Texts: Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16
Unlike lepers, divorce is something that is common today, and many of us have some experience with it, which is why this story is so discomforting. We want to rationalize it away. “Well, Jesus couldn’t have meant this” or “This doesn’t apply to me because it’s not the same.” And it’s true that there are a few things going on here that we need to understand about this story before we can wrestle with it.
First, the Pharisees are not engaging Jesus in honest theological debate. They have asked him this question to “test” him; in other words, to trap him in his own words. Back in Mark 6, John the Baptist was beheaded; though there is more to the story, ultimately, John lost his head because he preached about how terrible it was that Herod had divorced his own wife to marry his brother’s wife. The Pharisees are trying to get Jesus in trouble with the law, maybe even get him killed like John.
Second, this kind of marriage is different. In the ancient world, marriage was solely a property arrangement. This isn’t to say that wives and husbands didn’t have affection for one another, but that affection was not the basis of their relationship. Marriages were often arranged by parents, or by older men who took younger wives. The husband would pay a dowry or a bride-price to the girl’s father as compensation for his daughter, because both wives and children were considered almost a type of property.
With all this in mind, it’s important to notice how Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ question. First, where the Pharisees quote Moses, Jesus appeals directly to God, quoting Genesis. He then says that a man who divorces and remarries commits adultery against his wife. That’s not legally possible; Jesus is redefining adultery from a property crime to an emotional transgression. Next, Jesus suggests that a woman might divorce her husband, something else that is not legally possible. The Pharisees in their question treat the man as a legal entity and his wife as his property; Jesus’ response treats both man and woman as people, equal in the eyes of God.
So yes, there is more going on here; but Jesus won’t let us rationalize away the reality of divorce. The Pharisees rationalized with the law, and we rationalize with considerations like happiness or faithfulness or other ideals. We rationalize because we are afraid that what Jesus is saying here is that Christians cannot get divorced, and we all know (or maybe are) Christians who are divorced. Just like the Pharisees, we get too caught up in the debate about lawful and unlawful that we miss the point: divorce is real.
Jesus’ point is not about what Christian marriage should look like; his point is that our hearts are hard. Divorce doesn’t ruin marriages, it dissolves marriages already ruined by something else. That ruin is what Jesus is lamenting. He resists our desire to rationalize and justify, and calls it like it is. Divorce—more specifically, the brokenness that makes divorce a necessity—is sinful, and sin alwayshas consequences. Whether we are talking about the ending of a relationship between spouses, or the ending of lives with a gun in a community college, our sinfulness hurts us, and it causes us to hurt each other.
This is not what God intends for us. The scripture that Jesus quotes tells us why God created marriage in the first place: “it is not good that the human should be alone…” God gives us the gift of relationship through marriage, through family, through community, because God loves us and wants us to be made whole through those relationships; but because we are broken, our relationships are broken. Sometimes, instead of bringing us wholeness, those relationships instead bring us pain and sorrow.
We hear this and we know it to be true because of the experience of our own lives, especially this week after what has happened in Roseburg. Contrary to God’s will, war drives people from their homelands. Contrary to God’s will, people walk into schools and movie theaters and murder one another. Contrary to God’s will, even the relationships that are intended to most closely resemble God’s relationship with us can become controlling, abusive, exploitive and dangerous, and must be cut off for reasons of safety or health.
With all this in mind we hear the story of Jesus welcoming the children. Jesus says, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of heaven as a little child will never enter it.” It is a reminder to us that whenever a child receives anything, it is out of the care and generosity of the adults who care for them. Children cannot earn or deserve what they are given; they can only rely on the love and the responsibility of the adults around them. Jesus reminds us that the kingdom—God’s vision of wholeness and peace for all creation—is like this, given to us not because of how hard we work for it, how much we deserve it, or how well we follow God’s rules, but only because God chooses to give it to us; because God loves us.
You see, this really isn’t a story about divorce, at least not the kind between two married people. This is a story about the divorce of God from humanity. In our hardness of heart, we attempt to write God a certificate of divorce, to dismiss God like a person might dismiss their spouse. We might think we are better off without God and all God’s arbitrary commandments; we might think that we are so wretched and hopeless as to be unworthy of God’s love; we might think that the evil we experience in the world is proof either of God’s absence or God’s indifference towards us; but Jesus tells us that “what God has joined together, no human may separate.”
With his flesh, soft and vulnerable in the straw of a manger, Jesus shows us a God who is willing to trespass the boundary between heaven and earth to be with us. Jesus pursued us even though it cost him his life. God categorically rejects the certificate of divorce, written in Christ’s blood and nailed to a tree. With is scarred hands and feet, Jesus rises from the grave to us to show us the God who refuses to be dismissed. He continuously, relentlessly pursues us, coming to us again and again in the Water and the Word, in the Bread and the Wine, because God does not give up on us, even at our worst.
We are broken people living in a broken world, a world in which divorce is sometimes better than staying married, and Jesus knows this. Our sin has consequences, both physical and spiritual. With all our individual and collective rejections of God and God’s kingdom, we wound both bodies and souls. This is not okay; it cannot and should not be rationalized, or justified, or trivialized, because it is hurting us, and it is hurting God.
And yet, God continues to stick it out with us. “Our Father in heaven,” we pray, “Hallowed is your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” “God’s good and gracious will comes by itself without our prayer; but we pray in this petition that it may come about in and through us.” In spite of our broken relationships, in spite of our divisions, in spite of the guns in our hands and the hate in our hard hearts, God is with God’s children, and the invitation remains open: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” If there is every any question for you about how God responds to our sin, let your answer be found at the table of communion as we receive the bread and wine with the words “The body of Christ, given for you,” “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”