A Sermon on Mark 10.2-16, which owes a great deal to Tom Wright. Thank you +Tom!
During the mid 1990’s it was not uncommon for clergy, and especially bishops, to be contacted by journalists and asked, ‘What does the church think about divorce?’ It would generally be framed as a hypothetical question, but of course it was anything but, and no matter how the bishop in question responded, no matter how hard they tried to make it clear that their response was a general and broad statement, or not even a statement at all, the journalist would always end up saying, So you’re saying that in the case of Charles and Diana….’ The question addressed to Jesus in today’s gospel reading is similar.
Consider that the location for this whole argument is just beyond the River Jordan – that’s John the Baptist’s old stamping ground. And consider that the reason John got into trouble with Herod in the first place and ended up being beheaded was that he had dared to criticize Herod’s marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife. The Pharisees’ question that claims to be a general one about divorce and adultery is in fact a very specific one, designed to trick Jesus into revealing where he stands on the whole subject of Herod’s marriage, and hence where he stands on the question of Herod’s integrity as a leader of God’s people.
Rarely in the gospels is Jesus asked a straightforward question, so he is wise to the trickery. In public he answers just as he did with the question of whether a Jew should pay tax to the Romans: asking first what the law says and then pointing out what really matters.
But there’s more. Jesus asks what Moses says, and at that time Moses was held to be the author of the whole Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and therefore ‘what Moses says’ is not just what we might think of as ‘the law’ but also the stories of creation in Genesis – and it is small part of these this that Jesus goes on to quote.
It is not the law that Jesus is most concerned with here, but rather the deep desire of God for his people to live in relationship, at one with him, with each other, and with the natural world around them. Those words from Genesis are a way of capturing that desire in tangible form – marriage as a metaphor (albeit an idealised one) for the kind of relational living that is God’s desire for all of creation.
If we turned to Genesis 1.27 we would read, ‘male and female he created them, in the image of God he created them’. Male and female are but one facet of the diversity of humanity – one could reasonably add into that verse any pair of opposites – introvert and extravert, black and white, and so on – without distorting the sense of what the writer is trying to convey.
And, of course, in Hebrew a pair of opposites generally encompasses the full spectrum of everything in between. Jesus’ quoted verse is in the context of a passage that is about the radical diversity within the unity of creation, and of humanity in particular.
I would go as far as to say that the image of God that we may find in humanity is not so much in each of us individually (no matter how different we may be from one another) but rather it is in our diversity-in-unity that we are mostly truly – collectively and communally – the image of God. This is hardly surprising, given the Trinitarian God in whose image we are made.
It is relationality – with marriage as one possible concrete example as well as a metaphor – that represents God’s deepest desire for his creation and for us as the crown of all creation.
But we also remember what happened next in Genesis. The fall of humanity, as Genesis tells it, cascades from simple disobedience and quickly distorts that relationality: Adam blames Eve (and blames God for making Eve), Eve blames the serpent (and therefore also God for making the serpent) and thus every aspect of God’s desire for right relationship is broken.
When relationships broke down in Jesus day, and when they do so in our own day (whether those relationships are marriage, or between parents and children, between or within communities, or even between nations) that is a continuing manifestation of the same brokenness. And even functional relationships are not perfect – none of us can say that our common life is a perfect expression of the image of God, though we may sometimes glimpse it.
We are fallen people. Every broken relationship is a crack in the image of God that we were created to be, and marriage stands and falls not just by the actions and attitudes of the couple themselves, but all the networks of relationships of which they are part: that’s why the marriage service talks of marriage enriching society and strengthening community, and that’s why the whole congregation is asked whether, with God’s help, they will support and uphold the couple in their relationship.
This is the wider context for Jesus’ response. And when we look at it this way, it shows up the Pharisees’ question for what it is: petty, legalistic, and condemnatory.
Yes, Deuteronomy permits divorce, because of ‘the hardness of our hearts’ – an acknowledgment of our fallenness. But to ask ‘is it lawful’ is to reduce to a matter of legality something which is, or should be, so much bigger, so much deeper. The Pharisees want to talk about laws: ‘What can we get away with before God will start minding’. But Jesus wants to talk about the deepest desires of God for his creation – it is this desire that the laws were intended to express in concrete form, but too often we forget this. ‘Is it lawful?’ is a question that condemns, that divides, that reduces human relationships to a line of legal text that takes no account of people as people. In Jesus’ encounters we see the opposite: a vision of what human beings look like in the eyes of God, what we could be.
For in our own day just as in Jesus’ time, divorce – or indeed any broken relationship – is not a subject that can be dealt with either generally or hypothetically, because it’s not an abstract idea but a human tragedy that happens specifically, personally, to real people, one case at a time, to people we know and love, or indeed to some of us. Jesus spent enough of his time with people who had been hurt by life to be very aware of this.
Around a broken relationship there is untold hurt, no matter who might be at fault, and not matter how mutual or otherwise the decision to end it. And a divorce that is ‘by the book’ and legally straightforward is in no way painless. The law at its best may work to protect people from injustice, but it cannot magically make things ‘alright’.
What Jesus says in today’s gospel is really tough. But perhaps it is tough in a different way from how it looks at first. His condemnation is not of couples who divorce, but on the hardness of heart that characterises fallen humanity, and that characterises the Pharisees’ question in particular; the hardness of heart which mars the divine image, and prevents us from seeking, let alone actually living out God’s deepest desires for us.
Perhaps this is why Mark follows this difficult passage with Jesus’ blessing of the little children: maybe they represent, for the Pharisees’ benefit, an open-heartedness that has not yet learned to ask ‘what is lawful’ but still has the capacity to hold out its hands and ask for all the blessings that God desires to give – this is what it is like to live in the Kingdom, I guess- the kingdom of the blessed.
This side of heaven, the divine image in us will always be cracked and damaged, broken by our own sins, by the damage done to us by other people’s, and by the collective sin in which we collude. But we can still seek out those glimpses – as Jesus helped the crowd to do when he placed the little children in their midst – glimpses of what God’s desire for us might look like in real life.
Perhaps we might find these glimpses in our worship, in the invitation to stand or kneel alongside one another in our fallenness and participate in Christ at the Eucharist; in our common life as a church, in our other human relationships with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours; in the miracle of forgiveness for deep wrongs, in the work of healing in the midst of conflict, in the willingness to risk everything to enable the love of God and of humanity to transcend the borders that human sin and pride perpetuate; in all the miracles of generosity and sacrifice and love that soften the world’s hard-hearted divisions.
Learning to perceive these as glimpses of the kingdom, to tap into a sense of what God desires for us, to keep ourselves open-hearted – these are habits of holiness that enable the kingdom to take root and grow here and now. We are broken and fallen, but we are still the crown of God’s creation and what he desires for us and for all he has made is the same as it was at the beginning of Genesis.
2 thoughts on “The Pharisees ask the wrong question again…”
Really good stuff! Years ago we knew Tom Wright & his wife as friends before they moved (?back?) North. Tom says a lot of good sense in his theological writings.
He certainly does! He is my go-to theologian for tricky readings!