Divorce, Grace and Gospel – Mark 10:2-16
Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 4, 2015
Mark 10:2-16 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.’ 7 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 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. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Grace and mercy are yours, now and forever, through Jesus the Christ…
Who wants to switch places with me and preach a sermon about marriage and divorce at this particular time in the United States? Actually, some of you might. There are a lot of us who probably have our elevator speech well-honed and ready. The speech that we could give if we only had 30 seconds to explain our position on any particular topic. We could give that speech and another person would know exactly where we stood. Some of us may have listened to these Bible verses today and thought, finally, we’re going to get somewhere on the topic of marriage. Here’s a bit of a spoiler for you. We’re not. What I’m going to do is start by talking about divorce. That what the Pharisees are talking about. It’s what the disciples are talking about. And it’s what Jesus starts by talking about.
The Pharisees’ ask the question like this, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The lawful part of the question refers to the Law of Moses. The Torah. The question goes after the faithful response to the law. Everybody sitting there knows the answer is, “Yes.” A man could divorce his wife. Women were property. Women were property in the few millennia B.C.E., through the time of Jesus, and in too many centuries after Jesus. It was legal for a husband to divorce himself from his property, his wife.
I have a dear young friend who loves Jesus. He would stop me right here and challenge this cultural reading of the Bible. However, this first century cultural view gives us a stepping stone to Jesus’ answer as we struggle with it culturally now.
The simply answer to the Pharisees’ question is, “Yes.” Thankfully, for me anyway, there is nothing simple about Jesus. Jesus’ response is intense. His intensity fits with other stories about Jesus when people are left vulnerable by other people. First century women had few options. Extreme poverty was the likeliest outcome. When confronted by questions like these, Jesus regularly ups the intensity and response in the answer.
Bible verses like these are called “Law.” Not just because the Law of Moses is being discussed. Although that can be a clue. They are called law because they convict us. It’s as if the text has a finger pointed out of it, at us. If we leave them unexamined, Bible stories such as these become a way for us to see ourselves as okay or not okay, without sin or with sin. Or, even worse, to decide if someone else is okay or not okay, without sin or with sin. The danger comes when the move gets made to who is inside and outside of God’s mercy. Law texts often go unchallenged. As if there is no other response but to convict. As if they answer to no other verses in the Bible but stand along, a law unto themselves.
The Christian church over time has had the same inclination. To designate who is inside and outside of God’s mercy based on interpretation of the law. Jesus’ intense response is one of the classic ways he responds to law questions throughout the gospels. It’s as if Jesus wants to challenge the person challenging him. So you think you’re justified by your reading of the law? Think again. There is always a way to be convicted by law – unmarried, married, or divorced. The overwhelming message is that the law cannot save you. If you attempt to leave someone outside of God’s mercy, there is always one more interpretive move someone else can make after you that will leave you on the outside looking in.
Perhaps we could agree that there is such a thing as being divorced responsibly and there’s such a thing as being divorced irresponsibly. Many of us have witnessed or experienced the spectrum. And perhaps, we could also agree that the pain of broken relationship, including divorce, is not God’s intention for human relationship.
The Bible verses on divorce are followed by the disciples speaking sternly to the people who are trying to get their children to Jesus so that he could touch them. This is pure gospel in these verses. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” This means, in part, that there is no other way to receive the kingdom than as gift. Receiving the kingdom of God is about our need and dependence NOT our perfection in keeping the law. Some people call this grace. Other people call this gospel. When we want to corrupt the law into the final word, the Spirit works through gospel, convicting by the law and breathing out a word of mercy, a word of grace.
This word of grace includes all of us – unmarried, married, or divorced. As it says in First John (1:8), “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
The verses today from the Letter to the Hebrews is quite ecstatic about the gospel of Jesus. I’m right there joining in the ecstatic praise along with the mysterious poetry. The wonder of it all. I am not blind. At least in part, I can see the way my sin hurts me and other people, especially people close to me. I see my need for a savior and am grateful to God who it upon God’s self to be fleshy, and in the world, in the person of Jesus.
Everything we do as a congregation is in service to this gospel – from the sacraments of baptism and communion, to worship and praise, to welcoming each other to worship, to helping our neighbors locally and globally, to educating pre-school children, to turning on the lights, to updating the back-flow prevention in the main plumbing, to being present at hospital bedsides and in quiet living rooms, to printing bulletins, to paying bills, to hanging out with youth, to Bible studies, to making sure the roof is water-tight. Granted, some of these things are by far sexier projects than others. But ultimately, these activities and their associated costs are in service to the gospel or we should just not be doing them.
One of the tasks I get to do as part of my work here is to meet with the Stewardship Committee. The members of the Stewardship Committee work with the congregation on the Christian practice of giving money, time, and skills. Helping us think about our own need to give as a faithful response to the gospel. You should all be so lucky to sit with this group regularly. We laugh a ton. We take money seriously. We take the gospel even more seriously. We laugh some more. We love the congregation of Augustana. All you people. And we each fit into it in different ways and are sent out from it to live faithful lives in the world.
Kim, Nick, Dwight, Andy, and Braxton are interested in helping us keep stewardship simple in the midst of full lives. This is why are four Sundays to turn in your Money, Time & Skills cards during the offering in worship. Next week is the last Sunday. This is why there is a challenge to you to enroll in regular, automated giving through a bank account of your choice since few people are likely to carry money and checks into worship with them. The committee members are open to conversations – both of the easy question and challenging topic varieties. They are available between worship services today and next week. Come and meet them. Talk with them. Teach them something they may not know and learn a little something you may not know.
How am I doing? I just talked about divorce and money in almost the same breath? Are you still with me? These have become tricky subjects in churches because of the well-documented sins of the wider church through time up through today. There is a fragility to the conversations based on these sins. People have been hurt. People already torn and broken by divorce have often encountered a lack of grace from their church. People who have no financial means from which to give have been manipulated emotionally and theologically to do so. These are true sins of the wider church and many of us have personal experience with them.
The challenge as gospel people is to continue to hold the gospel as the main thing. WE don’t always get it right. But grounded in the gospel, we are a people set free in a world hungry for a shred of good news. We gather in worship hungry for this good news ourselves, we remind each other that God’s promises are for us and for the world, and then we are sent our as living, breathing, fleshy reminders that God’s good news is for all. Amen and hallelujah!
[More of the Bible readings from today]
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
2:5 Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. 6 But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? 7 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, 8 subjecting all things under their feet.” Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, 9 but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
Genesis 2:18-24 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” 19 So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” 24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.