The text for
reflection this morning is from the 10th chapter of the gospel of Mark.
What I'd like to do over the next three weeks is to focus on the 10th
chapter. It's the longest chapter, there's a lot in there to
contemplate, so I would invite you in the next couple of weeks to read
that chapter, more than once, to contemplate on it, meditate on it, pray
on it, as your own personal devotion and preparation for worship each
So, the text then for
this morning, the first 12 verses of chapter 10:
Now, this text
literally has been the source of much abuse. While one cannot
blame domestic violence on scripture, certainly scriptures like this one
have been used to keep women in particular trapped in abusive
The statistics are
deeply disturbing: 4 people murdered each day in this country by
their intimate partners, and 3 of the 4 are women. Of all female
murder victims in this country, 1/3 are killed by their partner.
85% of the victims of domestic violence are women, 15% men. One in
four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.
Less than one out of every 10 men.
Regardless of gender,
all domestic violence is contrary to God's intent for families. Of
that there can be no question. And I have no doubt that there is a
special place reserved for clergy in the next life who use scripture to
keep women (or men as the case may be) in abusive relationships.
And that place will not be on the 50 yard line of football heaven.
So let's just say you'd rather be a Duck in Husky stadium on a bad day
(unlike yesterday -- Ducks beat the Huskies) than you would be in that
This text has also
been used to deny same-sex couples from the right to marry. It has
caused much grief for heterosexual couples, contemplating, seeking, or
recovering from divorce. And then there is the problem of second
marriages specifically forbidden in the last couple of verses. Two
verses that are typically left out of the lectionary reading of the text
because it creates problems for us.
For instance, we
discovered in our Thursday morning study group, among the 5 of us, we
have 9 marriages. So when we read the sermon text, as we were
accustomed to do in that group, the wisdom forthcoming from the group
was about as plentiful as a bikini on an Eskimo
This text presents
some interesting challenges for us. And I think it is therefore
all the more important for us to honestly examine the text and struggle
with those challenges.
The first task,
always in reading and interpreting scripture, is to understand first of
all its original context. The question on divorce, we should note,
comes to Jesus as a test. The religious leaders, who are trying to
undermine Jesus' growing popularity, come with a trick question.
Something that occurs several times throughout the gospel stories, as I
think you're probably aware.
So what is the trick
in this question?
Well, recall for a
moment the story of John the Baptist. Remember the details of his
death in that gruesome story. The daughter of his second marriage
to Herodius, who dances at a state dinner (all the dignitaries there),
and is such a moving, compelling dance (whatever that means) the King is
so moved he says to her "I will grant you anything at all that you want
from my Kingdom". She goes to Mom, Herodius, and says "What should
I ask for?". What does Herodius ask for? The head of John
the Baptist on a platter.
So why does Herodius
have such a grudge against John? It's because he condemned the
marriage between she and Herod. Herodius had been the wife of
Herod's brother, Phillip, and she left him to marry Herod, presumably
for some political convenience. And John said that was an
abomination before the Lord. And so Herod has him arrested and
Herodius has him beheaded.
What better way to
silence a problematic preacher, then, than to get him to say something
on divorce that will get him in trouble with King Herod? And I
would note, by the way, that he (Jesus) was in Herod's territory when
this text takes place.
Jesus, baptized by
John, presumably would agree with John's criticism of Herod's second
marriage. However, Jesus avoids the too-obvious trap by getting
his questioners to cite the Mosaic law.
Now, here is where
most modern interpreters of this text fail to do their homework.
Never bothering to ask "What does that law actually say?". Would
you like to know what that law actually says? Yes!, thank you
In Deuteronomy 24,
the first 4 verses:
Suppose a man
enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him
because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes
her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out
of his house; she then leaves his house 2and goes off to become
another man’s wife. 3Then suppose the second man dislikes her,
writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out
of his house (or the second man who married her dies); 4her first
husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be
his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to
Now, the first thing
we have to note is that the law here is not really about divorce at all.
It is about re-marriage (in this case when the divorced wife marries
someone else, and she can't come back to the first husband).
Secondly, note that the law assumes permissibility of a man -- and only
the man -- to divorce his wife for any reason. It gives absolute
power to the husband. Any problem with that? And unlimited
rights to divorce, so long as you don't re-marry a previous wife.
Now, the potential
for abuse by husbands, of course, of such a privilege was tremendous.
And in fact it was a significant problem for many women, often forcing
them into a life of poverty or prostitution to support themselves.
So the question then
is: is Jesus here seeking to preserve the sanctity of marriage,
or, is he refuting an unjust law that left women powerless in such a
one-sided patriarchal system?
To put it
differently: in response to a question designed to embroil Jesus
in a 1st century political dispute that got John beheaded, Jesus gives
an answer designed to protect women from a life of either poverty or
And we would use it
to divine an absolute restriction on the definition of marriage for all
Now, before I suggest
a better way for understanding and applying this text to our time, I'd
like to point out two revisions made to the principles set forth by
Jesus before the ink of the gospels (literally) was dry:
Revision #1: in
the time of Jesus, there was only one possibility of divorce for a
Palestinian Jew, and that was initiated by the husband. It simply
was not an option for a woman to initiate a divorce. Therefore,
the premise behind verse 12, in which Jesus says that a woman who
divorces her husband commits adultery, is nonsensical. It couldn't
happen. It would be like climbing to the top of Mt. Jefferson and
finding a Ranger there erecting a sign that says "No parking". And
you say to the Ranger: "I don't understand, am I not allowed to
rest here?". And he says "No, you can't park your vehicle here".
"I can't get a vehicle here!". "Yeah, but if you could, you
couldn't park it here". You see, it's just nonsensical.
The same here.
It doesn't make sense in the Palestinian world of the first century.
But it does make sense in the Roman world for which Mark is writing his
gospel. And scholars are as certain as scholars can ever be that
these last two verses are not the words of Jesus, but rather Mark has
taken the principle used by Jesus against divorce (by husbands) and
broadened it out so that it will appropriately fit the new context of
the Roman world for which this gospel is intended.
the prohibition of Jesus against the second marriage after a divorce,
according to Mark, is absolute -- no exceptions. That can be a
problem for some people. In Matthew 19, however, Jesus allows for
the exception. Same story, told slightly differently, and Jesus
allows for the exception of 'unchastity'. And since it easier to
explain why Matthew (who scholars believe is writing for Jewish
Christians in the Palestinian world) would add such as exception than
why Mark would leave it out, scholars are once again in wide agreement
that the exception of unchastity is a later addition to allow husbands
-- and once again, only husbands -- the means to get out of a marriage
not to their liking.
Now, those two
revisions are important to recognize. Not because they equalize
gender (in the first case), or create a loophole for men (in the second
case), which we can then reasonably broaden out to include women in our
modern age, but because they illustrate that ethical conduct has always
been contextual, rarely absolute. Matthew and Mark both modify the
teaching of Jesus to make it better fit the context of their situation.
So, how do we apply
the teachings of Jesus from the context of an ancient patriarchal system
to our modern age? Do we get to change it however it suits us?
Not at all.
But I do believe we
can make it applicable to our context in such a way that is faithful to
the text and helpful to our discernment of how God is working in the
trends that we see in the modern world.
First, taking the
Markan revelation as our guide, we acknowledge the modern principle of
gender equality as a fulfillment of God's vision for a more perfect
world. And we see hints of that throughout scripture, in many
places. Galatians 3:28 -- male and female, one in Christ.
Acts 2:17 -- the spirit of God poured out on all flesh equally, sons and
daughters, men and women. In Genesis 1:27 -- male and female both
created in the image of God, equally side-by-side.
Any view of marriage,
therefore, that does not include full equality for both partners is less
that what God intends. Now, if you do not have such equality in
your marriage does that mean you should end it? Preferably not.
But you should be actively dialoging with your spouse, and if necessary
with a good marriage counselor, working at that. To achieve that
kind of equality. Because what you have to gain from such is truly
one of the great blessings of marriage. The kind that Jesus
upholds as the ideal when he says that the two become one flesh, equal,
Such unity is not
created by a wedding or any ritual, it requires lots of intentional
work. And my advice, always, for those preparing for their wedding
is that you have to be prepared to work just as hard and harder on your
marriage as you do on that wedding. Otherwise you're
not ready. Amen?
should be obvious, but still needs to be said, the principle of equality
means zero tolerance for abuse, for which there is no context in which
it is acceptable. If you are in an abusive relationship, tell
someone, seek help. Under no circumstances should anyone remain in
an abusive situation.
Now, those are two
points that hopefully, I think, we can all agree upon.
The third issue I
want to address, however, may be a little different. May be
challenging for us. So let me preface it by saying that we may not
all agree on this point, and that is OK. Reasonable people can
have different understandings, hopefully we can remain in dialogue and
will always be open to listening to other points of view.
The issue, of course,
to which I refer that is so challenging in society as a whole, is that
of same-sex marriage. Now, it doesn't matter what I say here,
because some are bound to disagree with me. Even though I know
it's never happened before in this church, there's always a first time
for everything J.
But the fact that this is even a topic for discussion in the church is
truly remarkable. Whether you're for it or against it. I
can't imagine this discussion -- it would have never taken place when I
was a child growing up in a Disciples church in Albany [Oregon], and I
can't imagine it taking place here 20, even 10 years ago.
The signs of change
are everywhere. And what is it now, 6 or 7 states where same-sex
marriage is legal. Even Iowa -- I mean, you can't get any more
"mid-America" than that.
The election of Gene
Robinson, a gay priest in a committed relationship, as a Bishop in the
Episcopal Church (caused all kinds of turmoil, yes), in 2003, I think
marks a significant turning point. Not just for the Episcopal
Church, but for all of American Christianity (if not the world).
Lutheran Church of America, not typically known for liberal positions on
social issues, this year decided sexual orientation is irrelevant in
matters of ordination. And therefore gay and lesbian clergy are
free to engage in committed same-sex relationships under the same code
of conduct as heterosexual clergy.
We haven't quite had
the same issues in our denomination because of the different way we do
ordination. It is a matter of a covenantal relationship between
the congregation and the region, and the denomination really has no say
over that. Hence, it has been possible in some regions (especially
on the west coast) for gay and lesbian clergy, where it has not been in
other regions (like the south).
And then I would just
have to point out in our own congregation the tremendous change that we
have seen in the last 20 years, when there were no same-sex couples to
today when I don't think there are any concerns. Same-sex couples
are embraced, they're welcomed here, and they serve without distinction
in all capacities of leadership in the church.
As Bob Dylan sang,
these times they are a changin'. Resisting that change is one
option. But I believe that it is clear from the trends that it is
increasingly a losing option. Even if churches like ours, at the
moment, are in the minority. It will not always be.
Secondly, we can go
along with those trends, reluctantly or willingly, accepting it for what
it is, without making a big fuss over it. Just don't make any
Or, third, we can
embrace this new direction as the wind of destiny bringing greater
equality for all couples, regardless of their orientation. And
even accept it as the will of God.
The problem for us is
how do we do that as a people who take the Bible seriously? When
there seems to be so much in scripture, like this text, that speaks
against this trend. Is it not more important for us to be faithful
to scripture than accepting modern trends?
And I think the
answer, at least the one I have found, is right here in this text.
Words I use for every wedding: what God has joined together, let
no one separate.
And so the question
is, what has God joined together?
That couple living in
a dysfunctional, abusive relationship because they had a wedding?
Has God joined that? I don't think so.
And what about that
couple in that same-sex relationship for 20, 30, 40 years in a loving,
harmonious relationship? Can we really say that such a
relationship of love, respect, and equality is not joined by God?
And if it is joined by God, who are we to question it?
Let me just close
with a story I heard from Tony Campolo, who was here just recently
speaking at Northwest Christian University. I missed him here, but
I did hear him when he spoke in Portland sponsored by Ecumenical
Ministries of Oregon several years ago. And it happened right
after that judge in Multnomah County opened up the door (ever briefly)
for same-sex couples to legally register for marriage and 3,000 couples
in Oregon stepped forward to do that.
Of course that
subject came up, someone asked. Tony is a leading Evangelical
leader, very well-known throughout the nation, especially in evangelical
circles. Tony said this: he said, listen, as I study
scripture, I believe homosexuality is not God's intent for us as human
beings. But it's not a big issue in scripture, it's a very minor
issue. Shouldn't be a big issue in the church. My wife, on
the other hand, has an opposite viewpoint. She has no problem
embracing same-sex couples. Someone yelled out "Your wife is
right!". Everyone laughed, Tony laughed.
He said, but this is
the point: my wife and I are of opposing views, and we live
together, happily married. Harmoniously together as a couple.
Can not the same be
true for the church?
People of God, hear
this: what God has joined together is right here. Let no one