Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16
The Pharisees know the answer to the question they pose to Jesus. Hence, this is a test, a test of whether or not Jesus abides by the Torah. Is Jesus law abiding or not? The question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” has a definitive answer made explicit in Deuteronomy 24. The answer is yes. It is lawful for a man to divorce his wife and the grounds for putting a certificate of divorce in her hands are broad. Deuteronomy seems rather matter of fact about it. If the wife doesn’t please her husband or he finds something objectionable about her she can be sent off. The debate that follows in those verses isn’t about divorce, it is about remarrying that same woman after she’s been married and divorced to and from another man. The Jerry Springer Show has nothing on the scriptural narrative.
Given that the question is a trick one and the answer is a given (the Pharisees recite the answer in verse 4), the real heft of this text comes in red letters, in Jesus’ words of response. What does Jesus say to this set up? In the language of Samuel Wells, Jesus overaccepts. Wells, writing about Christian ethics and using the language of improvisation, posits the idea that Christians, the church, should not only “accept all offers” but “overaccept” all offers. He contends that this is what Jesus does, especially in the face of offers that are indented for ill or evil. He writes in his book, “Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics,” that “The story narrated by the Gospel writers is one long story of overaccepting. In the annunciation and the nativity, God overaccepts human life. He does not reject his people, nor does he simply accept them: instead he comes among them as a Jew…Jesus does not avoid the cross, nor is the cross the end of the story. In the resurrection, God shows that even the worst offer, the execution of the Son of God, can be overaccepted — even death and all its causes can become part of the story.”
In the case of this exchange with the Pharisees, Jesus does not reject the law, nor does he let that law stand without interpretation in light of the present and coming Kingdom of God. Jesus overaccepts the scenario the Pharisees put before him: “Yes, a man may divorce his wife. God recognizes that human beings fall short of ideals and makes allowances for that reality. But that’s not the end of the story. There is more at stake here than the rules of who can divorce and marry whom. The heart of the matter is valuing the covenant and those within it.” Jesus changes the focus from rules to relationship. As a fine teacher once told me, “God’s economy isn’t transactional, it is relational.”
This theme rings true in the other texts for today. Job’s relationship to God isn’t based on whether or not God gives him good things. Job is faithful regardless. God, despite what it may feel like and what others say, has not abandoned Job. The verses from Hebrews lift up the Son of God’s solidarity with humanity, even in the face of humanity’s rejection. In God’s Kingdom relationships trump rules, which is not to say the rules are unimportant or irrelevant – they are simply not ultimate.
The real rub comes in how to preach these texts, though. You will no doubt feel the tension in the sanctuary as you read the verses from Mark. This is personal. Very few in our day and time aren’t impacted by divorce and remarriage. Even fewer are neutral in their views of marriage, and marriage is in the news and talked about in the pews a lot these days. You may just want to name these truths upfront. Point to the elephant in the aisle and recognize that any discussion on this topic makes us want to look for the nearest exit. But then … you need to preach.
Overaccept the challenge. This topic may well be personal for you, too. My parents divorced when I was in my late teens. Was it painful, disruptive and unwelcomed? Yes, it was all those things and more. Were my parents bad people because they didn’t stay married to one another? No, they were and are not. They, like all of us, are created good and beloved by God. Was that schism the end of our story as a family? No, it changed our family but did not by any means obliterate it. Was there grief and loss? Of course. Was there also grace and redemption? Absolutely. In more ways than I can count. That’s the power and truth of the gospel. Fallenness is redeemed, resurrection overcomes death, reconciliation is made possible despite all the odds against it. What Christ has joined together nothing can separate. God’s desire for relationship overrides the consequences of all of our rule breaking. God knows our hardness of heart and loves us anyway. Maybe we could try doing the same with one another.
Given that this Sunday is World Communion Sunday, it is fitting to emphasize the unity won for us in Christ through his overacceptance of life and death. Reminding your congregation that God is not only for us but is for the whole world is critical. God gives no one a certificate of divorce and sends them on their way. Jesus makes a special effort to find the lost sheep, remember? Leftovers do not remain scattered on the hillside. Disciples who deny and run away aren’t consigned to weeping and gnashing of teeth. God overaccepts them all, little children are valued and welcomed, people who have fallen well short of God’s glory are embraced and celebrated and then sent out to serve. Relationship trumps rules. Perhaps if we start there we can celebrate Communion in joy with all our brothers and sisters, married, divorced, whatever, a strange family configuration to be sure, but one that God has brought together around an ever expanding table of amazing grace.
- Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm writes in her commentary, “Preaching the Gospel of Mark,” that Jesus “sought the transformation of all human relationships (personal, familial, social, political) through a radically different relationship with God and the reign of God he proclaimed.” Do you agree with this? If so, are their realms of relationships we’d rather Jesus not impact? Are their realms we don’t want to talk about in church?
- What is the significance of putting Mark 10:1-12 together with 10:13-16? What connects the two pericopes? Does putting them together change your interpretation of one or the other of the sections?
- How could you craft liturgy for this Sunday in a way that is sensitive to those in your congregation for whom divorce is a highly personal and likely painful topic?
- Look at other passages in Mark that address the meaning and make up of family. Check out 3:31-35 and Mark 13:9-13. What kind of picture do you get of family when you consider more than the text for this Sunday?
- Take a tour through 1 Corinthians 7 for an even broader New Testament view of marriage. How does Paul’s understanding of marriage impact your reading of Mark 10:1-16? Or your view of marriage in general?
- Use this prayer from a wedding liturgy in your personal devotions this week: “Enable us all, O God, in each of our homes and lives to do your will. Enrich us with your grace so that, encouraging and supporting one another, we may serve those in need and hasten the coming of peace, love, and justice on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”