Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 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. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But 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."
I think the year was 1977. I was sitting beside my mother and younger brother in church. We had just started attending the church. It was shortly after my parents' divorce and I imagine my mother was looking for a little solace. After all, what are churches for if not to help you through the tough times?
As I remember it, the passage we heard this morning must have been assigned for that Sunday so long ago. It was the 1970's and the nation was in the middle of the so-called divorce epidemic. Many people like the preacher that morning were in a panic. They saw the fabric of a society unraveling before their very eyes.
What was happening to the American Family? What was happening to family values? Our families were sacred. Our families were holy.
Very often people like my mother, my brother, and myself were not perceived as people in need. Instead, we were perceived as a problem, something to solve, and if we couldn't be "fixed" we should be cast aside somehow. And thus we were. In the pastor's rant of a sermon all I remember is being called a name I did not understand...
To be generous to the pastor, it was a fearful time for moral leaders like preachers, and families appeared to be coming apart at the seams and a verse like this passage this morning invited a critique. It invited a hard word. It invited a critical accounting. And so it was offered...and deeply hurt and disappointed, we never went back to church. Any church.
So here I am this morning staring Jesus in the face again and it's this verse and I struggle with how to understand Jesus. Jesus doesn't always make that much sense to me.
I'm stuck in my own memory of being hurt. I'm stuck in this memory of being judged unfairly. I remember that morning sitting the in the pew so well...
So, I keep looking at this passage and asking myself...what is happening here in the story? What is the author of Mark doing by placing this story about Pharisees trying to trick Jesus into a debate about family values with the story of the children and the disciples, and (after that) the story of the rich young man? What's up?
When we read the Bible, we are invited to use our imaginations. The stories are so simple that they can seem to beg us to fill in the missing information with our imaginations.
What was the weather like? Was the sun shining? Was it hot or cold? What was Jesus saying that day? The people had gathered around him again. Did they gather because they were curious? Did they gather because they believed he was something special? We can't know for certain, but our imaginations can make the scripture come to life.
People were asking questions. Jesus was usually patient with all those questions. Heck, he loved asking questions himself. Jesus was full of questions.But this day something seemed to go wrong.
"Jesus, what do you think about...?"
"Jesus, have you ever wondered...?"
"Jesus, if one merchant left Jerusalem at 2:00 and another left Cairo at 4:00..."
"Jesus, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"
The kind of questions we ask reveal a lot about us. Our questions are clues to our desires and our fears. The Pharisees wanted to trap him in some legalistic loophole. They wanted to challenge his knowledge, his orthodoxy, if you will.
"Jesus, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"
"I'm sorry? What?" In my imagination, Jesus is incredulous. "Is it lawful to do what? Is it lawful? Well, of course it's lawful, but it's a terrible thing to do to one another."
In my imagination, Jesus asks another question in response, "Why is it that you need so many excuses to throw one another away?"
What is lawful or legal is not always right.
Slavery was once legal in this country.
There are still all manner of legal ways for human beings to kill one another.
Forcing another company into bankruptcy and it's employees into unemployment is legal.
Sure, it's legal. But is it good? Is it right? We have so many ways to cast one another aside. We have so many ways to say to one another, "You don't matter as much as I do" or, "You are too old. You are too young. You're a loser. Go away."
The Jesus of my imagination and, I think, the scriptures is angry. He's vexed. Here are the Pharisees trying to trap him in some political hocus pocus and they miss the real issue that is hidden behind their question in the first place. They had legalized one more way of casting another human being aside and they were looking for a way to do the same thing to Jesus.
There were different issues back in Jesus' day where divorce was concerned. There were familiar yet different stresses on families. There were familiar yet different realities to face when divorce happened. But Jesus' point was rather simple: Stop throwing one another away.
Our story this morning doesn't end there, does it? It continues with this famous scene about Jesus and the children. I think the children are a lot like the crowd from earlier in the story. They would have had a thousand questions. Some would have been shy. Some would have wanted to wrestle. Dirty and uncontrolled, they would have been all over Jesus...clamoring for his attention. Even the disciples struggle with what to do with kids. They are unruly. They get in the way.
“You don't jump on the Son of God! No jumping on the Messiah!”
Or maybe you do...
The disciples, in an attempt to honor Jesus, try to keep the kids from getting to him...to save Jesus the aggravation, I guess. Instead, Jesus takes this as an opportunity to teach the disciples...to show them what it means to not throw one another away...to show them the Kingdom of God.
Maybe you have heard the phrase: "God helps those who help themselves." Well, it's not in the Bible.
Jesus does the exact opposite. Jesus welcomes the vulnerable, the little, the small, the weak, those who we think cannot contribute. Jesus welcomes those who simply cannot help themselves. And the children serve as the perfect example.
You cannot not achieve the Kingdom.
You receive the Kingdom.
It's not about being smart enough.
It's not about being prepared.
It's not about being strong enough.
It's not about being right.
It's not about being rich enough.
It's not about being wise.
It's about being open,
and willing to receive.
The question that the Pharisees asked was about being powerful. It was about being right. It was about being successful. It was about how we often like having our own way even if that means hurting someone else. The Kingdom of God is about none of those things.
And even though marriages might come to an end, we don't have to cast one another aside. Sure, it's legal to do so, but Jesus wants more from us. Jesus always wants more from us than simply to stay within the law. Sometimes the law is inadequate. What Jesus wants from us is to love one another even as our relationships fail...to love one another through the end of a marriage is a way to say the marriage is over without casting one another aside as if we no longer mattered.
To love one another even when we've been hurt, this is perhaps one of the hardest things that Jesus asks of us...to love those who have hurt us, to love one another even as we say good-bye.
Thanks be to God.