Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 4, 2015
Mark 10:2-16 Commentary
Comments and Observations:
“Is it OK to smoke while you are praying?” a man once asked a wise old abbot. “Oh no,” the abbot replied. “Prayer must be the whole focus of one’s mind.” Later another person came up to the abbot and asked “Can a person pray while smoking?” to which the abbot immediately replied, “Of course! You can pray at any time!”
Sometimes the answer you get depends on how you ask the question!
Taken all by itself and out of context, Jesus’ words about divorce and re-marriage in Mark 10 are troubling. They are troubling because they seem devoid of the grace Jesus usually exuded. Jesus’ grace shined the brightest, in fact, when he was faced precisely with people caught in adultery, with a woman married five times and now living with another man, with prostitutes and tax collectors and . . . well, you get the picture.
Thus it’s a little hard to imagine a woman coming up to Jesus, explaining that her first husband beat her mercilessly such that she ended up being divorced from him only to have Jesus look at this poor soul and say, “You are now living in a perpetual state of sin so long as you remain divorced and if you ever even think of marrying some other person—no matter how fine a man he may be—you will then double-down on your sin and live in a perpetual state of adultery. Have a nice day.”
At the same time, there is no denying that Jesus said something exactly like this in Mark 10. But to what question was he responding? Well, it wasn’t some earnest question of “Lord, is there grace sufficient for one such as I?” Jesus was not responding to a hurting person. Instead he was responding to people who over the years had become experts at splitting some of the finer hairs of the Law of God. He was responding to people who were trying to trip him up, to trap him in one or another interpretation of the Law, either of which could land Jesus in hot water. In short, he was talking to people who treated the Law not like the divine gift Jesus views the Law to be but to people who treated the Law like a poker chip or a football—the whole thing to them had become a kind of sick game.
Donald Juel once pointed out that there was sharp disagreement in Jewish circles as to when a divorce was permitted. Deuteronomy 24:1 permitted this (initiated only by the husband, however) in case there was “something objectionable” about the woman or the marriage. One school of thought said that this unspecified “something” was infidelity only; another school of thought interpreted it more broadly to include any number of things. By asking Jesus where he came down on this issue, the Pharisees were trying to peg him within their broader religious tradition (and so inevitably hoping that Jesus would enflame one side or the other, helping to build their case against him).
As was his custom, Jesus did not want to play. It reminds me of the last scene in the Harrison Ford movie Clear and Present Danger when the President of the United States urges Jack Ryan—the hyper-loyal and ethical CIA agent played by Ford—to engage in a cover-up of some recent illegal actions taken by the administration. As the President explains how this works in Washington, he says “It’s the old Potomac two-step, Jack” to which Ryan replies, “Sorry, Mr. President. I don’t dance.”
Jesus looks at the Pharisees and says, “Sorry, boys, but I don’t dance.” Instead Jesus turns the tables on them and cuts to the heart of the matter when it comes to marriage: the story of creation. As most of us know, outside of Genesis 1-3, the exact details of the Adam and Eve creation story rarely get mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. But here is one of the most prominent such references to that story, and Jesus uses it to make a powerful point: marriage (or its dissolution) is not to be treated like some parlor game for clever ethicists and lawyers to bat back and forth in casual and speculative conversations. Instead this goes to the very heart of the way God made us as male and female. This is a beautiful thing and a mysterious thing and the fact that anyone could talk about its demise in some academic way only shows how far people have fallen from their created goodness.
Jesus talks tough here as a way to catch the attention of people who thought this was just a game, just a way to be clever in legal wranglings of various sorts. Jesus essentially tells them “This is as serious as it gets, folks, and shame on you for not seeing that to begin with.”
Now let’s be clear: also for Jesus this reply was not just a rhetorical trick to pull the rug out from underneath his too-clever-by-half religious interlocutors. Jesus is right about marriage and right about how tragic the consequences are when marriages end (for whatever reason they end). Yes, divorce makes it possible to take one flesh and separate it back out into two again but seen from God’s angle, that process is a ripping and rending of flesh and bone, of heart and soul. It’s painful. In fact, it is inevitably painful when you realize what marriage really is.
These days whether it’s the casualness of the Kardashians or the “predictable” end of the union between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, it’s hard to find too many people who see the tragedy of it. Some divorces elicit even from many Christians no more than a shrug and a “Well, whaddya expect?” reaction (even as for many other people the swift demise of a Kardashian-like union becomes the rollicking source of many a late-night TV show stand-up comedy routine).
Yes, there is forgiveness for all sins and tragedies in life, and Jesus would not for a moment have denied that had he been asked a different question. And yes, we as pastors need to be pastorally sensitive in preaching on Mark 10 lest we single out for scorn the divorced in our midst in a way we never single out the greedy or the angry or those for whom gossiping is a way of life. Even so, however, in a culture that also treats marriage and divorce with all the seriousness of changing one’s socks or buying a new car, it would hardly be the worst thing in the world if we let Jesus get in our faces a bit even as he got in the faces of the Pharisees and company in Mark 10 to remind us of the profound creational beauty and mystery that lies at the heart of every single married couple in the church and how awe-filled and serious we all ought to be about precisely that reality.
Mark 10 contains a number of incidents that are easy to separate out from one another and treat in compartmentalized ways. But in the Greek of this chapter, Mark continually strings these sections together with the word kai, letting us know that the conversation on divorce and the incident with the little children and the arrival of the young man are all actually connected to each other. Each flows into the next and all comprise a single unit. We impoverish our interpretation/exegesis of any one of these sub-sections of Mark 10 if we do not bring them into dialogue with all the others.
In Frederick Buechner’s novel The Final Beast there is a scene in which a member of a congregation is begging the pastor to declare forgiveness to a deeply disturbed woman in their church. The pastor replies that the woman already knows that he, the pastor, has forgiven her, to which this other member replies, “But she doesn’t know God forgives her. That’s the only power you have, pastor: to tell her that. Not just that God forgives her for her poor adultery. Tell her that God forgives her for the faces she cannot bear to look at now. Tell her that God forgives her for being lonely and bored, for not being full of joy every day in a household full of children. Tell her that her sin is forgiven whether she knows it or not, that what she wants more than anything else–what we all want–is true. Pastor, what on earth do you think you were ordained for?”
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