A Question and the Question

October 7, 2018 (27th Sunday in Ordinary Time/Proper 22)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Job 1:1, 2:1-10

Psalm 26

Mark 10:2-16

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

 

10:2 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. (Mark 10:2-16, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Sovereign God, you make us for each other, to live in loving community as friends, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, partners and companions.  Give us open hearts to receive your son, that through him we may dwell with you as faithful and committed disciples. Amen.

 

Sometimes a question isn’t really the question.

 

Someone comes to you with a question – but the real question is buried deeper behind the first question they asked… And sometimes it takes a little while to figure out what the real question is.

 

I imagine that we all do this from time to time. For whatever reason – sometimes conscious, maybe unconscious – we want to avoid the real question because it is hard to ask, or it may be uncomfortable to hear the potential answer.  So, instead we try to ease into it by asking something much more manageable. Which is why sometimes the presenting question is not really the question.[1]

 

Take the question that the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce.  Divorce, as we all know is a difficult, it is messy, but it is sometimes a necessary step to end a marriage relationship.  The Pharisees’ question and Jesus response has caused great shame for many people and it has led to the church being a hostile place for those who have gone through the adversity and heartache of divorce and the breakup of a family.  Almost all of us are affected by divorce in one way or another.  We bring our own very personal experience, pain, hurt and heartache on this topic.[2]  So if you are like me when I hear the Pharisees ask this question I cringe.  There are so many layers to the topic of divorce.  But the reality is the Pharisees aren’t really interested in Jesus take on divorce.  It is a question, but it is not their real question.

 

Maybe they’re looking for Jesus to make a controversial statement or choose the wrong side.  In other words, it is a set-up, a test, a trap, a trick to catch Jesus into saying something they can use against him.

 

It is kind of a bait and switch the Pharisee’s are trying on him.  They ask about divorce but what they are really after is about order.  That is, after all, the primary function of the law, to give order and structure to the world and to keep chaos at bay. Laws are structures put in place to protect us in a dangerous world.  The Pharisees believe that Jesus has been flagrantly disobeying the laws and order of society.

 

For example, Jesus was being disobedient by eating with tax collectors, outcasts and sinners, healing those with illness normally attributed to sin; challenging traditions about Sabbath; praising the faith of a Syrophoenician woman and criticizing the Pharisees.   This is why it seems that divorce really isn’t the question.  The Pharisees want to see just how far he’s willing to go.

 

Jesus engages their challenge.  He implies that he disapproves of divorce when he says that divorce breaks God’s desire for human relationships.  Then he gets more specific, saying that a person who initiates a divorce to marry another person commits adultery.  Jesus is more interested in supporting relationships that are built on respect, integrity and shared responsibilities.[3]

 

It is hard for us to completely understand the institution of marriage in the ancient world because it was not built on love like we think of today instead it was primarily a means of ensuring families’ economic stability by producing children and fortifying inter-family alliances.  It was a social contract, an arranged transfer of property more than love or lust.  So, when Jesus talks with his disciples his point is that divorce does not offer a legal loophole to justify adultery. These are strong words are against those who initiate divorce as a means to get something else, sacrificing one’s spouse to satisfy one’s lust, desires or ambitions.

 

Then Jesus goes further and insinuates that the law, all laws were and are intended to protect the vulnerable, the least, the last and the lost.  Divorce for a woman in Biblical times meant that she lost pretty much everything – her status, her reputation, her economic security, everything, because the scales of justice were stacked against her.   So, the law was in place to protect the vulnerable and hurting.[4]

 

Jesus remarks about divorce are not a blanket statement that divorce is always bad or good.  Because he is not speaking to individuals, instead he is focused on the kind of community he wants his followers to be.  In doing so Jesus is inviting us, his followers to imagine communities based on relationships of love and respect, mutual dependence, and dignity.

 

This whole passage, I think, is less about divorce and more about community. But it’s not the kind of community we’ve been trained to look for.   It’s not, a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent.  Rather, it is a community that is open and hospitable, welcoming to the broken, the vulnerable, to those at risk and in need, the least, the last and the lost.  It is the community that we the church are called to be.  A community where all are welcome.  We are not a perfect community that does everything correctly.  We are not a perfect community that lives up to this calling, but we must strive too.

 

He reminds his disciples of this as he admonishes them to let the children come to him. Remember that children were regarded as not being worth the time and effort.  They were to be “seen but not heard,” and they had no importance until they became adults.  His harsh admonishing of the disciples is to underscore God’s intention for all of us God’s children to live in harmony, in peace and to seek understanding and to offer welcome.   In doing so we keep alive the promise of God that began in Genesis that God will gather all of creation together again.  And again. And again.

 

Which is why when we gather in a few moments at Christ’s table it is open for all to come to share in the feast. This Eucharist, this feast of the Lamb of God is a celebration.  At this table we do not deny the evil, the hurt, the pain and the tragedies of the world and in people’s lives. But at this table we come humbly and expectantly before a sovereign God who made heaven and earth and has promised to never, never, never let us go.   So, we come together as a people of faith and we gather around Christ’s table and we are met and embraced by God’s eternal love, grace and mercy and we receive the gift God’s presence in our lives forever and ever. Amen.

 

[1] The Reverend Dr. David Lose, Pentecost 20 B: The Issue, Mark 10:2-16.

[2] Reverend Rob Myallis, Lectionary Greek Mark 10 http://lectionarygreek.blogspot.com/

[3] The Reverend Dr. Matt Skinner, Commentary on Mark 10:2-16.

[4] The Reverend Dr. David Lose, Pentecost 20 B: The Issue, Mark 10:2-16.