A sermon preached on Sunday, October 4, 2015, at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church.  Gospel Lesson: Mark 10:2-16.

I can still remember how my former pastor and boss, the Rev. Jeff Halenza of Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church in Riverdale, Georgia, began a sermon on this text in the early 90’s: “I wouldn’t touch that one with a ten-foot pole.”  Unfortunately for you all today, I don’t remember the rest of that sermon, because I’m sure it was really good.  But what made a lasting impression was the challenge of preaching on this text beyond all other passages in the Gospels.  We follow the Revised Common Lectionary at this church, so the texts are essentially chosen for us Sunday after Sunday.  If the Lectionary can be conceived of as a kind of Liturgical Russian Roulette, this text would be the bullet.

Why is it so difficult to talk about Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and to his disciples in this text?  Well, we’ve all been touched by divorce in one way or another.  A good number among our congregation here have suffered through a divorce and through the death of the marriage that they thought would carry them through their whole lives.  A higher number of us have seen parents, a sibling, or a child suffer through the same.  I dare say that there is no one here whose life and relationships have not been personally and significantly affected by divorce.  It’s all very close to home.  It was even more dangerous to preach about divorce in Jesus’ setting than in the modern one.  Just ask John the Baptist.

And the last thing that divorced persons need is condemnation.  They’ve already been through hell; they don’t need more from the pulpit.  This text alongside a few others have been used by Christians, especially the more conservative Christians, to bully people into staying in bad marriages or to ostracize and shame people who dared to get out of bad marriages.  In other words, Jesus’ pronouncements about divorce and remarriage have been used like law in some churches.  That’s what I would call selective emphasis, the bane of the church’s moral witness for generations.  We elevate failures in sexual and marital morals to an absolute degree, thereby allowing all of our greed, our commitment to our own interests, our competitions, our lack of compassion, our unforgiveness, and our malice to fly under the radar.  That’s not where Jesus would have us go with this text.

But Jesus does clearly seek to challenge us and shake us up – healthfully and salvifically – with his stark pronouncements in this text.  He seeks to help us to shake off the way of thinking that has been carved into our minds and souls from the day we were born and start living in line with God’s holiness, God’s righteousness, God’s love and its limitless possibilities.  Indeed, Jesus’ hardline position here shouldn’t surprise us by this point in Mark’s Gospel.  We have been prepared for this by the episodes that lead up to this one. Let’s just review the last two weeks’ Gospel lessons.

When his disciples start arguing about their relative rank in the group, Jesus insists that getting to the top in his organization means getting down to the bottom and putting oneself most at the disposal of others.  When his disciples want to corral in someone who’s freelancing in their territory, Jesus tells them that there’s no place in the kingdom for being competitive and territorial.  When he thinks his audience is getting soft on obeying God, he tells them that self-mutilation is less severe and more advantageous than sin.  And now he tells people whose business it is to determine when a man can grab the parachute on his marriage that love is always an option instead, and a better one at that.

And he’s going to keep on doing this in the episodes that follow.  An earnest young man wants Jesus’ reassurance that he’s going to inherit eternal life, and Jesus essentially asks: If you really think you’re keeping God’s commandments, why have you kept so much money for your own needs instead of loving your neighbor the way you love yourself?  And once again, for good measure, he will tell his disciples, always trying to figure out which is the alpha male in the group, that it’s the person who puts himself or herself most at the disposal of serving the good of others, not who is most able to impose his or her own agenda, that has the highest standing in God’s sight.

Jesus is not pronouncing case law at any point in these chapters, but he is challenging his hearers’ assumptions and priorities at every turn so that maybe, just maybe, they will discover the “something more” than God has for them and their lives together.  Let’s look a little more closely once again at last week’s Gospel reading as a prelude to today’s passage.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.” (Mark 9:43-47)

If we read today’s passage as “law” and force it upon one another’s marriages, we must be prepared to read last week’s text as “law” as well, with Jesus instituting a kind of self-imposed shariah law upon the church.  I don’t see a lot of Christians abiding by these statements as if they were actual commandments, however, which tells me that we can discern hyperbole.  Jesus’ point in last week’s reading?  Think about how loath you would be to cut off your own hand; think about how difficult that would be even in the most dire of circumstances (Remember the movie 127 Hours?  It took the protagonist that long to screw up the courage to do what he had to do to save his life). That’s how loath you should be to sin.  Reaching out for what God does not have for you, taking a step in the direction that God does not want you to go – these should become even more difficult for you, even less natural for you, than chopping off your own limb would be.

The whole of Mark 9-10, by the way, should really give each of us a “reality check” on our image of Jesus.  This is important, I think, because we want to be sure that we’re following Jesus as he is, not as we have made him in our minds.  Jesus is the friend through whom we can carry everything to God in prayer, but he doesn’t exist just to make our troubles go away.  Jesus, what a friend of sinners – but he also refuses to leave us sinners.  Jesus loves me, this I know; but he also insists that I learn to love as he loves.  And this last point is, I believe, particularly his challenge in today’s Gospel reading.

Now, please, don’t immediately think of the most extreme cases of marriage-gone-bad and use this as a reason not to take Jesus seriously.  Are there marriages that should end?  Of course there are, when one or both parties are committed to causing the other harm.  In such instances, there is a deeper problem in the person or the persons than in the marriage, and the latter cannot be redeemed until the former is.  For them, divorce is not the sin that ends a marriage; divorce ends the sin that their marriage has become.

Many of the marriages that end in divorce, however, do not do so because of abusive personalities or commitment to malice; they end because two people stop liking each other.  They end because two people stop putting each other first.

So we must also allow Jesus also to have his say.  There are a lot of marriages in trouble right now that could be redeemed if the goal of both partners was to learn how to love the other rather than have his or her own needs and wants met. Marriage is the hottest crucible of character formation and spiritual formation.  Sometimes it gets too hot and the crucible has to crack; sometimes the heat does its work of refining, making different people, better people, out of the husband and wife.

The latter’s not going to happen, however, if the guiding questions are: “Am I getting what I want out of this marriage?” “Are my needs being met?” “Is this person still the best option for me?”

These are not only modern questions.  Marital troubles and marital dissatisfaction have been around just about as long as marriage.  Around 200 BC, the Jewish sage and teacher Ben Sira writes:

“I would rather live with a lion or a dragon than live with a bad wife. A woman’s wickedness changes her appearance, and darkens her face like that of a bear. Her husband sits among his neighbors, and he cannot help sighing bitterly….  An ascent up a sandy dune for the feet of the aged – such is a nagging wife to a quiet husband…. A dejected mind, a gloomy face, and a wounded heart come from having a bad wife. Drooping hands and weak knees come from the wife who does not make her husband happy.” (Sir 25:16-23)

Ben Sira’s way out? “If your wife does not go as you direct her, cut her off from your flesh” (Sir 25:26), echoing the same creation text that Jesus recites in our passage.

Conversations among Jewish teachers in the centuries around the turn of the era also revolved around the question, “When is enough, enough?” “When am I justified in divorcing my wife?”  It is true that the Torah acknowledges a provision for ending a marriage: “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….”  (Notice, technically, that the law of Moses does not make this provision; it merely acknowledges it as a practice that it does not affirm, correct, or revoke.)  The conversation in the centuries before and after the turn of the era focus on what the lawgiver meant when he said “because he finds something objectionable about her” (Deut 24:1).  What is this “something objectionable” that makes divorce legally acceptable?  Two rabbis from a few decades before Jesus’ birth reflect the wide range of answers. Shammai, the stricter rabbi, limited the provision to adultery or pre-marital intercourse.  Hillel, the more liberal rabbi, extended the provision to her burning dinner.

Jesus poses an alternative question: Not “When am I justified in divorcing my spouse?” but “What was God’s purpose for this marriage? What are God’s purposes for this marriage today, in the midst of both its challenges and its benefits? What do I need to do, how do I need to change, so that God’s purposes for this marriage come to fruition?”  Remember, I’m not talking about the extreme cases such as show up on Dr. Phil.  But I believe that I am talking about most of the marriages that are not where God would want them to be.  God had a vision for this marriage.  What am I doing that is getting in the way of that vision taking hold for the long haul?  Where do I need to die to self so that something beautiful can come to life?  These are the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves as Christians in every relationship, in every setting, but darn it all if the last place we think to ask ourselves such questions is in our own marriages!  But it’s probably there that discipleship gets most real – or fails to get real.

Some marriages are not going to be redeemed; there is less pain in the world if they are in fact ended.  But a lot of marriages can be redeemed, can be transformed.  Even those that are just coasting by need to be challenged by Jesus’ affirmation of God’s best vision for marriage.  A way forward is, again, to apply to our marriages in particular what the teachers of the Church apply to relationships between disciples in general:

“In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:3-4)

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” (Col 3:12-15)

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you…. Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 4:31–5:2)

Now, today’s Gospel lesson gives us another episode as well.  A smarter preacher would simply have focused on this second paragraph and acted as if the first half of the lesson hadn’t been there at all.  In this episode we see Jesus’ disciples once again missing the point of their role as they try to assume an authority that isn’t theirs: “People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them” (Mark 10:13).  The disciples were trying to regulate access to Jesus, in this instance actually trying to discourage people from bringing other people – here, little children – to Jesus.  Jesus’ response to them is as stern as his response to the Pharisees in the preceding episode: you don’t get to decide who gets to come to me!  If you’re not going to bring people of all ages and every status to me yourselves, then at least get out of the way of the people who are bringing others to me.  It’s a good, brief, straightforward reminder to us as well that our role is not to police who gets to come to Jesus; our task is to bring all, regardless of our assessment of them, to Jesus.  If we find ourselves thinking “we don’t to use up our church’s time or resources or attention on people like that,” that’s a little warning light on our own spiritual dashboard that we’ll want to attend to.  For Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.