October 3, 2021
"But the Bible Says …"
Rev. Scott Landis
She did not look like a Pharisee. She appeared harmless: a flowered-print dress, short in stature, glasses too large for her rounded face. I thought she was going to welcome me to the church. It was the reception at my first pastorate. I extended my hand as she approached, opened my mouth to offer a greeting – but before I could say anything, she said, “Preacher, do divorced people go to hell?”
The Rev. David Howell recalls this very uncomfortable incident in his ministry as he reflects on Mark 10 in his commentary in Feasting on the Word. He continued in his reflection on this passage, “Almost dropping my fruit punch, I thought, ‘I just passed my ordination exam. What is this? Another test of some sort?’”1
David remembers offering the best pastoral comment he could muster, I suppose so he could move on to other folks in the room and maybe to soften her black and white thinking on the subject, but ultimately, he knew, he failed. In a subsequent conversation she talked about her reason for asking. It had to do with her son who was going through a divorce. She expressed her concern as she revealed HER biblical perspective by stating words to the effect, “But, the Bible says…” [Pause]
It’s a question many of us have been asked – or have been forced to consider if we’ve been part of a church while undergoing the painful process called divorce. What DOES the Bible say about divorce? How we answer that – or, at least, what we believe the Bible says, may affect how we relate to those who have gone or are going through this complicated life experience. [Pause]
The Pharisees were interested in the same question when they came to Jesus with a similar query. Remember, the Pharisees where the custodians of Hebrew law. They studied it, interpreted it, they memorized it and were the guardians of it – making sure all those who professed to be observant Jews followed it down to the letter. This was there way of testing Jesus. Trying to trip him up – to expose him – to let everyone see that this so-called rabbi was soft on the details of their religious observance, and so they asked smugly, “Is it legal for a man to divorce his wife?”
Jesus did not take the bait. Nor did he broaden the parameters for divorce – but he did contextualize it a bit. Throwing their question back to the Pharisees he responded by asking them, “What did Moses say?” Here is where you need to have a little better understanding of Hebrew law.
The Pharisees correctly stated, “Moses said, all a man (sic) had to do was fill out a certificate of dismissal” and – viola – divorce. And that was true. The former wife would have no say in the matter. She was simply cast out. Having neither resources nor recourse, she was destined to return, in shame, to her family of origin where she would come under the care of her father once again, OR her eldest brother if her father was deceased.
Women, at that time, HAD to be under the care of another man which is almost completely unheard of in our day. If not, she could be left to beg for food or to prostitute her body in order to acquire funds necessary to survive. Fortunately, that is no longer our experience – for the most part. There are rights afforded to both parties – but that doesn’t make the process of divorce any less painful. Neither does Jesus allow for much wiggle room on the issue.
As I read it, Jesus held a pretty firm view on preserving marriage. Quoting the book of Genesis, he described God’s desire for humanity. Based upon an exclusively patriarchal understanding of marriage AND a heteronormative understanding of human love, Jesus reminded those within his community, it was not good for men and women to live alone.
Most of us are hard-wired to desire and seek out relationship. It is in relationship with another being that we discover the joys AND frustrations of friendship, companionship, and love – which can be both altruistic and erotic, as well as mysterious, sacred, and sexual – all at the same time.
That’s all well and good, but it still leaves those of us – who have come through a divorce or who have witnessed the divorces of our children to feel like we are somehow outside of the grace of God. We may have even been accused of breaking divine law and condemned as far as God is concerned.
I think, that is precisely why Jesus did what he did next in this story. Realizing the pain and fallibility of human decision and consequences involved in many of them, Jesus does the most remarkable thing to remind us of what matters most to God.
He begins by unpacking the idea of adultery to his disciples – as if the whole divorce thing wasn’t challenging enough – Jesus reiterated his conviction of God’s desire for wholeness in human relationships and that is beautifully expressed in the intimacy AND vulnerability of human love and marriage. While divorce is certainly allowed under Hebrew law, he exposed its abuse not by stating divorce is an affront to God, but the patriarchal nature of it in his day. His criticism is directed much more at the lack of power, in this case, on the part of women – and he does this in a very interesting way. [Pause]
“While he was teaching,” Mark continued, “people were bringing their children to him – that he might touch them and bless them, but the disciples shooed them away. Jesus was irate and let them know it: ‘Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are the very center of life in the kingdom. Unless you accept God’s kingdom (God’s family) in the simplicity of child, you’ll never get in.’”
Do you hear what he is saying? And make note of his timing.
He makes an important shift in his discussion on divorce. That doesn’t make the topic unimportant or irrelevant – but he puts it in perspective and points out something that is much MORE important. And the example was right there – in front of their eyes.
What Jesus was demonstrating in blessing the children was to show, once again, that “ALL of us sin and fall short of God’s glory.” We all make mistakes, and we all do things that break God’s heart on a regular basis. And on a scale of 1 - 10 divorce is not a 25.
Rather Jesus was reminding us of our need to recognize the error of our ways. Each one of us. And it’s in our coming to God OR in our returning to God – no matter what has happened in our lives – with the same vulnerability as a child – that’s what makes all the difference. When we come to God in complete humility, we will receive the blessing that only the Holy One can offer. “Just as I am without one plea – O lamb of God I come, I come.” [Pause]
Having said all this, I will not pretend that my words of assurance will take away the sting of divorce. I, too, know firsthand – Divorce is devastating. It leaves permanent scars that we will carry for the rest of our lives. But thanks be to God, we worship a Savior who loves us beyond any love OR condemnation we could ever muster for ourselves. God’s is a forgiving love – a restoring love – a love that will not let us go – a love that sees beyond anything we have ever done and, instead, sees our heart. [Pause]
We are invited to come to him today – like a child – to receive the blessing that God alone can give. No matter what you might be struggling with today, please hear these words very clearly, there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God. I hope you will hear that promise anew and receive God’s love, God’s forgiveness. God’s grace. Today.
Mahalo ke Akua. Thanks be to God.
1 David Howell, Feasting on the Word, Proper 22, Mark – Pastoral Perspective.