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Saturday, October 03, 2009


Mark 10:2-16
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" 3He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" 4They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." 5But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But 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, 8and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." 10Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." 13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But 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. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

A couple comes into my office for pre-marital counseling.
"What is going to be different the day after the wedding," I ask them.
The groom-to-be looks at the bride-to-be with concerned and quizzical expressions.
Their glances silently communicate a dozen questions and declarations all at once:
What is the right answer?
What does he want to hear?
Why didn't you tell me that there was going to be a quiz?
You wanted this guy to do our wedding?
I told you this was a bad idea.

And so on.

What is going to be different the day after your wedding?
The question just seems to hang in the air. An awkward silence.

After what seems an eternity, or perhaps just a moment:
"Everything!" the bride blurts out.
A pause. All eyes turn to the groom-to-be.
"Nothing," he suggests.
They look to me for an indication of approval or disappointment.
Surely, it must be one or the other.
I usually just smile.

Weighing their answers, grooms often feel the need to explain themselves further, lest the bride-to-be misunderstand: “Nothing,” the groom repeats. “I loved her yesterday. I love her today and I’ll love her forever.”
At this point, most brides smile approvingly. We would expect nothing less.

At that moment, I have always wanted to look the prospective groom straight in the eye and tell him that if his marriage is based only upon love that it is in for a lot of trouble.
And I mean that sincerely. A marriage that is based only upon love is going to have a hard time once the honeymoon is over. The Beatles may have once suggested that all we need is love, but without commitment, love will struggle to grow deep. To grow trust. To become more Christ-like rather than fodder for the next reality-TV show. Without commitment, sin stalks a marriage closely and divorce lurks in the shadows. Without commitment - true love, Christian love, sacrificial love, is simply reduced to how I feel about you today. It is a hard-hearted love at best.

I knew a man whose wife had a brain tumor. The operation that followed saved her life, but also changed their life in substantial ways. She could no longer work. Simple tasks and even communicating thoughts or needs, became difficult. She needed him home to care for her. He left his job and did what he could to pay the bills. It was financially, emotionally, and physically draining. I imagine their life was not what they had dreamed it would be the day that they had exchanged their vows. I imagine on the cusp of their empty-nester years, letting go of their dreams for those years, must have been very difficult. And so together they dreamed new dreams. Of spending each day together appreciating the gift of life with one another.

When couples face the reality of what it means to vow to be together “in sickness and in health” it can draw them closer and deeper in their commitment and love for one another or it can leave the marriage on a collision course for divorce. Lots of other things can leave a couple at risk for divorce as well: immaturity, infidelity, emotional, physically, and verbal abuse, a lack of relational skills, failed expectations that run the gamut. The list goes on.

Today’s Gospel may be uncomfortable for a society in which divorce is all too common. Yet even as we hear what we Lutherans call “The Law” that convicts us in our hearts, we also hear the good news of the Gospel offering us hope.

We read:
2Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Jesus provides a somewhat intriguing answer that is much more than it seems. The ELCA’s “Daily Discipleship” tackled this some time ago and aptly points out that “Jesus simply reminds the Pharisees of the teachings of Moses allowing a man to dismiss his wife with a certificate. The key aspect of the response lies is what comes next. Moses allowed divorce due to the hardness of heart, so that wives and children might be protected. It was a way to offset cruel and inhumane treatment of husbands towards their wives when they were finished with them. No longer were husbands to put out a wife like garbage, ostracized from the community and society. Minimally, a certificate would allow a woman options for her future.”

Jesus says that Moses allowed for divorce because people in a failed marriage could be so darn cruel to one another. Before divorce was permitted, men would just abandon their wives leaving them to their fate.

We also note that in Jesus’ day, it was only the man who could initiate divorce. And there was some controversy over this. One school of rabbinic thinking said that the only valid reason for divorce was infidelity while the other said that of the wife does anything that displeases the husband he could write a certificate of divorce and send her on her way. Did she burn the toast? Fail to iron out the last wrinkle in that morning’s tunic? Couldn’t cook mom’s meatloaf just like mom? We wouldn’t have to push our collective imaginations to come up with a list of excuses men might use to send a wife away. Interestingly enough, both schools were interpreting the same passage of scripture. So in either case, divorce was legal. That was not the real question they were asking Jesus. But rather, for which side would Jesus declare himself?

As it turns out, in this case, neither.
Jesus in his answer takes them and us back to the order of creation. One flesh - a man joined to a woman and the woman joined to a man. Not a man over a woman, but the two becoming one flesh. Of the same stuff. That's how Jesus tells us to read Genesis. Those who use the Bible as the means to allow men to dominate women in relationships, marriage or otherwise, fail right here. Christ, himself, elevates women into an equal partnership with men. One flesh means one flesh. This isn’t about sex or only about sex, this “one fleshness” of scripture, but an understanding of creation. It is a misreading of scripture to use the writings of the Apostle Paul on the role of women in first century society to interpret Jesus’ radical vision of what God intended in creation, itself.

Jesus reminds them of God’s intention, not the exceptions of what happens when those intentions fall to be realized. As Christians we should not be shy about lifting up God’s intention that marriage is a life-long equal partnership based upon commitment and a depth of love declared in our vows and best exemplified by Christ’s love for us. And I think that we as the church need to more boldly live out our role as a faith community in supporting married couples in their journey. Few couples enter marriage with a full tool box of the skills needed to face every challenge that life might bring and that is where the church and trained professionals can be of great assistance.

However, when that partnership fails or fails to be established, when harm replaces love and the spiral of further sins and manifest brokenness takes root, when help and attempts at reconciliation bring no relief, then sober judgment and reflection may suggest that the alternative of divorce is the lesser of two sins. For Jesus, divorce is the tearing of flesh, wounding and painful. Yet Christ , we read, did not come into the world to condemn, but to save. Not to harm, but to heal. To bring life-giving grace into a broken world and broken people. When God’s intention for marriage is not realized and flesh is torn, and lives are broken, the cross remains our promise, our hope, our all.
Amen.

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