A Sermon for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (03/10/21): Divorce and Little Children

Mark 10:2-16

As so often happens in Jesus’ ministry the Pharisees come to him with a question “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Just for once there doesn’t seem to be a hidden agenda in the question. It doesn’t look like the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus with an impossible question. It looks they have come to him as they might to any Rabbi to get a ruling on the interpretation of the law on some matter. Indeed it is a very straight forward question, with as far is the Law is concerned, a very straight forward answer. It is an answer which the Pharisees already know. So Jesus asks: “What did Moses command you?” “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” they reply. But even when the question is a straight forward one, Jesus’ answer is never a comfortable one. As he consistently does, on questions of the law, Jesus significantly stiffens or even goes beyond the Law’s requirements. Jesus goes on to say that despite what Moses allows divorce should not be permitted “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” This is Jesus at his most demanding and most uncompromising. “No divorces ever, no exceptions.” This is very uncomfortable reading.

Divorce is a reality. It is the consequence, as Jesus points out, of human hard heartedness. It is the result of our frailty and inability to be the best that we might be. Jesus gives no room for such hard heartedness. At this point he is not in the least bit accommodating to human frailty. But in our society it pretty much a commonplace. It touches pretty much every family in some way. Jesus speaking like this will make very many people very uncomfortable, either because they themselves are divorced or those they love, children and close family, have experienced it. This passage certainly isn’t comfortable for me, since I am divorced and according to Jesus’ explanation, since I am remarried to, as it happens, another divorcee, I am committing adultery. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” When Jesus is this uncompromising he is not easy to listen to. When he talks like this he can makes us very uncomfortable. What we tend to do when Jesus speaks like this, is to look for ways around what he says. When Jesus speaks we often look for explanations for what he says. And such explaining when Jesus is making us uncomfortable, such explaining often amounts to “explaining away.” Last week we Jesus had us cutting off our limbs and poking out our eyes to prevent our sinning. Clearly, we tell ourselves, he was speaking figuratively. “It’s only a metaphor,” we reassure ourselves, Jesus here speaks much more directly and his words are harder to dismiss as exaggeration. So instead we look for loopholes and make careful distinctions and definitions. Actually this process begins even before Jesus has finished speaking. Matthew recalls Jesus’ words on another occasion, differently. In the Sermon on the Mount talking about divorce Jesus is slightly less uncompromising. He allows Just one exception to his prohibition of divorce, “except on the ground of unchastity.” Which rather invites later readers to try to define “unchastity” as grounds for divorce as broadly as they can manage. Another solution might be to define Marriage as narrowly as possible To say that some “marriages” were never marriages in the first place, because the people involved didn’t no what they were doing, or the didn’t know how to make the promises in the right way, or the contract and the ceremony were invalid. So if there’s no marriage, it’s not a divorce. So we can call it something different, an annulment. We can allow Jesus to be uncompromising, whilst at the same time allowing space for human frailty.

The trouble is the Jesus’ definition, indeed the Bible’s definition of marriage is much broader and more inclusive than we generally allow. Jesus alludes to the only place the Bible actually has much to say about marriage, the creation story in Genesis: “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.” The King James Version had, of course, the much more picturesque “cleave to his wife.” And it doesn’t take a dirty mind to grasp what Genesis and Jesus are talking about here! The Bible’s definition of marriage is much more inclusive, so that the consequences of Jesus demanding words against divorce are much harder to evade. They are so much so that I tell those couples that come to me wanting to get married who are living together, which is more or less all of them, I tell those couples that as far as the Bible is concerned they are already married! They can’t avoid “divorce” by pretending not to be married in that way Indeed at least one theologian I am aware of goes even further. Stanley Hauerwas goes as far to say that there is no such thing as “premarital sex.” Since for the Bible sex is the definition of marriage. The problem is not so much that people have sex with people when they shouldn’t, but that such behaviour amounts to polygamy which is an abuse of marriage as the Bible defines it! Our society has become tolerant of what might be called serial-polygamy, the practice of taking many wives, only, one after another. (Or many husbands of course, except strictly that would be called “polyandry”) Which reflects a more general feature of our society. We live in a time and a place which has a very casual attitude even an aversion towards personal commitment. It is not as if marriage were they only commitment that people struggle and fail to maintain. And it is this observation which takes us to the reason why Jesus is very strong on marriage and utterly opposed to divorce. Jesus is not in favour of marriage and against divorce in the way that some politicians and some social commentators are. Jesus doesn’t actually believe in “family values” in that way. He doesn’t approve marriage, and oppose divorce because it produces a more stable society and has better social and economic outcomes for its participants (though it might). Jesus isn’t interested in that kind of social engineering. And it’s false to enlist Jesus to support that kind of social and political agenda. Rather Jesus is interested in what our patterns of life, here our practice of marriage, says about the kind of people we are or are at least trying to be. And he is saying something about wat kind of people are capable of having a relationship with God.

People who want to have a relationship with God need to be the kind of people who are capable of sustaining marriages. It is not a coincidence that the Hebrew Bible’s primary metaphor for the relationship between Israel and God is marriage. And therefore why it is also opposed, in the end, to polygamy. What is required both in marriage and in relation to God is single minded devotion, an unrelenting commitment. Only the kind of people who are capable of sustaining marriage are the kind of people capable of the kind of commitment a relationship with God demands. Those who divorce, Jesus suggests, show signs of being unable to sustain that kind of commitment. It is therefore also not a coincidence that the Church has declined at the same time as divorce has increased. Commitment, for the people we live amongst, is a problem. We live in a society which discourages commitment. We live in a time and a place which worships novelty, newness, change, replacement. We do not commit ourselves to lifelong attachment to anything. Instead we expect to change when something new and better comes along. The profound challenge for us as a church is to help people rediscover the value and the necessity of those long term commitments, those lifelong attachments, to enable them to become the kind of people who can have a relationship which God which demands that kind of single minded devotion.

But Jesus moves on. And it might look like he is continuing his theme of “family values.” Having dealt with marriage and divorce we move onto Jesus’ attitude towards children. People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me.” This feels like it will be a good deal less uncomfortable for us than his uncompromising attitude towards marriage and divorce. Jesus likes children. We like children. We’re all good, we’re out of the woods. From here on the sermon is going to be plain sailing. Except of course you already suspect that it is not. We are quite good a not quite listening to Jesus when he speaks. We here him say that we should welcome children like he does. Indeed any good deed done for, as he puts it, “little ones” will not be forgotten. And indeed Jesus does say that, elsewhere. At this point, however, Jesus is not instructing us to welcome children (though emulating his action is generally a good thing). This is not about how we treat children but rather it is about our willingness to be like children. So like his words on the subject of divorce, Jesus is once again talking about the kind of people we need to be in order to have a relationship with God. There is in fact a contrast being made between the disciples and the children whom Jesus welcomes. A contrast in a way between the way the church so often behaves and the kind of people Jesus welcomes, the kind of people we should be in order to have a relationship with God. The disciples, like all grown ups, prefer to be in control. They like to do things, the enjoy competence, and effectiveness. They like to be useful. So when they listen to Jesus they hear commandments: “Don’t divorce,” “Welcome children,” they a happy. These are things they (we) can do and feel satisfied with themselves. An indication of this is the disciples’ behaviour around Jesus. They want to turn away the children and their troublesome families away from Jesus. They attempt to shield Jesus from too many demands. They have a sincere (if misplaced) desire to be useful, effective. This may be part of an attempt on their part to earn Jesus praise and to merit his affection for them. But Jesus would rather his followers were like the children.

The question is always what childlike quality does Jesus expect from us? With the contrast with the disciples in place. I think that question is easier to answer. Where the disciples want to be in control and to some extent want to deserve Jesus’ love. The children are dependent, without control, and are simply open to the love Jesus’ offers them. The most powerful image of the gospel is right here: He took them up in his arms, laid his hand on them and blessed them. Which is why Jesus’ attitude to children should be hardly less uncomfortable for us than his attitude to divorce. Because it runs against the kind of people we have become. We are not childlike in the sense that we are ready to accept our dependence and are happy to relinquish our control and our desire to earn/deserve what we are given. In spite of ourselves we find it very hard to accept a relationship with God in which God simply loves us. If Jesus requires us to do anything it is simply to acquire a willingness to be welcomed into his arms.

Surprisingly both halves of the passage point to the same thing. They both point to the same problem in human nature.
That is, to a resistance to what God does and what God is willing to give. The quality of little children which Jesus is interested in is their acceptance of being loved. They don’t resist or reject what he gives to them. Which is actually where the problem with divorce lies. “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” There is a simple failure to accept or an inability to stay committed to what God is offering us. Jesus presents to us a picture of the kind of people who can have a relationship with God. People who are open to being loved and are ready to stay committed for a lifetime Like little children and married couples.


Divorce and Little Children by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.