19th Sunday after Pentecost

October 7, 2012


The lectionary happens to throw up on this day – the day when St Columba celebrates its 50th anniversary – a Gospel lesson in which Jesus teaches about marriage. Not the obvious lesson for such an occasion, but, in the end, not one that is totally irrelevant either. But we’ll get there in due course.

Meanwhile, here is a seemingly innocent question. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” It is the sort of thing you would want to know, isn’t it. And if you had the opportunity to ask Jesus a question, you might well ask him this one. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” But those who first put the question to Jesus did not want to know, I suspect. It turns out they thought they already knew, and so their motive in asking was probably more sinister.

It was, in fact, the Pharisees who asked the question, a party we know had already decided the fate of Jesus seven chapters earlier in Marks Gospel. He must die. But how to bring about that outcome? And it was this problem that suggested to them the question. It is a no win question. Actually there are others. Think, for example of the question “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” If Jesus said no, he would be guilty of inciting rebellion against the Romans and that would mean almost certain death. If he said yes, pay taxes to Caesar, he would be cast in the mind of his fellows as a collaborator and a traitor, and likely the same fate only at different hands. You see what I mean, a damned if you do, damned if you don’t sort of question. And here is another one. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Suppose he says yes. But he has already spoken about the serious and inviolable nature of the marriage bond. He has previously declared that if a man so much as looks at a woman lustfully, he has sinned. How could he then approve of divorce? But suppose he says no, it is not lawful. Then the risk is serious. For a very high profile divorce case had recently hit the news. King Herod himself had married his brother’s wife. And the last person to stand up and say it was wrong was John the Baptist, and John the Baptist was now a man without a head. It was a dangerous business – a devil and the deep blue sea sort of question, a rock and a hard place dilemma.

So I don’t think they really wanted to know the answer, but I am very pleased they asked the question, because the answer Jesus gave is his clearest teaching, not so much on the subject of divorce, as on that of marriage.

“What did Moses command you?* he asked. And this is why I said that they thought they already knew the answer. Because they were ready with an answer based on Deuteronomy 24. On the basis of this, they declared, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” Now if you read the chapter in Deuteronomy, you will see that what they claim is not strictly true. What Moses actually said was that if a man divorced his wife he must be sure to give her a certificate of divorce to establish her rights, and if a man divorce his wife and she marries another, the first man can’t take her back again. But Jesus let the inaccuracy pass, because he was going to explain the distinction in a different way.

OK, let’s say that is true, that Moses recognized that divorce happens, it is a fact of life. What does this tell you? It should tell you that on the one hand there is the way things are; and on the other hand there is the way things are meant to be. And these are two different things. Look around you. We get concerned over weapons of mass destruction. But in truth there shouldn’t be any weapons, any soldiers any defense, because war and fighting do not belong to the world as God intended, as it is meant to be. There shouldn’t be any policemen, any speed cameras, any law courts or prisons, because crime is a human distortion of the world God designed. There shouldn’t be any fences or borders or passports or interpreters, because God did not conceive an earth portioned up by mutual distrust. Strictly speaking there shouldn’t be any spectacles, dentures, wheelchairs, any doctors or nurses, no cemeteries or memorials, because sickness and death belong to a species which invited them in with their sinfulness. And since I have done away with just about everyone else’s job, there probably shouldn’t be any priests or ministers either. Because they have to do with mediating the grace of God to a people estranged in their rebellion, when God intended that we should live immersed in the love of God without need of any means to bring it to us. So you see, there is the way things are and then there is the way they are meant to be. Divorce belongs to the first and not to the second. Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” Just because the breakdown of marriages and their undoing is a reality, it doesn’t make them right. And then he goes on: “But from the beginning of creation, `God made them male and female.’ `For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.” And here he quotes Genesis chapter 2. That is supremely significant. And the reason it so significant is because chapter two comes before chapter 3. Chapter 3 tells of the fall into sin. But this is before that. Male and female, leaving father and mother, being joined to wife, becoming one flesh, marriage, in other words is there before the fall. The traditional wedding exhortation from the Book of Common Prayer refers to marriage as an estate instituted by God in the days of man’s innocence. That is to say, it belongs, not only to the way things are, but also to the way things are meant to be. What else is there like this? The creation tells of how God provided animal, vegetable and mineral – in reverse order. He made the earth and seas and plants and trees and animals and humans, the physical components of the world. But I can’t think of one other thing that he made or instituted along with the creation, except this one – marriage. So this is the way it is meant to be, what God has joined together, let not man separate. This is often the way it is, what God has joined together, man separates. Not the same thing.

And what is the difference between the two? Jesus condensed it into this one phrase – the hardness of your heart. This is the thing that has undone the intention of God. This is the root of fightings and crime and sickness and death and everything else that was not meant to be. And this is the cause of divorce and infidelity and adultery.

So, when they got home, the disciples asked Jesus about this. I suppose they still wanted to know the answer, is divorce lawful or isn’t it? For I expect they understood the importance of the question.

It’s not that it concerns a more serious sin than any other sin, because all are equally serious in that they bespeak our alienation from God. But the unique feature about divorcing one partner and marrying another is that one is committing oneself to a life. If it is unlawful, then it is unlawful for life – it is indeed living in sin. It would be a life lived in denial of repentance. But perhaps they already realized that there was a flaw in the question. Is it lawful, is it OK? No, it’s a disaster. Is it lawful to have weapons and armies? Is it OK? No, it’s not OK, it’s a tragedy. But, you see, this is not the world as it is meant to be. So, in fact, Jesus confines his comments to one simple principle about being married for a second time: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Is it lawful? No. Is it forgivable? Yes, surely it must be in the contrite heart of the repentant person, realizing they are not as they are meant to be, but trusting in Jesus for forgiveness, life and salvation.

And to this note of Gospel the narrative quickly turns. Suddenly amid this serious moral debate, there are children. “And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them”. But children can be irritating beasts, and so the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

It is as if the whole scene were turned back to, how did the Book of Common Prayer put it, “the days of man’s innocence.“ For children know nothing of adultery and divorce, except as their victims. And they know nothing of other grown up things, like doubt and disbelief – they trust and have faith. I think sometimes that may be why they do irritate adults. The baby bawls out its demands in the expectation that milk will come. Children are like the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet their Father feeds them. The inert teenager reclined on a sofa amidst a messy room simply believes that it will be done, that order will be maintained and meals will arrive.

“And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” The child receives without effort, and the child trusts completely in the hand that feeds it. So we too will enter the kingdom of heaven as a gift of God, without effort or worthiness on our part, simply trusting in our Saviour. And in the kingdom of heaven miracles of restoration happen. Things that are not as they are meant to be can be put back. Here God reaches out to broken people in damaged relationships. And he takes them in his arms and blesses them.

Now for 50 years this congregation has stood in the midst of a world that is not as it is meant to be. This is a world of sin and of sinners – broken people, broken relationships, people who are strangers to God.

The church might, of course, try to shut out the sinful world, to close its door on sinners, to turn its face from the brokenness that is humanity. But fortunately it never did that. And here we are, the living proof, a bunch of sinners welcoming each other to the grace of God and to forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Fifty years of it! There is nowhere like it, and it is wonderful. I rejoice with you in your celebration and I thank you for welcoming me to join in it.

We don’t know what the next fifty years may hold, if the Lord allows the world that long. But I pray that God’s love would shine out from here for as long as he grants life to the world. And in eternity we will rejoice together. Amen



Bible References

  • Mark 10:2 - 16