Preaching a Toxic Text

NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 2:18-24

Psalm 8

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Mark 10:2-16

Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, you have created us to live in loving community with one another. Form us for life that is faithful and steadfast, and teach us to trust like little children, that we may reflect the image of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:11.

I dread this pericope. I can’t help but wonder how these words of Jesus are being processed by women and men who are divorced and remarried, have children who are divorced, are trapped in abusive marriages or were raised by parents who are divorced or separated. It is tempting simply to ignore this first half of the reading in which Jesus deals with a question regarding divorce and focus instead on the second half where Jesus blesses the little children. If you are going to exercise that prerogative, I strongly suggest you omit from the gospel reading the previous section on divorce. Simply leaving these words hanging in the air without contextualizing or addressing them borders on pastoral malpractice.

On the other hand, if you choose to take the bull by the horns and preach on Jesus’ difficult remarks, there are a few essential points to be made. First, it must be emphasized that Jesus is responding to a man’s question asked by men of a man in a man’s world. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” There was no provision in Jewish law for women to divorce their husbands. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, (c. 1991; published by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 256. Thus, the concern here is exclusively for the rights of a man over his woman. Jesus will not discuss the matter of divorce on these terms. Though he does not dispute the validity of provisions allowing divorce under Mosaic law, he will not let this be the final word. Instead, he circles back to the Book of Genesis, also deemed to be a writing of Moses in Jesus’ day, to articulate the divine relational intent for marriage.

Jesus brings together elements from the two Genesis creation stories (Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Genesis 2:4-25) to broaden his audience’s perspective. “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” Mark 10:6.[1] This is so because “the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” Genesis 2:18.[2] Clearly, men and women were created to be partners in God’s creative scheme. As such, their union is not merely contractual. It is covenantal. God is instrumental in this holy union. Accordingly, it is not for human beings to annul it. A man may not, under color of law, dispose of his wife as he would a piece of property to acquire a newer model. To do so amounts to adultery by another name. Jesus goes further to say that if a woman “divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:12. As previously noted, there was no provision in First Century Jewish law for a woman to divorce her husband. For this reason, most commentators believe this verse to be a later interpolation supplied by the church to make clear that the same rule applies to women in cultural contexts where such provisions did exist. Eg., Hooker, at 257. However that might be, it is entirely consistent with Jesus’ insistence that marriage is a covenant of equality between partners.

Second, Jesus’ uncompromising position on the matter of divorce needs to be seen against the background of his covenantal understanding of it. That understanding is further articulated by Saint Paul’s recognition of marriage as a symbol of and witness to the relationship between Christ and his church found in his Letter to the Church at Ephesus. Ephesians 5:21-33. [3] Marriage is not simply a private matter between two people. It is part of the glue that holds communities together, it provides shelter and care for children, the ones for whom the reign of God is chiefly designed (Mark 10:14), and it witnesses to the passionate love God has for the church. For these reasons, it should not lightly be dissolved.

That said, this text must never be used to stigmatize persons who have been divorced as having “failed” in some fundamental way. To be sure, Jesus and Saint Paul give us a high vision of marriage. But has any marriage ever met these high standards? No more than any church has ever lived fully into its identity as the Body of Christ. There is no such thing as a “successful marriage.” All marriages are failed marriages, some of which end in divorce. All marriages, first, second or third, are broken. All of them stand in need of grace and forgiveness. My own marriage has both lasted and deepened over the last four decades. But that is in no small part because Sesle and I both had parents who supported us financially, provided child care when we needed it and were always ready to lend a helping hand. We had supportive church communities that we knew we could count on. We both had employers who were compassionate and understanding when we needed to take time off in times of severe illness-which we faced more than once over the years. Would our marriage have fared as well if we had been on our own and without all of this support? Thankfully, I will never know the answer to that question. But asking it every so often reminds me that “it takes a village” to sustain a marriage and that better people than me have seen their marriages collapse under the weight of lonliness, isolation, health issues, financial stress and unemployment challenges Sesle and I never had to face alone.

In sum, I believe that this text must be handled with extreme caution. But with careful preparation and a compassionate gospel focus, it will preach.

Here is a poem by Wendell Berry that speaks of the intimate, turbulent and fragile nature of marriage as well as its potential for making us more than we can be individually.

Marriage 

How hard it is for me, who live
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them
in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.
You have been such light to me
that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me
with the nearness of sleep.
And yet I am not quiet.
It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

Source: The Country of Marriage, (c. 1971 by Wendell Berry; pub. by Counterpoint Press 2013) also published in Poetry, June 1967. Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry was named the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. You can read more about Wendell Berry and sample more of his works at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] This text has frequently been used in support of the proposition that marriage consists exclusively between men and women, excluding be definition faithful monogamous relationships between LGBTQ+ folk. But that does not follow. God also “separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” Genesis 1:4. And yet God also created the moon and stars to give light during the night and there are caves and ocean depths on which the sun never shines even during the day. “God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’” Genesis 1:9. Yet we know that there are intertidal zones and wetlands critical to the earth’s many ecosystems that are neither water ways nor dry land. No one would suggest that these areas were not also divinely created and declared “very good.” Similarly, the binary poles of male and female do not define humanity in its entirety, but simply articulate parameters within which it blossoms and grows.

[2] The term “man” in the English translation is deceptive. “Adam” is not chiefly a proper name. It means simply “earth creature” or “creature made of earth.” As such, Adam is not, properly speaking, a man. It is not until the woman is created that there is man “ish” and woman “ishah.” Thus, one could and probably should say that man and women were created simultaneously.

[3] I am well aware that many find Paul’s words problematic because, whereas he urges husbands to love their wives, he calls upon wives to obey their husbands. I think that criticism is misplaced. Paul begins his exhortation with the admonition “to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:21. Though Paul identifies the husband with Christ who is the “head of the church,” Jesus himself says to his disciples that he is “among them as one who serves.” Luke 22:27. Thus, one could reverse the roles and render the text “husbands, obey your wives” and “wives, love your husbands” without doing any violence to Paul’s argument here. The point is that Jesus relationship with his church is one of mutuality, friendship and partnership. Marriage should be seen as a sign and witness to such mutuality under the gentle reign of God.

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