Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 7, 2018
Mark 10:2-16 Commentary
Digging into the Text:
Once again, this text is complex; it deals with two quite different issues. The first pertains to the issue of marriage and divorce, the second on the childlike way in which disciples “receive the kingdom.” At first it may seem that they are connected because marriage and children typically go together, but the second section is not really about children in the context of family life as about the nature of discipleship.
I imagine that, if given a choice, most preachers would choose the second part of the text. The picture of Jesus with little children in his arms us much more attractive than dealing with the thorny issue of divorce. Choosing which section of the text to focus on will involve considering the real needs of your congregation, not what seems most comfortable for the preacher. Another consideration might be that that the reception of children was a theme in lectionary text just a few weeks ago, although with a somewhat different point.
Again, the Pharisees confront Jesus with a trick question. The purpose is likely that they can catch Jesus on the horns of a rabbinic dilemma regarding divorce. This is especially clear in the parallel passage in Matthew in which the Pharisees’ question is slightly different: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?
The law of Moses allowed for divorce if a husband found something “objectionable” in his wife. (Deut. 24: 1-4) The school of Hillel interpreted this to mean that a man could divorce his wife for practically any reason, while the school of Shammai held to a stricter interpretation, that adultery was the only ground for divorce. In Matthew’s account, then, the Pharisees apparently want to see which tack Jesus would take.
But the question in Mark is much broader, “is it lawful to divorce?” Although Jesus does deal with the particular issue of reasons for divorce his private talk with the disciples. So, as Mark sets it up, the first big question is the legitimacy of divorce in any circumstance.
As he often does, Jesus asks them to give their answer before he gives his own. “What does Moses say?” they reply that Moses allowed for a certificate of divorce. Note again that the grounds for the divorce are not in question at this point. Jesus now does something that is familiar to anyone who has read the Sermon on the Mount. He looks behind the legal requirement to the deeper issues involved.
For Jesus the real question is not whether divorce is allowable, but what is marriage? Yes, the law of Moses allows for divorce, but this is only because of “your hardness of heart.” In other words, it was a concession to human weakness. Better to look at God’s purpose for marriage in the beginning, and Jesus then quotes the immortal words from Genesis, ‘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.” Jesus then uses these words to define the essential nature of marriage. “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus is clear: the marriage covenant is inviolable; it is a life-long commitment.
Before going into the issue of divorce, and when it might be allowable, it is important to make this point very clear. God’s will and purpose for marriage is that it be a life-long, unbreakable, commitment, a sacred covenant. Marriage is not an experiment to see how it might work out; it is a holy bond intended for human flourishing. The words of the marriage ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer make this clear.
The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.
Of course, in most congregations there will be people who have been divorced, and children who have been traumatized by it. We should certainly bear in mind how they will feel when reminded of this life-long commitment. But this must not prevent us from gently but firmly proclaiming God’s beautiful and crucially important will for marriage. Even though we may sometimes fail to uphold it, we must never downplay the beauty of God’s purpose in marriage, and the tragedy of its violation in divorce.
Later, Jesus and his disciples are alone in a house, and the disciples continue to question Jesus about marriage and divorce. In a compact and clear statement, Jesus now addresses the question of the grounds for divorce. Remember that the law of Moses, and even its most conservative interpretation, allowed for divorce because of adultery.
While the Pharisees, quoting Moses, had only addressed the prerogative of men in divorce, Jesus now addresses divorce from the perspective of both men and women. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her….” Here, Jesus peels back the curtain behind the Jewish practice of divorce. Men who divorce their wives in order to marry another woman are simply committing serial adultery under the cover of the law.
Then Jesus levels the field by addressing women as well. “[A]nd if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Jesus point in both cases is that we must begin with God’s will on the inviolability of marriage. All divorce is wrong in God’s eyes because marriage is meant to be a life-long union.
This can be understood in two ways. One is that any divorce and remarriage is adultery. Does that mean that divorce without remarriage is acceptable? That is hard to believe given Jesus initial claim that all divorce is contrary to God’s original design for marriage. The discussion also assumes that remarriage is inevitable in that culture.
The second understanding is that Jesus is simply upholding God’s original design for the inviolability of marriage by saying that all divorce and remarriage is adultery. He is not discussing whether there are legitimate reasons for divorce, but rather, he us upholding God’s intention for marriage. I think that Jesus intends this second understanding, since it fits with his original statement.
Taken as a whole, then, Jesus is simply making the point that any discussion of grounds for divorce fails to take into account that divorce is simply wrong in God’s eyes. But what do we do with that when there are, undoubtedly, people in your congregation who are divorced for whatever reason?
The point seems to be that divorce betrays our human “hardness of heart,” our sinfulness and weakness. The message here in Mark is not to parse out various proper grounds for divorce, or portray divorce as a “good” thing, a positive development. It’s simply wrong, it’s destructive, it hurts people, and it violates God’s will.
But divorce happens in fallen human life, and in churches, for all sorts of reasons from spousal abuse to adultery. And whatever the reason, it calls for repentance and a renewed commitment to God’s will in marriage. “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”
People should not come away from this sermon calculating whether their divorce, or someone else’s was properly grounded, but with the realization that divorce is always a violation of God’s good and perfect will. At the same time, divorced people should come away from this sermon with a deep sense of God’s grace and forgiveness, and all listeners with a renewed commitment to the covenant of marriage.
This is the second time Mark comments on how Jesus uses children as an example of Kingdom life within a few verses (9: 36-37). In the earlier passage the disciples have been arguing about who is the greatest, and Jesus uses a child an an example of humble discipleship. In the Kingdom of God greatness is measured by service, and the acceptance of a child is a telling example of that servant mentality.
In today’s text, Jesus action is more personal and poignant, and his point is somewhat different. People were bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing, and the disciples seemed to think that it was wasting Jesus’ time. Jesus is indignant at the disciple’s attitude. “Let the children come to me, do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.”
The point is not that children are cute and cuddly, though they certainly are. The disciples’ impatience with blessing the children came from their cultural viewpoint. Children were simply regarded as not being worth time and effort. They were to be “seen but not heard,” and had no importance until they were adults.
Jesus’ point, therefore, is not just that children are important and worthy of our attention, but that the Kingdom of God belongs to “such as these.” The Kingdom of God is a place of welcome for the nobodies, the weak, the fallen, and the forgotten in society.
Preaching the Text:
1). Preaching at its best is a form of pastoral care. This text offers an opportunity for churches to promote and foster healthy marriages, and in the case of divorce and remarriage to extend compassion and facilitate healing.
As mentioned above, in preaching the section of the the text on marriage it is important to carefully consider how this is going to be heard by various people in the congregation. In most congregations there will be those who are divorced for various reasons and with various outcomes, many of whom will still be conflicted over the experience. There will be children of divorce of various ages, from traumatized young children to hurting adult children.
Yet, no matter what experiences people bring, whether painful memories, or a feeling of the necessity of the divorce, or even the liberation it might bring, everyone can affirm the beauty and blessing of the life-long marriage covenant as ordained by God.
The key is to make sure that Jesus is not out to condemn divorced people, but to instill an understanding of the blessedness of marriage, and to deepen our commitment to it. You may also want to emphasize that in any divorce there is some fault on both parties. The work of recognizing those faults, and repenting of them, can often enable people to move on in their lives.
You might remind your congregation that any marriage can grow stale and rigid. The high of romance seldom remains hot. Marriage is work, blessed work, but work. It is one of the best laboratories to learn the hard work of self-giving love.
One suggestion I’ve practiced and recommended to others is to get a regular marriage “checkup,” just like you go to the doctor for a yearly physical. Seeing a marriage therapist together for a few sessions every few years can do much to correct bad habits creeping in as well as rekindle the fires of romance.
There are lots of books and movies that portray dysfunctional marriages, but few that offer an anatomy of a good one. I recently read William Kent Krueger’s “Ordinary Grace” which pictures a marriage beset with enormous difficulties, and yet commitment, trust, and love enable the couple to emerge wounded but with a deepened love for each other.
2). I recall singing a simple Sunday School song as a child, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” The second section of the text regarding children provides an opportunity to comment on the ways in which our society, and others, tends to respond like the disciples. So many children are condemned to degrading poverty, inferior schools, and parental neglect. How does the church, which represents the Kingdom of God, advocate for these children whom Jesus loves so dearly?
Note: CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018.
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