This is the sermon I delivered today at Putney Methodist Church. The set text, which is reproduced below, was Mark 10:2-16.
The lectionary is the name that we give to the scripture readings appointed for regular acts of public worship across the Christian Church. Every Sunday of the year, there are set passages from the Old and New Testaments that are meant to be read and upon which preachers are expected to expound. It is a good system, generally, and one which should ensure that you do not just hear the preacher’s favourite passages time and again, and that we gain a more complete picture of our Biblical canon.
However, it does mean that on certain Sundays, preachers and ministers across the country will look at the set readings and groan inwardly at the readings about which they are expected to produce a sermon. Today is definitely one of those Sundays!
Today’s reading from the gospel of Mark needs to come with a pastoral health warning because it tackles a very sensitive issue. As we will hear in a moment, Jesus is asked by some of his contemporaries for his views on divorce, and he responds in extremely robust terms. I know only too well that this is an issue which will affect many in this congregation today, either directly or indirectly. For many, I also know that it will provoke painful and disturbing memories.
For that reason, I was sorely tempted to change today’s reading and tackle an easier, and less offensive, passage. During our time of prayer here on Wednesday morning, though, when we usually read the passages for the coming Sunday and then spend some time in silence, I changed my mind. I reflected that these scriptures belong to us all, and as Christians we have a responsibility to wrestle with them, whether we like it or not. Jesus’ responses raises real questions about real people’s lives, and if we cannot discuss them here, then there is little point in our time together. With that health warning in place, let us hear from the gospel of Mark.
Text – Mark 10:2-16 (NRSV)
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “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.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’
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; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Shortly after I was ordained as a minster, I was approached by a couple – as I am from time to time – asking to be married in my church. I did not know them and so over the phone I asked for a few details. It transpired that they were an older couple, and that while the groom was a bachelor, she was a divorcee. At that time, I knew very little about marrying people, except what I had been taught during an hour’s class at theological college. One of the key messages I remembered, though, was that it was fine to marry people who had been divorced but that you needed to probe them a little more deeply about the circumstances of their life, than you would do with people who had never been married before.
So, the couple duly came round for a conversation in my front room and we had a very pleasant chat about their hopes for the big day, how they had met, etc. I knew, though, that at some point I would have to do as I had been told and ask the bride to be some probing questions. I duly put on my serious face, therefore, and asked about her previous marriage, why it had ended in divorce and, crucially, whether or not the gentleman sitting next to her on the sofa had played any part in that process. She replied with great honesty and humility, explaining how the marriage simply had not worked and how they had very sadly just ‘drifted apart’, several years before she had met her new fiancé.
I heaved an internal sigh of relief and with a smile on my face turned to the would-be groom: a much more straightforward case. “So, what’s made a bachelor like you, decide to tie the knot then?” I enquired. “Well, Reverend,” he replied, “I was sat with my two of my grandchildren the other day, and they wanted to know why I had lived with so many women and not married any of them.” My chin almost hit the floor!
I had made the mistake of doing what we so often do, and judging people by the labels we attach to them: bachelor, divorcee, single, unmarried. I had made assumptions about these individuals based on the limited information available to me. I had forgotten that when talking about relationships, nearly all of us could use that Facebook status update: ‘It’s complicated’!
Our passage today brings together the complications of human relationships – with all their beauty, ugliness and subtlety – with another deeply complex challenge: the interpretation of scripture. In both cases, there is the temptation to produce neat, simplistic solutions or trite statements: divorce is always wrong, scripture is always right. But in both cases, the minute we scratch beneath the surface – as in the case of my wedding couple above – then we realise that things are immediately more complicated.
Thinking about the scriptures first, our text from Mark very neatly illuminates the immense challenges of prioritising certain verses of scripture over others. Here, we read Jesus in one part of the Bible, the gospels, quoting from another part of the Bible, Genesis (Mark 10:6, quoting Gen. 2:24), saying that a third part of the Bible, Deuteronomy (10:4, quoting Deut. 24:1-4), is wrong. This is in addition to the fact that elsewhere in Mark’s gospel, Jesus explicitly endorses the teachings and traditions of Moses (Mark 1:44, 7:10).
Very often, when we interpret scripture, what we are actually doing is saying that one part of our Bible is more important than another, and we must be aware of the consequences of such an approach. Over the millennia, this sort of ‘selective fundamentalism’ has been used to justify the slave trade, the burning of synagogues and the persecution of nearly every minority under the sun. If we aspire to be a ‘people of the book’ and wish to claim the name of Christian, then we have a duty to know and understand our own scriptures. To appreciate their complexity and to study them diligently and humbly.
When we turn to the seemingly even more complex field of human relationships, then the situation appears even harder. If we concentrate on the single issue of divorce that is raised by our passage today, then each of us here will have multiple insights and responses. On the one hand, many of us will have great sympathy with Jesus’ resolute response that divorce is wrong. All of us here will know people who have suffered from divorce, families that have been torn apart and individuals who have been wronged – perhaps ourselves. Before training for the ministry, I worked as a civil servant at Parliament. Some of my colleagues were regularly involved with initiatives to engage the public with the legal and democratic process, and one year they had a competition for children to suggest the piece of legislation they would most like to see made law. They were expecting rather silly suggestions like making chocolate free or banning school. Instead, the overwhelming winner was a bill to outlaw divorce. The result troubled my colleagues deeply, and should make us all pause for thought. Our passage brings together Jesus’ apparent views on divorce and children, and the sad truth is that it is innocent children who almost invariably suffer most in family breakdowns.
On the other hand, all of us here will also know situations where divorce was the right thing to do for all concerned. Marriages that involved abuse, harm, deceit, the complete breakdown of communications, to name but a few circumstances. The Methodist Church has recognised this for many years now – indeed it agreed to allow some divorcees to remarry under certain circumstances in 1946. By the 1990s the vast majority of people getting married in our churches were divorcees. More recently, it has – like all major denominations – held a number of consultations on how it should respond to requests for same-sex marriage. During the most recent one, when I helped to convene a number of focus groups in Hertfordshire, what was interesting was how many people when talking about the subject of marriage believed that the church had “got it right” on the question of divorce. In each group, and indeed in nearly every Methodist chapel that I visit, I can almost guarantee that there will be one couple who are there because, “The Methodists would let us get married in church, when no one else would.”. The Church had responded sympathetically to their pain and sense of rejection, and given them the fresh start they needed. Surely, the gospel of Christ is a gospel of second chances.
How then are we to respond to today’s texts? Can it provide us with any clues to how we tackle to the other thorny issues we face today? Well, let me leave you with three suggestions.
First, we must always recognise the context in which our scriptures are written. As the popular adage reminds us: ‘a text without a context is just a pretext’. Jesus is not here being asked to write a theological summary of his views on marriage and divorce. Instead, people are trying to drag him into a contemporary dispute about the interpretation of traditional Jewish law and practice. They either wish to trick him into saying the wrong thing – much like Jeremy Paxman on ‘Newsnight’ – or get him to support their own preconceived views. Jesus refuses to fall into their trap. Instead, as he so often does, he draws our attention to those outside the conversation. In this case, many commentators believe, to the innocent women who risk being reduced to poverty and even prostitution because they no longer please their husbands. Note that in our passage today, no wife or woman is present at Jesus’ discussion with the pharisees. Even though they have most to lose from the practice of a “certificate of dismissal” (10:4), their voice is not represented. There are no clever divorce lawyers here: the men would always retain the home, the children and the money, no questions asked. There is no social security, and precious little opportunity for women to prosper outside marriage. This is the context into which Jesus speaks and we must recognise it.
We could say something similar about the verse from Genesis that Jesus quotes – “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (10:7-8, quoting Gen. 2:24). Fairly simple stuff and easy to interpret, we could say. Except of course that this text is to be found amidst a book that specifically permits polygamy. Would anyone here wish to apply that ruling to our own time, I wonder? The truth is we cannot simply bring complex questions about human relationships, artificial intelligence, nuclear weapons or indeed any other subject, without recognising the context in which we are now living, and the context in which the texts we hold sacred were written.
Second, we need to acknowledge that Jesus gives individuals an individual answer, and we need to do the same. The straightforward answer we find to this question about divorce is not the same one that Jesus gives to the woman caught in adultery whom he encounters in John’s gospel (John 8:1-11). A woman caught committing a crime that none of Jesus’ contemporaries believed to be permissible and which is completely contradictory to all of the teachings of the Bible, yet whom Jesus seemingly acquits. The straightforward answer we find to this question about divorce is also not the same one that Jesus gives to the Samaritan woman he meets at the well (John 4:1-42). A woman who has had, “five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband” (John 4:18). She is not charged with adultery and thrown into the outer darkness where there is a wailing and gnashing of teeth: instead she is effectively commissioned as the first apostle to the Samaritans.
Jesus told people what they needed to hear. As his followers, we need to do the same. Sometimes, it is our job as Christians to challenge moral and ethical misbehaviour, and say very clearly and emphatically, “No, that is not right.”. “You should not get divorced, just because you fancy a younger, sexier wife.” “It is not right to abandon your partner when they become ill or lose their job.” “It is not right to place your own desires above the interests of your children.”
On others, though, we will need to say, “Yes, I understand.” “You made a mistake.” “You deserve a second chance.” Only through studying the scriptures as a whole – not just a few verses here and there – and by honest prayer and humility of heart, may we discern which path we are meant to take.
Third, and finally, we must recognise that the key to understanding this passage, and arguably all passages in the Bible, lies in those last four sentences of our reading today. We are told there that if we wish to be part of God’s Kingdom of Heaven, then we must receive it “as a little child” (10:15). In other words, we must receive God and his Word with the humility to admit that we do not have the monopoly of God’s truth and cannot begin to comprehended the wonders of his grace. We must receive it with the willingness to admit that we make more mistakes and hurt more people through our ignorance and selfishness, than we ever would like to admit. We must receive it with the recognition that, whatever age we may be, we still have so much to aspire to, in order to become the people that Christ wishes us to be. And as all children should, we must know deep in our own hearts that however imperfect our world may be, Christ meets us where we are, with all our faults and flaws, embraces us, just as we are, and wishes to take us by the hand and lead us on to a newer and deeper understanding of his grace and love.
Brothers and sisters, let us approach this table today with the humility of a child. Let us acknowledge our all too human weakness before the God who made us. Let us seek the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit who fills us with his power. And let us receive the unconditional grace of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, who died upon a cross of pain for each one us – just as we are – to bring all of his children into the Kingdom of God. Amen.