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What God Has Joined

Sermon - 10/25/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 10:1-12

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 Sunday.

So, the text then for this morning, the first 12 verses of chapter 10:

He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.

2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 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.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

10 Then in the house 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.’

 

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 relationships. 

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 place.

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 J

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 J.

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 the Lord.

 

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 prostitution. 

And we would use it to divine an absolute restriction on the definition of marriage for all eternity?

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.

Revision #2:  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, together, united.

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?

Second principle 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).

The Evangelical 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 waves.

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 separate us.

 


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