Rev. Sarah Buteux
Proper 22, Year B
To view today’s service click here. The sermon begins around the 9 minute mark.
My favorite moment in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis, is when Susan and Lucy ask Mr. and Mrs. Beaver to describe Aslan (Lewis’s representation of Jesus). They ask if he is a man and Mr. Beaver replies.
“Aslan a man? Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion– the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
I thought of Mr. Beaver’s words this week as I considered whether or not to preach on this passage from Mark, because if there is one thing I am sure of, it’s that these words are not safe. Not safe at all. In fact these words have been used to do a great deal of damage.
Does anyone know what a clobber verse is? Have you ever heard that term? I hadn’t heard it in a long time, but in Bible Study this past week, Patti read the story and said, “Oh yeah, I know this passage. This has one of those clobber verses in it used to condemn gay people.”
For those of you new to the game of Biblical condemnation – you lucky few – there are certain verses in the Bible that have been seized upon throughout history to condemn, oppress, enslave, shame, and shun people.
This passage in particular has been used to threaten, abuse and censor not just gay people of course, but divorced people, re-married people, women, single people, gay couples, couples without children, and pretty much everyone who does’t enjoy all the joys and privileges of a stable heteronormative marriage, which is pretty much everyone at some point in their lives.
So these words are not safe. Not safe at all. Which is ironic, because at the heart of this passage is Jesus’ attempt to prevent exactly this kind of abuse. His words here are actually a plea for all of us to handle people as thoughtfully as we handle scripture.
So that is my plan today. I promise to be very careful with these words and with you as we proceed this morning. Though please know, if you need to get up, get some air, or even leave at any point, that’s okay. As I said before, you do what you need to do to take care of yourself. There will be no judgment here because I know this is hard.
But I’m going to go ahead, because if this is the gospel then, safe or not, there has to be a good word in here for us somewhere and my job is to see if we can’t uncover it together.
OK? OK. Well, the first thing you need to know is that the Pharisees who brought this question to Jesus weren’t interested in being careful with anyone. Big surprise!
They didn’t ask if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife out of actual concern for divorced people. They were only asking as a way to test Jesus. That is, they were asking him to take a stand on a particularly divisive issue in the hopes that no matter what he said he would offend someone. It was a classic no win situation.
You see back in Jesus’ day there were at least two schools of thought about divorce in the Jewish community, both of which relied on scripture to bolster their arguments and both of which had very powerful supporters. The first school believed that God designed marriage for the purpose of procreation.
They based their argument on the verses in Genesis 1 where God creates humanity in God’s own image and then bids them “be fruitful and multiply.”
In the minds of these men, the purpose of marriage was to beget children. The only legitimate reason, then, for a man to divorce his wife would be if she were either unable to bear him children or had been unfaithful and was therefore unable to prove that her children were his children.
The second school, relying on the verse Jesus alludes to from Deuteronomy, believed that a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever because Moses himself had said as much. Deuteronomy 24:1: “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, (then he can) write her a certificate of divorce, give it to her and send her from his house.”
You know how we have no-fault divorce? Well back then, they had something more like, “Her fault divorce.” If a man didn’t like the way his wife looked, or cooked, or talked, or aged, he could write “we’re finished” on a piece of paper, put it in her hand, and send her packing… a move that would have been utterly devastating for a woman and her children both socially and economically.
For you see, the chances of her remarrying were slim; the chances of her finding a job … none. With no other recourse, she and her children would most likely have been reduced to begging if not worse.
Women and children were incredibly vulnerable under this interpretation of the law, and Jesus would have known that and, no doubt, been angered by that. But had he come right out and said that, he would have rendered himself incredibly vulnerable as well, because you see there was already a rather high profile case of “Her fault divorce” taking up space in the public consciousness back then.
Y’all remember King Herod?
No, of course not. He was not a nice guy. Well he had just recently divorced his wife in order to marry his brother’s wife. Yeah. A move that was definitely more of a booty call than a baby call, if you catch my drift.
Not only that, Herod had also, just recently, beheaded John the Baptist, for openly criticizing him about it.
So that’s the test which is actually a trap. If Jesus comes down on the side of the Genesis 1 crowd he’s going to get himself arrested and killed by Herod.
But if he comes down on the side of the Deuteronomy crowd he will be seen as supporting Herod, betraying the memory of his cousin, and upholding an interpretation of the law that treats women and children as disposable property.
Not safe. Not safe at all. And yet in spite of the impossibility of the situation, Jesus still finds a way to do good.
He begins by acknowledging that thanks to Moses there is nothing illegal about divorce – score 1 for the Deuteronomy crowd – but before those folks can get too smug, he follows it up with a stinging rebuke, essentially saying that just because it’s legal for you to treat women this way doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s “because of your hardness of heart (that) Moses wrote this commandment for you,” says Jesus.
At which point I’m sure many in the crowd nodded and kept nodding as Jesus went on to reference Genesis 1: “ …from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female,’” quotes Jesus, leading everyone to believe he is now going to come down on the side of those who held that the purpose of marriage is procreation.
Score 1 for the Genesis crowd and make way for the soldiers because this is about to get ugly…except that…Jesus doesn’t stay with Genesis 1. He skips ahead to Genesis 2, he skips over the line about being fruitful and multiplying, and instead says: 7‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh…’” and then adds for good measure “…what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
With that subtle move from Genesis 1 to Genesis 2, Jesus moves the discussion out of the legal realm into a much more relational one. He reminds us that this isn’t just a question of what the Bible says, or what you can get away with. This is a question of what people need to flourish.
By quoting Genesis 1, Jesus was reminding the Deuteronomists that marriage was not just a legal contract, but something holy and God given, rooted in the very foundation of creation. And by skipping over the words “be fruitful and multiply,” he was reminding those in the Genesis camp that a woman’s worth is not determined by her ability to bear children, but by the fact that she too is made in the image of God.
Jesus then jumps to chapter two in order to remind them all that the true purpose of marriage from the very beginning was love and companionship for both partners ( which, as far as I’m concerned, opens up the possibility of marriage between partners of any gender configuration).
Jesus’ point here is that we were made for one another first and foremost because “it is not good for (us) to be alone.” (Which is not a value judgment against singleness so much as simply an acknowledgment of how hard it is to go through this life on your own.)
So whenever you talk about marriage or divorce, says Jesus, how about you remember that everyone involved is a child of God, made in the image of God, and as such is deserving of your care and respect.
Jesus comes out in support of women in a big way here, in the hopes that these men – whatever their views on divorce – will start viewing wives less like property and more like people.
And you need to hold on to that in order to understand the line that comes next, because it is a hard one to reckon with for those of us who are trying to follow Jesus now.
The Bible tells us that Jesus, after schooling the Pharisees and evading their trap, essentially drops the mic and enters a house where: “10… the disciples asked him again about this matter.11He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery (against him).’
EEEE! Right? Yeah, I’m not going to pretend this is easy…because it is not. We hear those lines and our first thought is: what do you mean remarriage is adultery?
Though I have to tell you, when the disciples heard those lines, I can almost guarantee you that their first thought was: what do you mean,“if she divorces her husband”?
Because, you see, there was no provision in Jewish law for a woman to do that.
I think Jesus is still focused here more on asserting that women are people too, than he is with the legalities around divorce and remarriage.
Either that, or he’s just really coming down hard on Herod and Herodias now that they’re in private. And yes, her name was Herodias. This line may actually have more to do with them than it does with us.
But that was then and this is now and these words are still with us.
So let me say this: I don’t think God likes divorce. I don’t think anybody does. I’m not saying it isn’t sometimes necessary, or that you can’t have a good divorce, or even that divorce is a sin. Sometimes it is, yes you can, and no it’s not.
But that doesn’t change the fact that even the best ones hurt, and when we hurt, God hurts. In fact, if you take just one step back from this passage, I think it’s pretty clear that Jesus’ primary concern here is in mitigating the hurt by giving equal consideration to all the people involved.
Something sacred dies when a marriage ends and that affects everyone in the family. But when, in the act of dissolving a marriage, you treat the other person or people affected as if they aren’t even people at all, well then the damage done is incalculably worse.
Don’t do that, says Jesus, and for the love of God, don’t use scripture to justify it.
It’s a theme he comes back to again and again in his teaching, because it’s a mistake we make over and over whenever we elevate an interpretation of scripture or a rule or a law or a custom or an institution over the very people these things were meant to protect and serve.
The scriptures and the commandments, the rules and the laws, our customs and institutions were all made for the sake of people. They were cerated to help us flourish. When we forget that, when we use them as an excuse to demean, dehumanize, shun, or punish one another, we’ve missed the mark and we’ve lost our way.
So how horribly ironic would it be for Christians to take these verses and in the name of God, use them to make gay people or divorced people or re-married people or single people feel like they aren’t as good as other people, or don’t belong in church with the rest of the people? Horribly ironic indeed.
Friends, Jesus wasn’t using this moment to create a new rule so we could judge people even more. He was calling on us to value all people – but particularly the most vulnerable people – as highly as we value the institutions, the laws and the scriptures that give our life order and meaning.
He was reminding us once again to put people first, to handle one another with care, to treat one another as holy – bone of each other’s bone, flesh of each other’s flesh – be it in the context of marriage, divorce, or life. It’s a move that isn’t just good, but one that could go a long way to making our marriages, our churches, and our world a whole lot safer for all of God’s children. May it be so. Amen.