A Community in which All are Blessed

Published: Sunday, 07 October 2018

language of diversityThis sermon was presented at the Ashburton Baptist Church by Geoff Pound on 7 October 2018. The sermon manuscript concludes with some questions for personal reflection and group study.

Scripture Reading: Mark 10:1-16 

Quite frequently, after a service, I get given so many ideas and insights from people. For instance, last week when we were thinking of Jesus welcoming children, someone said afterwards, “You could have talked about the winning West Coast footy players who after their grand final victory yesterday, took their babies and children right into the middle of the MCG to share in the celebrations.” She’s a visitor from WA. I wonder how the ‘Pies’ in our congregation would have warmed to that illustration!

Again, after last Sunday’s sermon on ‘If your hand, foot causes you to stumble cut it off’, another person said, “You didn’t mention the early church father, Origen, who tried to overcome his stumbling habit by castrating himself.” That could have spiced up the sermon. By doing such an act, he could no longer be the Origen of the Species.

There are many Christians who’ve taken that word literally and I’m glad that you’ve got fine skills of biblical interpretation and that ABC today isn’t looking like an Accident & Emergency ward.

In last Sunday’s passage there was lots about cutting off.

In today’s passage Jesus is talking about what God has joined together.

He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.

Mark 10: 1

I love the way that Mark in his Gospel indicates the signposts on the road. He significantly includes the GPS readings for now Jesus is breaking new ground. He’s going beyond. He’s getting nearer to where this journey terminates. He’s calling us into unfamiliar, dangerous territory.

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

Mark 10:2

We’ve been noticing that Jesus asks lots of questions and we’ve talked in recent weeks about the value of asking questions. How can we cultivate an atmosphere in which we’re free to ask the questions that really perplex? How can we be a church that’s free from scolding and questioners are never fearful about being excommunicated or burned at the stake?

The only rider to this, springs out of today’s passage where the Pharisees don’t just ask but literally interrogate Jesus in order to test him. They’re not genuine about exploring the truth. They’re not just picking an argument. These Pharisees are furious that this teacher from Nazareth has developed quite a following and in the midst of the crowd with ears open and microphones ready to record every idle word, they want to nail him.

How do we know that the question of divorce was such a hot potato? Only three chapters earlier we find John the Baptist imprisoned by King Herod because John had told the King: “It’s not lawful to take your brother’s wife.” Herodias, his daughter, was so ropable, that at her father’s birthday party when he unthinkingly promised her whatever she wished, even half of the kingdom. What did she ask for? What did she get? John’s head on a platter. (Mark 6: 14-29).

Leaders have always been tested by their opposition and interrogated by the media but spare a thought for leaders today in this 24-hour news cycle where everyone carries a camera in their pocket and statements can be posted live for all the world to judge.

Two thoughts before we move from their question.

“Is it lawful,” they ask.

Their concern is not about the person cut from the relationship and cast out of the clan. No, they’re more concerned about the law, than the people damaged by divorce.

When Dr. Christine Ford bravely gave her testimony recently to the US Senate Judiciary Committee her story of assault triggered so many painful memories in the minds of others.[1] “Me too,” they said.

I imagine when these Pharisees raised their question about divorce, there were some in the crowd who were stabbed in their hearts, who turned their faces away from the gaze of others.

Even this morning when we’re talking about divorce it surfaces such painful memories from our minds—personal memories and the pain of our loved ones. But these Pharisees playing ‘Gotcha’ don’t care about the human cost. They’re asking this curly question to stand this teacher up on trial.

Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

This question reveals everything about who held the power in that society. It says everything about the vulnerability of women who are divorced and dismissed often at the whim of their husbands.

When we lived in the United Arab Emirates, a marriage could be ended simply by a man saying, “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you.” But the big legal question then was ‘Is it legal to send your wife a text message saying ‘I divorce you’ three times? The answer was ‘Yes’. How callous can you get?

A person asked a Jew, “Why do you Jews always answer a question with a question?”

The Jew replied: “What’s wrong with answering a question with a question?”

True to form, this Jewish teacher replies:

He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”

Mark 10: 3

Good response. Go and do your own homework. It always pays when we’re asked a faith question to ensure that our answer is firmly based in Scripture.

They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 

Mark 10: 4

They knew their Bibles, chapter and verse in the book of Deuteronomy.

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. 

Deuteronomy 24: 1-2

Divorce in the Hebrew Bible was permitted. It wasn’t Plan A. It was a concession. It wasn’t on their minds when the vows were said at the altar but after attempts at reconciliation and pressing the reset button, if a couple is still fighting, if there’s threat and the reality of violence, if children are living every day in a war zone, there’s a provision for divorce.[2]

If this is so, then what’s the question to test Jesus? The real issue is what constituted appropriate grounds for divorce.[3] It’s this phrase:

 

“but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her…”

Deuteronomy 24: 1a

One school of thought[4] argued that the grounds for divorce could be if the wife burned the toast or didn’t have the meal prepared for her husband in time to watch the 6pm news.

Another stricter school of thought[5] believed divorce was allowed only if the wife was unfaithful.

So, Jesus, which school of thought do you support?

But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘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.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Mark 10: 5-9

A man once asked a teacher, “Is it OK to smoke while you are praying?”

“Oh no,” said the teacher. “Prayer must be the whole focus of one’s mind.”

Later another person came up to the teacher and said “Can a person pray while smoking?” to which the teacher immediately replied, “Of course! We can pray at any time!”

Sometimes the answer you get depends on who asks and how you ask the question! We know the forgiving way Jesus treated the woman who’d committed adultery amid the stone throwers (John 8: 1-11) but now he’s responding to his tough interrogators.

Jesus wants these Pharisees to move from abstract legal questions to see real human beings whose lives are at stake. He’s protecting women in all their vulnerability.

To his questioners who have sclero-cardia—hardening of the heart, Jesus wants them to see the heartbreak in a breakup. How devastating were the consequences of divorce for women in those days—the disgrace, the shame on her and the family and the severe economic hardship.

He wants these men to be delivered from quickly dismissing and disposing their chattel, so he takes them back to the Genesis creation account.[6] He wants them to see God’s blessing on their leaving and cleaving. He reminds them that God is in the joinery business, building relationships. Jesus sweeps this inequality aside. He declares the couple to be ‘one flesh’—both equal before God.

Jesus is inferring that divorce involves a ripping of this one flesh and bone and a rending of heart and soul. It’s painful. “Nobody knows better the reality of two becoming one flesh than those who’ve had the experience of that one flesh being torn into pieces.”[7]

Sometimes people take a passage like this and talk about ‘biblical marriage’ as if there’s only one model. But read the heroes of the bible like Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon and we find that a man can have several wives, that if that’s not enough they may take concubines, if they can’t have a child the man can seek out another partner and he can take his sister in law if she is widowed. So many models and then Paul seems to speak of marriage as a way of curbing our passions. He writes, “Those who marry will experience distress in this life and I would spare you that.” (1 Cor. 7:28) Try that as a text for a wedding sermon.

Our expressions of marriage are dynamic. They develop as we have seen in our own country in this last year. It’s also a cheap shot to so glorify marriage that single people are made to feel less or incomplete.

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.”

Mark 10: 10-12

Here’s another sign that divorce was a live issue for the disciples as they later have this in-house conversation.[8] In this statement, Jesus says nothing about the rejected partner in marriage and their remarriage. He seems to be speaking specifically against those who leave their partners for another. These are strong words against those who initiate divorce as a means to get someone else. Sacrificing a spouse to satisfy one’s own desires.

 

He says: “and if she divorces her husband and marries another.” That’s radical. Jesus is giving women a greater equality in the marriage relationship. Women aren’t to be passive objects without a say. It’s interesting that when Matthew records this story, he omits this action by women (Matthew 19:9). It’s too scandalous!

Jesus has been standing up for one group often pushed to the outer. Now he’s standing up for another group:

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

Mark 10: 13

Can you see the parents standing all around? Their children are pushing forward. And the disciples are trying to maintain law and order.

The Pharisees were so keen to dismiss a woman from a marriage, now the disciples are hell bent on sending children away. What is it about discarding the weak and sending the least to the end of the line? What is it about our need to draw the line between insiders and outsiders? Look at the face of Jesus. He is furious.

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, [Jesus says this phrase 14 times in Mark’s Gospel. It indicates that he’s going to make a special pronouncement and what follows now must be underlined and highlighted] whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 

Mark 10: 14-15

We receive God as a little child, with openness, trust and simplicity. We learn today that love trumps legalism. The proud are put on notice. Following Jesus is not about ‘who is the greatest’ but delighting in the ones who have the least power and status.

We finish with a poignant picture:

And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Mark 10: 16

Jesus doesn’t need to say any more words.

So, marvel at his actions.

His grace is so tangible. His blessing is hands on.

Keep pushing forward. Keep coming forward to his table.

Let Christ hold you in his arms.

His love is always available.

His blessing is for all.

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ,

Help us to find ourselves in the story.

When we see ourselves as one of the Pharisees, more interested in testing than genuinely searching, forgive our hardness of heart and the coldness of our actions. Fill us with childlike openness to you and compassion for others.

 

When we see ourselves as one of your disciples, forgive our slowness to understand, our lack of faith. Forgive our concern for rank and control.

Where we identify with the women and the children in this story, come to us in our brokenness, our rejection, the pain of being discriminated against and pushed away.

Help us to know deeply your love, your welcome and your invitation to your table of grace.

May we experience you drawing us to yourself.

Lay your hands upon us and bless us this morning,

Amen.

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study

Scripture Reading: Mark 10:1-16 

10 He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.

Some Pharisees came, and to test him 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.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘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.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 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.

Icebreaker

Mark writes: He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.”

Mark 10: 1

Geoff’s reflection: “I love the way that Mark in his Gospel indicates the signposts on the road. He significantly includes the GPS readings for now Jesus is breaking new ground. He’s going beyond. He’s getting nearer to where this journey terminates. He’s calling us into unfamiliar, dangerous territory.”

How good are you at driving to unfamiliar places? Need a map, the Melways, a GPS?

How significant is the ‘signposting’ and geographical details in Mark’s Gospel?

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

Mark 10:2

Thinking about another question being asked of Jesus and his love for questions, How can we cultivate an atmosphere in which we’re free to ask the questions that really perplex?

How can we be a church that’s free from scolding and questioners are never fearful about being excommunicated or burned at the stake?

The Pharisees don’t just ask but literally interrogate Jesus in order to test him. They’re not genuine about exploring the truth. How do you respond to this manner of questioning when it happens to you? Do you have an example?

“Is it lawful?”

What does this tell you about the concern of the Pharisees?

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

What does this indicate about the society values in the time when this story was recorded?

Where do you see today, evidence of inequality and dismissive behavior?

He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”

Mark 10: 3

What does Jesus teach us about answering curly questions designed to test and trip up?

Divorce, Marriage and Relationships

 

They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 

Mark 10: 4

Here is the text on which their answer is based.

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. 

Deuteronomy 24: 1-2

But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘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.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Mark 10: 5-9

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.”

Mark 10: 10-12

Avoiding the Pharisaical mindset and adopting the Jesus approach, ask the questions and share the insights you have about divorce, marriage and relationships.

Another Group Pushed Away

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.

How does this narrative with the disciples, parents and children connect with the earlier discussion on divorce and marriage?

What does this passage say to you about the community we are called to be?

How exactly do we receive the kingdom of God?

Prayer

Are you or someone on your mind in need of a blessing from Christ at this time?

Turn your insights into prayers of confession and concern.

If you are studying this Scripture in a group, give each other a word and act of blessing before you leave.

 

[1] Christine Blasey Ford, Wikipedia, entry accessed 4 October 2018.

[2] “The point of the law is not whether or not one can get a divorce. The point is that one cannot remarry a former spouse who has been married and divorced by someone along the way. While the passage does not suggest that she—by virtue of having been through a first marriage and divorce—is ‘defiled’ to her second husband, it does suggest that by going through the second marriage and divorce she is now defiled for a repeat marriage to her first husband.” ‘Legal, Intended and Permitted’, Left Behind and Loving It, 30 September 2008.

[3] The parallel passage in Matthew 19:3 poses the matter this way: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”

[4] This liberal school of thought was based on the teachings of Rabbi Hillel.

[5] This conservative school of thought was based on the teachings of Rabbi Shammai.

[6] Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 assumes divorce will happen and it prescribes procedures for carrying it out. Other Scriptures (e.g. Genesis 1:27, 2:24 and Malachi 2: 13-16) call the permissibility of divorce into question.

[7] An adaptation of a comment by Peter Draper after the article by Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman in ‘Commentary on Mark 10: 2-16’, Working Preacher, September 28 2015.

[8] My treatment of this passage is enriched by the article by Matt Skinner, ‘Commentary on Mark 10:2-16,’ Working Preacher October 9, 2009.