Sermon notes for Proper 22B
October 4, 2015
Scriptures: Genesis 2:18-24, Mark 10:2-16
Imagine for a moment that you are in the midst of a situation well known as the context of a variety of sports films. You know the ones; the hero triumphs over seemingly insurmountable odds, accomplishing the impossible, winning the respect and adulation of friends and neighbors.
Think about the climax of films like “Rudy,” with the crowd going wild cheering on the hero, letting them know that they believe in them, that they can do it.
Now imagine what the feeling would be if, instead of cheering on the hero, the crowd looked on in indifference, shrugged,and said “it doesn’t really matter one way or the other…” I would say this wouldn’t be seen as particularly encouraging.
Or imagine that you are about to undertake a task which many find difficult, and of which anywhere from 40% to 50% of those attempting it for the first time fail. I’m not talking about scaling mountains; I’m referring to marriage.
In our Gospel lesson Jesus is approached by a group of Pharisees who are trying to put him to the test. Now there could be two senses in which they were testing him. The first is political, it could be that they were attempting to get Jesus in trouble with the Herods who ruled the area, who divorced early and often, marrying for political gain. You might recall that it was John the Baptist’s critique of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife that got his head segregated from his body. So there is a possible political undercurrent.
Recognizing that, it is more likely that the Pharisees were attempting to place Jesus on a continuum related to a contemporary debate between two schools of scriptural interpretation in regard to divorce.
The first school, named for Rabbi Hillel was called to the house of Hillel. The second was the named for Rabbi Shammai, and his followers were referred to as the House of Shammai.
The parallel passage in the Gospel of Matthew is more clear in this regard, as it adds a detail to the question of the pharisees, who ask, “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”
That phrase, “for any cause,” is a huge flashing sign letting us know that the questioners expect Jesus to come down in one of these two camps on the question of divorce. If his teaching is consistent with that of Hillel, then Jesus will affirm that a man may divorce his wife “for any cause,”—burning the pot roast, looking at him sideways, you name it—but if Jesus favors the interpretation of Shammai, then he will only advocate divorce because of sexual immorality.
It’s also important to note the specific phrasing of their question: “can a man divorce his wife…” because that’s what would’ve happened. There were a few exceptions depending upon the wealth of the woman in question, or how influenced the people may have been by Greek culture, but those exceptions prove the rule that only men could divorce, not women. Indeed, this is still the case in Orthodox Jewish communities. I read a story a year or so ago about an Orthodox Rabbi who had made a name for himself by “convincing” husbands to write a “get,” or a certificate of divorce, for their wives by taking them for a ride in a van. That’s quite an image.
At the time, this “any cause” divorce, in particular, left women in an extremely precarious position, subject to the whims of their husbands. It is interesting that, even as Jesus’ teaching so often seems to align with the more liberal interpretation of Hillel, on this question he seems track with the more conservative interpretation of Shammai (if one looks at the parallel in the Gospel of Matthew), or perhaps even stakes out a more conservative position.
But the most distinctive element of Jesus’ response is his refusal to take their question on its own terms. He won’t accept their assumptions. Instead Jesus is going to highlight where those assumptions have gone astray.
This section of Mark’s gospel is in keeping with themes that have shown up again and again since the end of chapter 9, through the middle of chapter 10: the reorientation of concepts of power and authority in the kingdom of God, verses the way power and authority are thought of in human political and social systems. Whether Jesus is welcoming children, who were seen not in a sentimental way, as we see them, but primarily as examples of weakness; or disciples who don’t fit expectations, such as the unknown exorcist, or, as here, rebalancing the power between men and women for greater equity, so that men could not simply abandon their wives on a whim
Again and again in his ministry Jesus has emphasized that the law is first and foremost intended to reveal the purposes and desires of God for God’s people, and that it is only secondarily a source of rules governing behavior. Jesus is attempting to reorient the perspectives of the Pharisees and everyone else, so that they can see the intent of God. In other words from Jesus’s perspective, asking what is lawful is, or should be, the same as asking what God desires. It is not so much about what is allowed, or what is legal.
It is possible that the Pharisees tipped their hand in their exchange with Jesus, when they respond to his question, “what did Moses command you?” By saying, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” Jesus asked what had been commanded, and his questioners immediately went to what had been allowed. But this allowance to which they pointed, was an allowance precisely because of that part of us that often puts us at odds with the will and intent of God. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” Instead of finding the will of God in what was allowed, Jesus indicates that the will of God for marriage is best seen in the context of creation. “But 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.”
Because Jesus references it, it makes sense to reflect upon our Old Testament reading from Genesis chapter 2 for a moment, and consider what it reveals about God’s intent for humanity and our relationships.
First and foremost, this reveals that humanity is intended to be a relational creature. Relating both to God and to one another. It is not good that human beings be alone. We are intended to exist in relationship with one another—friends, co-workers, neighbors, family, community. With the foundational—the primordial—relationship being that of husband and wife, as the context for the rearing of the next generation.
It is helpful for us to see the humor in this creation account, as the humor points us toward the meaning. When I read the account presented in our Old Testament lesson today, I couldn’t help but think of a show my son Eli watches called Tinga Tinga. It’s a series of stories or fables from Africa that explain certain things about the world, or specifically, about animals; why does the Elephant have a long nose? How did the peacock get its feathers?
But while these stories tell us something about animals, the scriptural account tells us something about humanity, and even more, about God’s intent for humanity. God says, once everything has been created, “It is not good that man–[the Earth creature, the mud man, which is what “Adam” literally means]—should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gen 2:18).
And so, as with Adam, God forms creatures from the ground, bringing each one in turn to Adam, who gives them a name. This is done in the hope that one of these creatures will be a match: a helper and partner. So imagine Adam looking at an animal and saying “Long legs, a longish neck, a mane… I name you ‘horse,’” or “feathers, a beak, you go cluck… I name you chicken,’” but after each one, saying “you’re nice, but you’re just not a helper and a partner for me.”
None of the animals God has made, magnificent as they may be, can be a helper and partner for Adam; none is his equal. And that’s what these words mean; there is a search for the appropriate match for Adam. There is a history of interpreting “helper” as though it indicated some subservience, but it does not. It makes to sense to read that into the term, since the it is used most often in the Old Testament to refer to God in relationship two Israel: God is Israel’s helper. So the point of this effort, to make everything “good,” is to find an equal helper and partner for Adam.
Finally, after Adam has named every creature God made and, “for the man there was not found a helper as his partner,” God causes a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and God takes one of his ribs and creates the second human. Upon seeing her, Adam recognizes his match and exclaims “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” There’s a play on words there as well, in Hebrew just as there is in English, as man is “Ish” and woman is “Ishah.” The point is that Adam recognizes his equal, his match, in Eve.
It is in the context of what this text reveals about the nature of human relationships and about the desires of God for us that Jesus hearkens back to it. If we have truly found our helper/partner/match then we will not abandon them, nor they us. The ideal, the intent of God, is that those who marry would marry for life. And this is good news. This isn’t about God’s judgement on those who don’t keep rules. Again, Jesus is trying to shake up peoples’ thinking. We often approach this passage in the same way as the Pharisees, seeking a way to justify or explain marital breakdown. Marriages ended then, just as they do now, because of hardness of heart. Because of our inability to love one another as we ought to, because of shortsightedness, selfishness, because of our inability to be faithful, or our inability to forgive. Jesus’ teaching is hard, it is true, that’s why the disciples, at one point following his teaching on marriage and forgiveness, say “it would be better not to marry!” (Matt. 19:10).
But it is good news because it means that when we are setting out on a task that is so difficult, at which so many stumble, God is rooting for our success. God is in the stands cheering us on saying “You can do it!” How much better does that feel, and how much more encouraging is that reality, than imagining that, in regard to one of the most difficult and important tasks many of us will ever undertake, God might be indifferent?
Once again, this is not about judging those who have divorced. It’s about the reality of God’s hopes for our lives and our relationships. God desires the best for us. The success and the flourishing of all of our relationships, including our marital relationships. To think about that, it might be helpful to consider that, when God says in Malachi, “I hate divorce,” (Mal. 2:16) God is speaking as one who has endured the pain of infidelity, as recounted in Jeremiah (Jer. 3). Just as God desires a whole and intact relationship with his people, so does God desire that the relationships his people have with one another, including marriage, be successful, resilient, and in keeping with God’s hopes and purposes for our lives.
The good news for us, is that God wants us to flourish. God is cheering us on, especially when it’s hard. And for those of us who are struggling in our marriages, we can take heart that God wants us to succeed—just like the heroes in those sports movies, who have the deck stacked against them but somehow come out on top. I thank God for that. Amen.
Featured image: The Creation of Eve by William Blake.