“Let Them Come”
I should say at the beginning that this is a hard text, and it’s hard to preach on a hard text. Most of the time, when we run into a difficult text, we find something better to read. That’s the reason that Judges 19 is not in the lectionary. But that approach leaves us as weak Christians. Skipping parts of the Bible leaves us a sort of Swiss cheese faith, one that’s easy to poke holes in. If we want our faith to be strong, we’ve got to read difficult texts, and figure out what we think they mean for us, here and now.
The story from Job is a good metaphor. God has allowed the Satan to punish Job as a test. But Job will not give up. He clings to God: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Job doesn’t just choose what is easy to accept, but the hard stuff too, and so should we.
That’s what I’m trying to do as we hear together Christ’s words about divorce. If I say something that hurts you, outrages you, or where you simply think I got it wrong or makes you have a story you need to tell, come talk to me. I’m not so confident to think I have every right answer on every question. I know to hold my convictions lightly, and be ready to be corrected. If you come talk with me I’d be honored to learn from you.
There are two convictions that I bring to the table as I read this story, that come from observation and experience. The first is that divorce is not fun. And the second is that divorce saves lives. I do not know anyone, who has had a divorce and then gone out to try and get another one. Most divorces I know were making the best of a bad situation, and that is usually painful, sometimes more sometimes less. It ain’t fun. Divorce saves lives. It can enable someone to leave a cycle of abuse that leads to death. Any theology that says that God’s purpose for you is to be abused by your partner is a lie against God. Jesus tells us to take up the cross of suffering and follow him, but the suffering Jesus endures and calls us to is redemptive suffering. It is suffering that lifts up others and reveals the Kingdom of God. It is not suffering that serves to enable cruelty, or to teach your children to accept misery as their lot in life. Divorce saves lives in other ways too. It can free people from living a life in which the light of God in them has dimmed, for reasons better and worse. A life that can no longer be lived in fullness with God is a life lost, and a soul freed to abide in God is a life saved.
Mark is a conflict Gospel. I guess they all are, given that the main character get crucified. But in Mark we see an escalating conflict throughout the book between Jesus and the spiritual and political authorities of his time that culminates in the cross.
When we look at that conflict as Mark describes it, Jesus has one thing in mind: God’s original will for God’s people. Jesus is here to proclaim the Reign of God, and his teachings and actions are intended to reveal God’s purposes in a place that has drifted away from them. He heals on the Sabbath because the purpose of the Sabbath is the holy restoration and recreation of God’s people to wholeness. That the law forbids the restoration of a person to wholeness highlights how far the interpretation of the law has drifted from God’s purposes. He throws out the moneychangers in the Temple because forgiveness and holiness should not be a business: no one should put obstacles between someone else and God. What drives the conflict is that Jesus is committed to restoring God’s original intention for humanity. He asks the question, “What does God want for us?” and concludes that it is not what is going on, and tries to restore us to that purpose. But some people like things the way they are.
As the conflict heats up, those folks want to discredit Jesus. He has become dangerous. So they start to ask questions intended to get him in trouble, either with the people or with the Romans. This question about divorce is really about Herod. Herod divorced his wife, because someone better was available. That better person just happened to be Herod’s brother’s wife, Herodias. She divorced her husband Philip. What’s that you say? The law did not allow a woman to divorce? No, it did not. But she was marrying the King. Who was going to stop her? The biggest question in the minds of those who asked it was not, “What is righteous in the complicated issue of marriage and divorce.” It was can we get Jesus to say something that will get someone else to kill him for us. It worked on John the Baptist.
Jesus is careful. In private, Jesus tells the disciples that any man who divorces and remarries is committing adultery, and any woman who divorces and remarries is committing adultery. This is almost certainly about Herod and Herodias, simply because the law did not allow a woman to get divorced and remarried, so it could only apply to that one couple. Their pursuit of each other was for their own gratification, and obviously began while they were still married to others. What they did, throw away their covenants and their partners because they wanted something better, whether it was power or sex, was wrong.
In public, in this conflict with the Pharisees, Jesus does what he has been doing from the beginning. He asks the question, “Is this what God wants for us?” He asks the Pharisees, “What did God command you about this?” The Pharisees know that God gave no command to divorce. So they have to say, “Moses allowed.” That’s the difference between the two interpretations. Jesus is interested in what God wants for us. The Pharisees were interested in what Moses allowed. The goal of the law is not to help us figure out what we can get away with. The goal of the law is to help us learn how to flourish in relationship with each other.
When you ask the question, “What does God want for us?” the answer is not broken relationships that end in divorce. Nor is it pursuing exactly what our flesh wants right when we want it. Nor is it staying in relationships that have long been destroyed by abuse, infidelity, or cruelty. What God wants for us is joy that is the result of holiness. Our thirsts quenched from the streams of water that never run dry. Jesus reminds us of God’s realization with the first human, Adam – it is not good for humans to be alone. We exist to be in relationship with each other. And when we are together, when we leave our mother and father, and are joined to one another, whether in matrimony or in another covenant, we become one flesh. We become one body, reflecting in our relationships that we are one in Christ Jesus. God’s vision for humanity is one of unity, not division.
Our pursuit of love and marriage should be governed by this truth. God gave us covenant relationships through which we flourish. We are meant to love and be loved, serve and be served, forgive and be forgiven. Do our relationships reflect what God wants for us? Are we blessed by them or cursed by them? Does our love reflect Christ? Are we able to wash each other’s feet? These are the questions we should ask as we think about marriage and divorce, not whether signing the paper to end a marriage that was over in all but name is allowed. In this and in everything else, Jesus is not interested in tolerating failure to live up to the covenant, but redeeming it.
I want to finish with a story of someone I knew, but it might be your story too. I used to be Baptist, she told me. I used to be Baptist, until I wanted to get married. And the minister there refused to marry us, on account of my being divorced. And so we started going to the Methodist church, and that’s where we were for 30 years and where I am now even after my husband died. That was the story my friend told, of how she became a Methodist. It is not an uncommon story. The era changes, and the denominations aren’t always the same (it may well have been reversed in another town), but the experience of being rejected because you weren’t holy enough was.
So many times in the history of our faith, we have decided that we should gatekeepers, instead of gate-openers. We have decided that it’s up to us to decide who can be holy and who cannot be, who is righteous and who is not. That’s what the disciples do here and in other places in the story. But every time Jesus says no, let them come. It is not your job to protect the benefits of a relationship with Christ. It is your job to proclaim them.
It’s not about creating a world in which my divorce is holy and yours is not, or in which some people are denied access to the table because their failures are obvious but mine are well-hidden. It’s not about keeping to the letter of the law to preserve our righteousness. It’s about creating a world where we are free to find life in our relationships with each other, to love each other in mutual submission as Christ loves us. And that comes from asking ourselves over and over, what is it that God wants for us? What does the Kingdom of God look like for us?
It looks coming as a child, trusting wholly in the one who created us, loving simply and earnestly, and receiving the blessings of God. It is to be given grace, to be made holy by a God who can redeem all our pain, all our suffering, all our stubbornness, and lead us to fullness of life.