, which explains why Jesus added the admonition to wives who divorce their husbands in verse 12.

2. Marriages were not based on love between two persons but on property, status and honor between two families. They were contracts. Divorce, therefore, could be legally complicated. A whole section of the rabbinic writings called the “Mishnah” was dedicated to this topic.

3. Jews regarded Romans and other Gentiles as having weaker standards regarding marriage, marital fidelity and divorce. However, the exploits of the line of Herods showed that even the Jews were capable of using these things to manipulate political and status advantages.

4. The main Old Testament text for Jewish positions on divorce is Deuteronomy 24:1-4. This is what the Pharisees cite when Jesus asks them what Moses teaches about divorce. This text, however, is most concerned that a woman should not remarry her first husband after she has been married to a second man.

Indeed, our modern models for marriage are quite different than the models in the 1st century in the Middle East, but this passage is still valuable for us today as we consider what it means to live in relationship and community. In Genesis we get the first sign that God’s creation isn’t as “good” as the previous chapter says it was. It was not good that the man should be alone! So, to find a companion suitable we have this rather comical tale of God parading all the animals for this guy, and he doesn’t find any of them suitable. Our English translations say that next God took a rib from Adam … but the original Hebrew claims that he takes his side. God makes a new human out of one of Adam’s sides, thus these are two sides of a whole. We complete each other in our families - whatever those families look like - and that is why it is so difficult when they are torn apart. We become one flesh, and we can feel as if we are losing part of ourselves in divorce, even if that divorce is a result of intense conflict or abuse.
In our Gospel text, Jesus is approached by Pharisees – the religious lawyers of his day – to test him. This is not an opportunity to see where a person stands on a controversial issue; this is an out and out attempt to sabotage someone’s credibility. They ask Jesus if it is LAWFUL for a MAN to divorce his WIFE. Notice that they don’t ask him how he feels about divorce, which camp he is in, whether he leans toward the liberal Hillel rabbinic teachings that say that a man can issue a certificate of divorce to his wife because she has bad cooking skills, or if he identifies more with the conservative Shammai camp which says a man can only divorce a woman in cases of infidelity or other serious immoralities. They merely ask, “Is it lawful?” Period. And there is no way for a person to answer that question without making someone angry with them.

But Jesus refuses to get involved in such a debate and says that if anything is lawful in divorce it is because the Israelites forced Moses into creating this law. God’s laws do not support divorce, separation, or the death of anything (including marriages) in any way. God’s laws from the very beginning are in support of life and relationship and equality in partnerships between human beings, especially those who are married - because we make each other complete. If we love each other strictly by the rules of law, then love ceases to be love! Certainly, there is a measure of law in our loving relationships to hold us accountable to each other, but in our love there is present not only law but also the free gift of grace. Speaking personally as an imperfect husband, father and human being, thanks be to God for the presence of grace so that I may be forgiven and restored whenever I mess up in any of my relationships!

I think that the harshness of Jesus’ words are intended to wake these folks out of their worldview that some people are property, to be legislated, kept or disposed of at the whim of those who are in power over them. Women are not property, and God’s intention from Genesis that husband and wife become as one flesh, suitable partner in life with the person that they marry, is Jesus’ point. And in the last four verses where he welcomes children and encourages others to do the same, Jesus is making the same point. Children are not property, but God’s creatures who are to be loved and nurtured, raised and blessed as gifts from God to mothers and fathers and their families.

We cannot deny that during his ministry, Jesus calls a sin a sin – he knows the law and adheres to it himself as God’s son. Separation and death whenever they happen – especially within relationships that God created and blessed – is never the intention or wishes of God, and it always grieves God when it happens. We live with the consequences of our decisions – good and bad – everyday, and divorce brings consequences for ourselves, our children, our extended families, our finances, etc. AND - in the midst of that reality, the grace of a loving God comforts us in our guilt and says, “I still desire life for you. I still desire healing and joy, peace and healthy relationships for you, so that you may have a partner in life suitable for you. I forgive you and all who fall short in this relationship that caused it to die. Now experience the resurrection of Christ and live in love toward others.”

None all of us can live like Jesus every moment of every day. We all live with the reality of our own sinfulness which often puts strains on our relationships with each other. If we live in these relationships only asking, “Is what I am doing or saying lawful…” we are never at peace with one another. We never experience forgiveness when we fall short. But we DO live in God’s grace and the hope of resurrection of life and of love.
Knowing this, all of us – single, married, widowed, divorced, remarried, however we find ourselves – can experience the blessings of the goodness of sharing life with people around us.

We certainly hope and pray that DJ and Sarah are married for a lifetime. We also know that they will face challenges that will threaten their relationship. The same is true with all relationships - Lucy and I have been married 30 years now, and we still struggle at times. My four siblings have all been divorced and two are remarried. They are happily remarried. One has since passed away, and one is happily single! May God bless all of us in whatever relational situation we are in, with people who love us, and that we can love in return, because we all need companions suitable to each of us as we live out our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.