Redefining relationships

20th Sunday after Pentecost – October 7, 2018 – Mark 10:2-16 – Trinity Episcopal Church, Winchester, TN

Mark’s account of Jesus’ teaching on divorce may make us a bit uncomfortable. Divorce is a hard topic even without the lectionary rubbing our noses in Jesus’ thoughts about it. 

In public Jesus answers the Pharisees, “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.”

You may recognize that last part from the Prayer Book. (We got it from the Bible, not the other way around.)

What are we Episcopalians to make of this? We allow people to get divorced. Have we completely forgotten what Jesus told us? A marriage should last forever! 

If I were a pessimist, I’d say we got this one wrong. But lucky for me, I’m not. Rest assured, we still belong to a faithful church. Christians have never exactly been clear on divorce, even dating back to Paul and the first gospel accounts. 

In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul gives some conflicting advice about marriage between believers and nonbelievers and who is allowed to divorce whom. Matthew’s account of the same story we read today includes an exception for adultery to Jesus’ no divorce rule. 

Our understanding of divorce still varies widely today. In some traditions divorce is forbidden. In others annulment is required before remarriage is permitted. It’s important to understand what Jesus is telling us when he condemns divorce so that we know what to make of it. In order to figure it out, how about some context? 

In Old Testament times marriages were all about money. Marriages were largely arranged between the groom-to-be and the father of the bride. They were business transactions, and women had no say in the whole thing because they were treated as property. Divorce happened when a man wanted it. 

When Jesus quoted Genesis to the Pharisees I bet he surprised them. Jesus is doing what he always does, he’s turning expectations upside down. The Pharisees ask him if he agrees with the law of Moses, and he quotes back a different part of the scripture to prove a different point.

When a couple is joined together they become one flesh, says Jesus. This is not about money or property, this is about relationship. Marriages are about two becoming one flesh; marriages last for a lifetime, not just until the husband decides write a certificate of divorce. Marriage is about mutuality and respect, not obedience and inheritance. 

Sometimes when I read this passage and hear Jesus say, “No divorce allowed!” I hear him being unfair and close-minded. I hear Jesus prohibiting something that is occasionally necessary for healthy people in unhealthy relationships. I immediately think of the woman abused by her husband or the child that can’t escape the rage of an unfit or dangerous parent. Wouldn’t divorce be acceptable then? 

In my haste to prove how progressive I am, I list all the reasons why divorce is, at least sometimes, OK. Well, it may be. After all, Jesus is sensitive to those with irregular or damaging relationships. For proof of this we need look no further that his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. 

This much is clear: Jesus cares about our relationships and our unique circumstances as much as we do. He is not prohibiting divorce in order to force someone to stay in an abusive relationship. That’s a whole different situation and one that has its own tragic struggles a hard choices. Jesus doesn’t make these comments to prohibit people from getting out of bad relationships. Jesus makes these comments to redefine what marriage should be in the first place. It’s kind of ironic: through his comments on divorce, Jesus redefines marriage. 

Sure, the ancient Israelites had laws about marriage and divorce, just like we do. But Jesus says that those laws stem from hardness of heart, not desire for healthy relationships. 

Laws that formally govern legal relationships are necessary. We don’t want people entering and leaving marriages or business partnerships willy-nilly. Relationships are important to society, and we need to protect them for the very sake of the relationship itself, not for the sake of the selfish and the greedy who are only interested in an escape clause.

You can’t get divorced just because you find someone more appealing. You can’t abandon a commitment, just because you’re “over it.” The unity and mutuality that are the cornerstones of marriage mirror God’s relationship with humanity. You just can’t give up on that for any old reason.

Sometimes, even given the laws that exist, human relationships fail, and that’s OK. God’s grace can handle that, but that grace should not obscure our knowledge of God’s desire for our relationships in the first place.

How do you handle your relationships? That’s the question Jesus is asking us. How do we deal with honoring them, with nurturing them, with blessing them. How do we deal with them when they are broken? Do you just give up, or do you do the hard work of trying to fix them?

You’ve been part of a broken relationship, no doubt? It doesn’t’ have to be a marriage. We all get cross with people. Rumors spread, promises are broken. “I’m never talking to him again!” God asks for more from us. God asks us to view everyone as sacred. God asks us to recognize that people are not disposable. God asks us to act like relationships are two-way streets, because they are.

I have a confession to make, on Friday night I backed my truck into Walker’s car right in our driveway. I still feel bad. When I walked back in the house the first thing he said to me was, “I love you.” He wasn’t happy about it, but that’s what he said.

Can you imagine? I’m telling you this, not to put my own relationship up on a pedestal, but to illustrate a little piece of the kingdom of God, a piece that I didn’t necessarily deserve, but that Walker freely offered out of his commitment to me and to our relationship. 

That’s what the kingdom of God is like. That’s what Jesus is asking of us. 

Now, don’t get confused. Walker is not God—far from it! Neither am I, and neither are you. But when it comes to our relationships, we can all act like we know Jesus, because we do.

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