Harsh words today from Jesus on divorce. Harsh? Or are they rooted in compassion and actually packed with grace? Let us pray…
“God may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight for you are our strength and our redeemer.”
Have you ever been trapped? Maybe in an argument, maybe in a game, maybe in a situation? If you go one way, they’ll get you. If you go the other, something else bad will happen. It’s a terrible place to be. Sometimes we’re trapped in our relationships: Say we have a dear friend who is really in trouble…we want to help them and have all the best intentions, but that means saying some things, telling our truth in a way that can truly upset our friend. If we don’t, we’ll continue to watch them flounder. If we do, we risk hurting or alienating, maybe even losing our friend. Trapped. Telling our truth is hard, being honest with ourselves and with our loved ones is hard. It’s much easier to avoid the difficult conversations, it’s much easier to keep the peace, the status quo, the superficial harmony. But even then we’re trapped.
The question of divorce that comes up so directly in this text today, we have to understand, is an attempt by the Pharisees to TRAP Jesus. They’re trying to back him into a corner. The Pharisees aren’t asking Jesus about divorce with the best intentions. They’re not dealing with their own issues at home, in their own marriages, and looking to their friend to help them sort through the Law of Moses, in order to do what is right. They’re trying to trap Jesus.
We are in a totally different place than the Pharisees when we ask difficult questions about divorce and marriage. We’re wondering what the right thing to do is, the right way to think…
Marriage in Jesus’ day was nothing like marriage today in the United States. Back then, you didn’t meet someone, date, fall in love, get down on one knee, have your favorite song as a first dance, and plan to live happily ever after. Marriage was a business agreement between men: the father of the bride and the potential husband. Romance had very little to do with it. Lust maybe. As the years passed, a married couple might begin to fall in love. But at the outset, the woman was seen as property, an asset gained. I’ve been at a few synod assemblies, namely a couple years back (before 2009), where a resolution would inevitably come to the assembly floor that we “uphold the biblical understanding of marriage.” I think I know what the authors of these resolutions were trying to say, but I would always vote against such resolutions that seek to link marriage to a “biblical understanding”... if for now other reason but...a biblical understanding of marriage is a cold, calculated contract, where women and their voices are completely devalued. Now certainly there were exceptions, but we have to make note of how marriage was seen in the days of Jesus and the Pharisees.
The good thing about marriage for women in that day, was that it meant—not romance and companionship—but protection, legal protection, financial protection, (in some ways) physical protection. It meant safety at one level; another word for that is salvation. You know this: she was the responsibility of her father until a certain age where the father is looking to “marry her off” well. Once she’s married she’s no longer the father’s responsibility. She literally belongs as property to the husband. So a divorce would literally put her out in the cold. [pause] (Today, if a couple gets divorced, either of them could feasibly go back and seek shelter in the arms and the homes of their parents—not so back then.) She can’t go back to her father, because he no longer owns her.
It would be like if you took back a car you sold years ago, and started making payments on it again. [pause]
Harsh, right? Talk about being trapped. So, in that very different context and understanding of marriage and divorce, look at what Jesus does here: First he brings up for the Pharisees the issue of people’s “hardness of heart.” There’s a lesson and a challenge in that for all of us—married or single, straight or gay, old or young, Christian or non. Jesus calls people, especially those in power, to soften their hearts. In our relationships, in our dealings, even in how we look at ourselves. Spark Story Bible... “Love is easy going, love is kind.” Jesus calls us today through this text to be easy going with our love and our treatment of each other—what a wonderful contrast to a stiff, calcified heart. I’ve certainly experienced softness of heart in this community: In our neighborhood, as people show up and speak out and share support in the midst of all this vandalism and racist graffiti and terror. What would it look like to embrace “Christ’s soft-heart initiative” in the coming days — in all our dealings and our relationships and our thoughts?
And then Jesus calls us to responsibilities and back into relationship. He (and Genesis) remind us that we were all created in order to be in relationship. “It’s not good to be alone.” For some, that means we are called into the covenant of marriage. For others: life-long friendships, partnerships, family connections. God’s original intention for us is that we be together. The human being, is the human being-together with another—be it a spouse, a child, a friend, a parent, a pet. All of these—I don’t have to tell you this— are literally life-giving, science has shown. That’s how God intended it. Some congregations are doing a blessing of the animals today: October 4, St. Francis. Next year?
Really what that is, is a celebration of a relationship, a companionship that God has given us with all creation, and a call to be about the work of soft-hearted protection, like a good marriage contract was intended to be back then, creating safe spaces, safe forests, protected deserts and oceans, joyf-illed homes with pets where we’re not always sure who’s taking care of who, right? This is what Jesus is seeking to re-affirm! The blessing of the animals: “May you enjoy life together, as God intended.”
And finally, look at what Jesus does for women, in that brutal context—first, he empowers women to divorce as well, giving them some degree of dignity and power, which they didn’t have. Now women are more free to divorce their husbands, and sometimes that’s definitely the best thing. But not so back then, and Jesus’ mention of it is radical and liberating. And then ultimately he comes down hard on men who divorce their wives, for to do so in that time was to cast another “human being-together” out into the cold alone. Jesus is passionately invested in bringing all people to the center. No one in God’s vision is to be cast out—not women, not children. And Jesus reminds us again of that in the final scene here in our text, where he brings the children to the center and holds them in his arms — it’s a visible image for everyone of God’s inclusivity, God’s soft-heart, God’s freedom and love and joy and peace!
To take this Gospel lesson seriously, is to understand that you are included in the center, in God’s loving embrace, everyone is included in God’s loving embrace!
We are all trapped...in a good way. We are all trapped, you could say, in God’s arms. We are all trapped in our faith, we can never divorce that, because once God has gotten hold of us as God does at the very beginning, we can never break free. And yet we are trapped in freedom — in the freedom that is ours through Christ’s love. Trapped in the promise of the Holy Spirit’s ever-presence, trapped in grasp of grace, this day and for evermore. AMEN.