When Jesus talks about divorce, he is not talking about divorce

Mark 10:2-16
Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 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. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

When I was 7 or 8 years old, I remember the first one of my friends telling us that his parents were getting a divorce. It was a strange and complicated situation. Over the following weeks and months, he began living one week with his mom and one with his dad. And while there were two birthday parties, two thanksgivings, two Christmases, I could tell that having parents who didn’t live with each other anymore and having to move your whole life back and forth every Saturday was not something I would ever want.

And then when I was 19 years old working as a camp counsellor, we got a panicked call from the camp director to our group of counsellors during our hour off. We were needed to come and settle a group of unruly campers. The old pastor who was doing bible study with the group of high school aged campers, had gotten into a heated discussion with one teenaged girl over whether or not it was a good thing for her parents to divorce. He was insisting it was a sin. She was insisting that the fighting, and anger and frustration that was tearing apart her family had finally gone away once her parents separated and that this was a good thing.

Despite being relatively common and something that many couples experience these days, divorce is still a word that carries stigma and shame. The wounds of divorce can be deep and slow to heal.

So, when we hear Jesus offer some pretty strong words about divorce, it can sound like condemnation. “Because of the hardness of your heart.” he says… and yet ask anyone going through a divorce what their heart feels like and they will probably tell you the story of a heart being ripped to shreds, a wounded and broken heart. Not a hard one.

So what is the deal? Doesn’t Jesus get how messy and complicated this is? Doesn’t God have compassion and mercy for two flawed people who don’t know how to find their way back to each other? Can’t Jesus see that sometimes a marriage needs to die for the individuals in it to live?

We can’t forget which Gospel we are reading today. This is the Jesus who has called the Syrophoenician woman a dog, who has called Peter Satan, who has told John that it would  be better if he were dead than get in the way of Jesus’ mission.

Jesus in Mark’s gospel does not suffer fools and he doesn’t have time for people who don’t get it.

So what are we not getting?

For a long time the church has used this passage to clobber anyone considering divorce. Pastors have told abused women that it would be a sin to leave their husband. We have told incompatible couples that they must continue to suffer together. The church has forbid divorce on any grounds, just like Jesus seems to be doing here.

So again, what we are not getting that Jesus gets? The clue is in the in the question. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Not is it lawful for a couple to get divorced, but for a MAN to do the divorcing.

The Pharisees and Jesus are not talking about marriage as we know it. This is not about two people who enter into a loving covenant to share a life of love together.

This is about the contract between a man and a woman’s father. This is about men buying women just like they would buy a cow or a sack of grain or a piece of land.

In the world of the Pharisees, women were not people. They were property. Property whose function was to serve and provide pleasure for the man, and ultimately provide a male heir. And if these things were not provided whenever the man wanted them, this was grounds for divorce. In fact, pretty much any dissatisfaction was grounds for divorce.

All man had to do was say, “I divorce you.” and his wife was cast out of the marriage and onto the street, where her only two options were prostitution or begging for survival.

So when Jesus calls the Pharisees hard of heart, he is speaking of a power imbalance in a contractual and economic relationship. Not hardness of heart between a modern husband and wife.

Jesus is calling out the Pharisees for being selective in their reading of the law of Moses. They say that the legal procedure of divorce is simple. But they know that the law of Moses is full of concern for widows and destitute women. It was the duty of a widower’s brother to marry a widow. It was the duty of a widower’s kin to provide a widow with children if she didn’t have any. And if re-marrying was not possible for a widow, it was the duty of the community to care for her. The men harvesting fields were to leave a portion of the harvest behind to be gleaned and collected by the widows. It was a law that a portion of the offering collected in the synagogues and temple be given to the widows and poor.

For a set of laws to be so concerned with the care of husbandless women on a community to make it so easy for a man to divorce his wife doesn’t make any sense… it is a deliberate misreading of the rules.

And Jesus knows it. The Pharisees know it. The disciples know it. Mark knows it.

It is why the passage about people bringing children to Jesus is tacked onto this passage about divorce.

Jesus is calling the people around him to care for the weak and vulnerable among them. He is telling men that it is wrong to dump their wives onto the community to care for. He is telling those in power that they don’t get to abdicate their responsibility to care for the powerless. Jesus is calling out and condemning those who would tell the weak and vulnerable to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. He is telling those in authority that their power comes with the obligation to use it for good.

If Jesus were to have this conversation with us today, it would not be about divorce at all.

If Jesus were talking about our hardness of heart he would be calling us out for very different reasons.

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you condemn women in niqab’s at citizenship ceremonies.

Let those are who taught to believe to hide their face in this world come to me because the Kingdom of God belongs to them.

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you will not call for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

Let those who are lost and forgotten by the world come to me, for the Kingdom of god belongs to them.

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you are afraid of refugees.

Let those who, because of persecution and strife, have to flee their homes come to me, for the Kingdom of God belongs to them.

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you let vulnerable children fall through the cracks of underfunded child welfare systems.

Let the children who are forcibly taken from their homes, who do not have the care and support they need come to me, for the Kingdom of God belongs to them.

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you have told married couples on the ropes that their need to divorce is a sin.

Let those who dying to separate in order to live come to me.

Yeah… it is hard to hear Jesus challenge the hard places in our hearts.

Yeah… it has been rough to listen to Jesus call us out week after week.

Yeah… this might not feel like good news.

And just when it feels like Jesus has just come to stomp all over us for having hard hearts, Jesus reminds us that we easily forget who we are, and we easily forget what Jesus is doing for us, to us.

Today, Kinsley will be brought forward to the baptismal font. She will be held by her parents. The pastor’s voice and hands will say the words and hold the water. We will all make promises.

But Jesus will be the one blessing her. For hers is the Kingdom of God.

And just as Kinsley is the little one brought to Jesus, so also are we. We are all the little ones who have been brought to Jesus to be touched and blessed. To be washed and forgiven. To be named and claimed as children of God.

And because it is Jesus doing the blessing, baptized is now not something we were, but something we become. Washed once, children of God forever.

Yes we have hard hearts. No we have not lived up to the power and responsibility we have been entrusted with.

Jesus names that and it is hard to hear.

But Jesus names us the little children too.

Despite our hard hearts. Despite what we have failed to do for the weak and vulnerable, Jesus says, come to me. All of you. Because you too are the weak and vulnerable. For because I have named you my children and the Kingdom of God belongs to you.

Amen. 

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14 thoughts on “When Jesus talks about divorce, he is not talking about divorce”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing! I can relate to a lot of this. My husband and I were a week away from our divorce being finalized with three kids and the continuous prayers from our church family were answered. We are back together and God is doing wonderful things in us. Praise the Lord!!

    Liked by 2 people

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