At my home congregation in Ashland, Ohio, from time to time we used to have female members of the local Brethren church come worship with us for a period of time. They were in church with us because they had recently been divorced and, thus, were not allowed to be in worship with their brethren (and sistren) at the Brethren church. Oh, it wasn’t so much that they had committed the sin of divorce (which was pretty bad in their eyes). Rather, it was that they were not under the control of a man. Once they remarried and were again under male management they were allowed to return to their own church.
I think Jesus would have put his head in his hands in despair. I think Jesus put his head in his hands with despair when the Pharisees came to him asking if he thought divorce was legal. Now, remember that whenever the Pharisees ask Jesus something, they don’t really want to know the answer. They want to trick Jesus.
But the answer Jesus gives in this instance, at first glance, seems to make him as legalistic as the elders of Grace Brethern Church in Ashland, Ohio. He cites Adam and Eve as proof that God wants people to be together as husband and wife. Then he goes even further by saying that “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.”
Wow. I’m guessing that, across Lutherandom this morning, more pastors are preaching on our Epistle from Hebrews than from Mark’s gospel on divorce. Why? Because it is such a sensitive topic. Show of hands: How many of you have experienced divorce in your immediate family? It is something which affects most all of us. So, when this gospel pops up once every three years it is, how shall we say? …. awkward! It can cause a ripple of embarrassment or shame across the congregation if we thought that Jesus was talking about individual behavior here. But there is a whole ‘nother way of looking at this. Let’s look and see how Jesus was addressing the community of believers – not just individual ones or just married ones. Let’s take a look and see what he was saying about how to get along as community.
The question was, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife.” Well of course it was legal. It was done all the time. That wasn’t the question Jesus was interested in answering. The question he answered was, “Is it ethical.” Lot’s of things are legal, but not ethical. I was struck by an old photo I saw recently of the staff at Auschwitz out for their lunch break. They were picnicking and laughing and eating and looked like a photo you might see in your grandparent’s photo album about a long past picnic in the park. After they returned from their frolicking they would go back to the brick buildings and resume the very legal task of gassing Jews to death and burning bodies in ovens. Here in the United States owning slaves was once legal.
Lots of things may be legal, but are not ethical. In Jesus day, the way men treated women in regards to divorce was, indeed, legal. But it was not ethical. Men treated divorce as a convenience. If a man got tired of his wife or if she no longer pleased him in some way all he had to do was write out a declaration of divorce and she would be out on the street. All would be lost for her – her stature, her reputation, and her means of making a living – her means of securing food and shelter. All lost. She would be extremely vulnerable.
Was divorce legal? Of course it was. But Jesus was making a point about the purpose of law. Laws exist – not to please God or to exert arbitrary power over someone else. Laws exist to protect the vulnerable. Even in the Big Ten commandments, prohibitions against stealing, murder, and lying were given to protect the vulnerable. ‘Honor your father and mother,’ wasn’t about sending cards to mom and dad in May and June. It was about providing food and shelter for parents in their feeble years. Likewise, the commandment about adultery had to do with protecting the vulnerable.
You see, the Pharisees’ concept of religion was very much like that of many today – that it has to do with individual people doing good or bad things and therefore earning God’s salvation or damnation. That’s the presumption behind the question, “Is divorce lawful?” But Jesus is more concerned with community. Are we a part of a community that values others, especially the vulnerable. As a community of believers do we look out for the weak among us, or do we take advantage of them? Do we defend the defenseless? Help the helpless? Is that the kind of community to which we belong?
I think we can ask that question about our congregation. I think we can ask that question about ourselves as a nation. Are we, as a nation, concerned about power? Or are we concerned about the powerless? Is it, “My nation first?” Or is it, “The deserted and the destitute first?”
As community of believers – as Christians – we are “one body in Christ.” (St. Paul’s words). When we are such a community (a Christian community, one body in Christ) then there can be no oppression based on race, gender, sexual identity, or class. It is important for us, as a church, to be that way so that we can model that behavior to the rest of the world.
Marilyn and I like to watch old sit-coms on Netflix. Often, in watching shows from the ‘80’s, it is eye-opening to see comments directed toward women, or behavior directed to women, or humor at the expense of women which today
would be regarded as harassment or verbal abuse. There was an ethos in our very recent past which regarded women not only as second class citizens, but people whose purpose on the planet was to make men happy. Today, many women are finding a voice to tell others about abuse they had experienced decades ago. On one hand I am glad that these voices are supported by a movement whose time has come. On the other hand, I am appalled and ashamed for our society by the sheer number of them and the cogency of their stories of abuse.
Was that behavior legal? That’s not the question Jesus wants to answer. He wants an answer to this question: Is the community in which you live and worship in respectful and supporting of all people regardless of race, gender, sexual identity, or class? For those of us who claim the title of “Christian,” the question is: Is our community truly the body of Christ?
Text: Mark 10:2-6