Saturday, October 03, 2009

Today's Sermon: Mark 10:2-16 – “Balance of Power”

In the Old Testament reading today, God allows Satan to goad him into testing Job, a righteous man, for no good reason than to settle a bet between them. A very unpleasant view of God as a cosmic chess player, with poor Job the pawn in an awful game. It’s a tough reading – it makes us cringe.

And in the gospel, Jesus says that divorce, which had been permitted under the law of Moses, is no longer allowed. And here we sit, part of a denomination that has since its beginning shown mercy on the matter of divorce. I know it is so. I am divorced and remarried and am also ordained in this church. It’s another pretty tough reading, that some folks might use to condemn me, and the many of us in this room who have been divorced.

What’s a preacher to do?

I could punt and talk about the reading from Hebrews, which has all sorts of lofty language about how we are just a little lower than the angels. Lovely imagery. I could also use the part about us having dominion over all else that God created to talk about our relationship with God’s creatures, since this is the day we traditionally have the Blessing of the Animals and talk in warm and fuzzy language about our animal companions, and all the good things in God’s creation.

I could talk about the Psalm, about living lives of integrity as God would wish us to do.

But, no. You all know by now that I never seem to take the easy path, and the fact that these readings give me indigestion is precisely why I should preach on them. The good news is that I’m not going to try to preach on both those tough passages, just the Gospel. Because there’s nothing I’d rather talk about than divorce, right?

Last week I talked about practical theology, about taking scripture and listening to what God has to say in it to us today, so we’re going to do a little Scriptural wrestling this morning, focusing on that second reading. I’m going to put my money where my mouth is vis-à-vis practical theology.
I said last week that we read Scripture in the context in which we now live, trying to figure out how God wants us to hear it, to use it today. So what do we do with this passage in which Jesus says that divorce is out - kaput - verboten - no longer an option?

Before I can understand this in my present context, I want to know a little bit about divorce in Jesus’ time. He seems pretty adamant in this passage. What has gotten him so riled up on the subject? Is it simply a matter of being bothered by the Pharisees, who are once again testing him on matters of the law? And what does he mean when he says that Moses gave them permission to write a decree of divorce because of their hardness of heart?

So I go back and do a little research, and what I find is that one way of looking at this is that Jesus is protecting women. In reality, women couldn’t divorce men…men could divorce women. And women were left with nothing, since they themselves were chattel, mere property of their husbands. If they had no family to take them in, they would starve, or turn to begging or prostituting themselves to support themselves. They would lose their children, of course, since the children too were property of their fathers. They would be unmarriageable. So was Jesus trying to protect them from this situation, from what could be a capricious decision by a man to rid himself of a wife who had lost some of her youthful bloom, or who found her arguing annoying? A feminist scholar might portray this as a way to balance power, since under Mosaic law the man has all the options and the woman has virtually none.

To me, the key to this passage is a single phrase that got me scratching my head: “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” What in heaven’s name does that mean? Moses wrote this commandment, or God wrote this commandment? Why would men’s hardness of heart mean that the commandment had to be written….doesn’t that imply management of that bad quality in some way? And yet who got harmed in that world? Not the men. The women.

That “hardness of heart” is in Greek sklerokardian…cardiosclerosis. Getting hard, rigid, unable to beat in response to a stimulus. Something that those of us in this room who have had cardiac problems, or whose parents have had cardiac disease, have heard before. A remarkable image, isn’t it, appearing in a text from two thousand years ago? Someone becomes rigid and hard, unfeeling, and that someone breaks the covenant relationship between husband and wife. In Mosaic law, it is only the man who can do that.

And Jesus sees that, and deems it unfair to women, and more important, to God’s sense of the rightness of Creation, that people are intended to enter into a loving and committed relationship with each other, and if they do that before God, they both are intended to do their best to keep their promises. And in the best of all possible worlds, that is what happens. Jesus’ statement about divorce and remarriage indicates that both partners have an equal obligation to keep the relationship going, and both partners are guilty of adultery if they break that relationship and form a new one.

How are we to take that statement, those of us who were divorced and who have remarried? Are we adulterers?

Before we are feeling condemned, let’s take a closer look at what Jesus is really focusing on in this exchange. The Pharisees want to talk divorce…they really want to know if Jesus would approve of divorce for any reason whatsoever, or only in cases of sexual infidelity. Jesus turns the question around – he usually does when the Pharisees ask a question designed to trick him – and reframes his answer not in terms of divorce but marriage.

And marriage, in this passage, is intended to be a covenant between the partners. Remarkably, that covenant presumes equal standing. Both parties are equally responsible. God intends these covenants proceed in a particular way – these days, the church talks of marriage as having three primary ends: companionship, procreation and raising of children, and a legitimate outlet for sexual desire. In Jesus' time, it might be more about the procreation and the sex, and maybe also about political or economic matters. But even in the earliest days of the church, there is a recognition that sometimes we fail in this covenant, and when the covenant fails, it is perhaps a relationship that was not all that God intended. We enter into marriage with all good intentions, but we are human, and sometimes intentions are not enough. Sometimes one partner violates the covenant; sometimes the partners evolve in ways that make the relationship unsustainable.

The important thing here is that I believe that Jesus is talking about something more than marital covenants – he is talking about all sorts of relationships. And in all these relationships, we enter into a contract of sorts, a covenant whereby we make some promises. And if the covenant is not between equals, if both parties do not have equal rights and responsibilities, this is not a covenant as God intended when he created us as equal children of God.

No, this is not a teaching about divorce, or marriage, or adultery…it is a passage about the balance of power, the equilibrium between the parties in relationship. If one person tries to assert authority over the other, it is not as God created them both as God’s children. If one person controls all the decisions, all the assets, all the little and big things that make for a life in relationship, it is not as God created the nature of relationship as partnership in love and respect. The nature of a relationship as Jesus portrays it is one of radical hospitality, of going out of your way for your partner, of putting his or her needs and desires foremost in your mind.

Do we all achieve this kind of relationship? We may get glimpses of it, some of us more than others, and we may fail with some regularity even when we try our hardest. But there is a vision here, a vision of the possibility of a relationship that is what God intends, not the kind of legal structure that the Pharisees seem obsessed with, but the incredibly revolutionary idea that when we are in partnership, we take our partners’ hopes and dreams and needs as seriously as we hope that they will.

This is, after all, the heart of what Jesus teaches. And it is, once again, practical theology: how do we take what we hear from God and put it in action in how we treat others? And if we understand what Jesus says about the poor, the hungry, the oppressed and want to act in response to those words, shouldn’t we do precisely the same thing for the partner with whom we are in relationship?

Perhaps a little help is in order as we fallible humans struggle in our relationships with each other. Listen to these words, the second half of a prayer attributed to St Francis of Assisi:

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Now that's some practical theology for all our relationships.


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