Genesis 2: 18-24, Mark 10: 2-16
Some reporters came to Jeremy Corbyn and said “Where does the Labour party now stand on Trident nuclear missiles?” and Jeremy sighed and thought “I wish they hadn’t asked me that question – there really isn’t a good answer that’s going to satisfy everyone” but he turned to them and said “You’ll have to wait until we have a chance to discuss it fully”.
Perhaps you think that Jesus should have given an answer something like that to the Pharisees who ask “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”.
Jesus needs to think about the sanctity of marriage, the legality of divorce, the reality of human fraility and the feelings of the people who might hear what he says.
And those issues remain for anyone reading or preaching about the gospel passage we heard.
I don’t know where you all stand : your personal experience, your family situation, your hurts and your hopes. So it was very tempting to avoid the question altogether, pick another reading as our focus, or skip straight to the end of the gospel and the easier story of the blessing of the children. Yet we are left with this difficult question of divorce – and I think what Jesus says might help us with other difficult questions, too. But let me say right away that I know that for some of you I risk hurting you – perhaps we have all been affected by divorce – in our families and close friends, and many of us will have been through it and been hurt by it. It is not my intention to hurt you more.
So let’s look at what Jesus says when asked “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”.
Jesus asks another questions back to them ‘What did Moses command you?” in other words – what does it say in the law?
The answer is that a man can write a certificate of dismissal to his wife and divorce her. But Jesus says this is an allowance because of people’s ‘hardness of heart’ – he restates scripture '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.'
God’s law states that people belong together for life and the law of divorce is an escape route for those who cannot manage to live like that.
What is Jesus saying about the law of God?
Psalm 19 states “the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul”. Jesus wants the law to make life full and perfect and good for people, not to restrict or deny them. The Pharisees are trying to corner Jesus on a point of law, and he continually tries to open up the debate instead.
The law of God points people to the partnership of husband and wife because ‘it is not good for the human being to be alone’. I think Jesus is trying to help us to wrestle with the idea that the law is not there for us just to tick boxes of right and wrong behaviour, but to understand what is good for us, what is right in the sight of God.
And as it is not good to be alone, so it is not good to make a decision based only on what is right for you – I think Jesus wants his listeners to make all their decisions – not just the one about divorce – based on the good of the whole of the family not just the individual. Jesus points us to a sense of deep belonging to one another and this should be the basis of our moral decisions.
To hammer home the idea that what we do impacts deeply on everyone around us, Jesus uses a classic rabbinic teaching method, and no doubt shocks the disciples when he says
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery".
In last week’s lectionary reading – from the chapter of Mark just before this one – Jesus is similarly shocking when he tells his followers to cut off a sinning hand or foot or cut out a sinning eye. This is not literal rabbinic advice, it is meant to shock – and to get us to think.
Sin cannot be taken lightly – cut it out!
And here, divorce cannot be taken lightly – you cannot just dismiss someone from your life and pretend that relationship never happened.
In every moral question we face, Jesus would have us look at what God requires of us – relationship and belonging not self-interest and cold calculation.
The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul – it is there to sustain us and keep us mindful of others.
Radio 4 have recently been broadcasting a short series ‘bringing up Britain’, hosted by Mariella Frostrup, which devoted one programme to giving advice to parents who are separating. It was refreshing to hear people talking about how to cause the least damage to their children and how to make sensible decisions together about the future, rather than how to extract the best financial deal for yourself in any divorce settlement.
The focus was on the whole family and the future of each family member, rather than only thinking about the self. I think in the same way Jesus’ teaching points to the importance of relationship and belonging, whilst acknowledging that not all marriages can last forever.
Then Mark tells us the story of people bringing children to Jesus to be blessed.
You might think this has nothing to do with the discussion of divorce – but perhaps it does.
His disciples want the children pushed away, but Jesus insists that they come to him for a blessing
‘for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs’. Children know that they cannot be entirely independent of others – at a very young age they simply wouldn’t survive.
The kingdom of God belongs to those who cannot pretend they don’t need others, who know they are interdependent, who understand that without relationship we die.
If we need any further help with understanding what it means to make a decision based on relationships and not on self interest, we have come to celebrate communion.
Here the death of Jesus is remembered.
In it Jesus offers himself for the world. He set aside the very human need for self-survival and allowed his body to be broken and blood poured out on the cross so that he can be shared for the world.
We also remember Jesus’ resurrection – and see that the life laid down for others becomes the resurrection life, transformed by the will of God the Father into life in all its fullness for all people and all time.
Just as the law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul, so the body of the Lord becomes the medicine which heals the soul.
Take and receive to your holy comfort.