Mark’s gospel can be a pretty tough read on the best of days, and today is certainly no exception. The Pharisees are trying once again to entrap Jesus by asking him about the law. Jesus knows the law. What the Pharisees don’t seem to understand is that Jesus has come into the world as the interpretation and physical embodiment of the law. Anyway, they ask him about the laws concerning divorce. Jesus’ answer is pretty direct, and I’m not certain that those who are listening are hearing the implied harshness of his comment. The harshness has less to do with divorce than it does with the situations men and women. Jesus says it is because of YOUR hardness of heart… he is talking about men and their hardness of heart; that is why the law allows divorce. But let’s look at that from another angle. Women in the time of Jesus were only slightly more valuable than property to some. While there were some provisions in the law that protected women to some extent, women still depended on the protection of husbands and fathers in society. Likely the part of the law that the Pharisees and Jesus are referring to allows a husband to divorce his wife if she displeases him. Women were not afforded the same courtesy. As we know, when we read the bible, marriage could be forced on women, and so it appears that divorce could also be forced upon them, potentially leaving them destitute and in danger.
There are many who have used this passage in order to further abuse women to this day, saying that Jesus is against divorce. I tend to think it’s more nuanced than that. Jesus realizes the position that women are in in his time and place. If we look at the whole of scripture, we see that to Jesus, women are just as beloved of God as men are; women often have an exalted place in Jesus’ eyes; after all, who is the first to experience the resurrection? And so Jesus makes sure to point out that it is because of the hardness of the hearts of men that allowed men to divorce a wife who displeased them, not necessarily because it was the right thing to do.
Jesus appeals to creation where each was made male and female; let us remember that in the stories of creation, women were the partner, the helpmate, a seemingly more equal relationship than has happened or has been preached about over the centuries. There are many texts in the bible about marriage; some that advocate having many wives; some that advocate being single forever and just about everything in between. We cannot ethically use this or any passage to keep anyone who is in a dangerous situation in that situation. It is mostly women and children who have suffered from advice from their clergy and family to stay in a dangerous relationship. I do not believe that is God’s intention; it is not Jesus’ intention. And I want to be clear; if there is anyone here who is in a relationship that is dangerous to them or their children, please let me help you get to safety. I know of a wonderful woman, who was a wife and mother, who was shot to death by her husband because she didn’t bring him any leftover pizza from dinner.
These words of Jesus fall harshly on our ears, especially if we are divorced, single, unhappily married, gay… whatever our situation might be that might push us out to the margins of society and to the margins of what churches sometimes say about who is in and who is out. It’s hard to find the “Good News” when it appears that the bible itself has pushed us out into the margins.
This text and many others are difficult to get around, and depending who we are and what our experience is, the text can be heard in ways that are isolating and hurtful. Our cultural context is certainly different from the cultural context Jesus lived in. The church’s tradition has attempted to help us fragile human beings to make marriage into an equal partnership between two people who love each other and are prepared to take vows that are between them and God. The vows of marriage in our tradition are solemn vows to “have and to hold, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until parted by death.” And even with the support of the church and a community, even with vows between the couple and God, sometimes, things happen and a marriage is better ended. Let’s face it; we are terrible vow takers. We enter into covenant with God and others with the best of intentions, whether it be baptism, marriage, or ordination… and because we are all sinful people who get distracted way too often… vows are broken, relationships are sometimes ended, and people are left broken and wondering how to pick up the pieces.
I don’t necessarily know what to do with the words today about divorce. They are there. There are lots and lots of things in the bible that fall hard on our ears and hearts. But this is what I think about all of that; we have to read it. We have to read all of it. And when we do that, I think what we experience is good news. Even in our passage today, Jesus once again takes children into his arms and blesses them. Children were certainly on the margins of society. Children were definitely the least of these. Jesus tells us over and over again, that it is to them, to those on the margins, the children, women, the sick, the gentile, the unclean, the imprisoned, the poor… that the kingdom of God belongs. And to prove his point… he became one of them by being crucified outside of town at the place of the skull, a place of death and shame. He was literally on the margins, joining with all of those throughout the ages who have found themselves there. He has blessed and sanctified those places so that we do not have to be afraid and so that we will know that no matter what has placed us there, we are not alone. The darkness of being outcast was not the last word for Jesus. And not matter what it is that makes any of us an outcast is not the last word for us, and that, beloved, is definitely good news