Friday, October 19, 2012

Pentecost +19B

It strikes me that one of the issues the Church handles worst of all, even though we spend a great deal of our energy thinking about it, is sex.  Well, sex and gender and human relationships.  Mind you, I'm not saying the Church shouldn't think carefully about sex, given its central and powerful role in human life – but preparing for our annual Diocesan Synod last week reminded me of how much of our systematic reflection as a Church goes in to trying to resolve our differences of theology and interpretation of Scripture around sex.  One motion has us considering the so-called Anglican Covenant – an attempt to paper over the differences between Church factions on the inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in our worshipping life and leadership – which perhaps will have the effect of forcing national Churches to follow the most conservative and least inclusive line – while another motion invites us to a more generous and tolerant conclusion that a change in the secular law to allow for civil unions between same sex partners would not threaten in any way the Christian celebration of marriage between a man and a woman.  But a note in the Synod papers by the Primate, Archbishop Aspinall, caught my attention – he points out that before we were hung up about same sex relationships the Church was hung up about the ordination of women, and before that, we were hung up about whether or not divorced people could be remarried in the Church.  Issues of sexuality and gender divide us and perplex us precisely because they are foundational to the lives of men and women and children, and because they carry enormous potential to cause hurt.

And so, of course, like most preachers I venture onto the subject of marriage and divorce in our Gospel reading from Mark this morning with some trepidation, and aware that this is a subject that affects many of us personally and painfully.  As a divorced and remarried person myself, I can't reflect on this passage without recalling the hopes with which I entered my first marriage, the failures on both sides and the pain that both my wife and I felt – and that our sons experienced without understanding its causes – when our marriage ended.

It's a passage that some Church traditions take too literally, and others hurry past too quickly.  Because when Jesus is asked about divorce, he gives an answer that unequivocally states that it isn't God's intention.  Later, in private with his disciples, Jesus seems to take an even harder line, equating remarriage with adultery.  I heard the story a while ago of a very conservative church that decided, if Jesus is that clear on it then they had better be as well, and so they made a rule that divorced and remarried people weren't welcome in their church.  The number of people missing from the pews the following week caused a quick rethink.  What is Jesus on about here?  How can we receive his teaching, and how is it life-giving?

The first thing to notice, is this.  That Jesus is asked a lawyer's question, about divorce – and he responds with a Biblical answer, about marriage.  The Mosaic law did allow divorce – or at least, allowed a man to divorce his wife on any ground, though not the other way around – and you can read it in Deuteronomy, chapter 24. [1]  By Jesus' day however there were different schools of rabbinic thought, and it seems that the ancient world, like ours, understood the implications of fractured marital relationships for both women and men, and most especially for children.  Incidentally, it may well be that the increased proportion of marriages ending in divorce over recent decades reflects the fact that women now have more options and more economic resources, and that society generally has more protection for vulnerable children and parents leaving abusive domestic situations – so hopefully we will never again go back to the "good old days" where the priest or social worker or police would say to a woman, 'and what did you do to make him hit you?'.  Like our ancient ancestors in faith, we have made peace with the sad necessity that some relationships need to end, and others founder despite the best intentions, and generally we show compassion and understanding for those who seek the Church's blessing on a new marriage that offers the chance for healing and life-giving relationship.

But Jesus is asked what he thinks about divorce, and of course it is a trick question, given that some religious leaders of the day allowed it, and others didn't.  Whatever he says, he is going to offend somebody.  So Jesus acknowledges the reality that the Law of Moses allows divorce, because, he says, 'of the hardness of your hearts'.  Because, I suppose, of all the ways that we human beings fail in our efforts to love.  But then Jesus puts scripture into conversation with scripture, holding up the ideal of God's intention so beautifully expressed in Genesis, for two people to be faithful, lifelong companions in an intimate, committed relationship that should not be severed.  In response to a legalistic question about the situations in which divorce should be allowed, he responds with the ideal of a covenant relationship in which a man and woman give themselves entirely to one another, trusting that in the openness and inevitable ups and downs of an uncertain future, that their own true identity and fulfilment may be realised in one another.  As I often tell starry-eyed couples in wedding preparation, they will let one another down, and in not insignificant ways, over and over.  A healthy marriage depends on forgiveness and honesty, and the preparedness to put the interests of another person ahead of your own.  So Jesus deflects the question away from divorce by affirming God's intention for marriage, and of course so should we in the Church find ways of focussing more energy on the ideal of lasting, faithful, loving unions that are a sign of God's love in the world. We could strengthen our support systems for married couples and our marriage preparation programs, and perhaps we clergy might sometimes even consider a measure of holy hesitation before marrying every couple that asks.

But the second thing is Jesus' even harder words later, in the house.  Most Bible scholars consider this to be an addition by the early Church, given that in Jesus' day only men could initiate a divorce.  In the Greco-Roman society in which Mark's own community lived a couple of generations later, women also could initiate divorce proceedings, so maybe this is why Mark records Jesus talking about a woman divorcing her husband.  But remarriage, he says, is the same as adultery.  It's a hard teaching, isn't it?  That remarriage, even after divorce, is a fundamental breach of faith with the former partner.  Perhaps, as some commentators say, it is another example of Jesus' occasional use of hyperbole, of deliberately over-stating something to make us sit back and think.  Well it certainly does that … for myself, it reminds me that relationships are never cancelled out, and divorce doesn't erase what went before, despite our best attempts at mediation and counselling and legal settlements.  There is a residual relationship, particularly when a couple share the responsibility for children, and there is a need for healing and forgiveness.  It strikes me that Jesus is saying something serious about sin, which inevitably is involved whenever human relationships break down irrevocably, and which we need to acknowledge, to forgive and to ask forgiveness – preferably before entering into another covenant relationship in which past patterns of behaviour, if we haven't reflected deeply on them, might re-emerge.  In any case Jesus, who both teaches and models God's forgiving love, does not condemn our human weakness – as we learn for example from his response to the five-times married Samaritan woman at the well. [2]

The final thing to note – perhaps the most significant of all – is the fact that Jesus' teaching on divorce and his unconditional welcome of children go hand in hand in Mark's Gospel.  It's not by way of changing the subject.  Children, in this society, were all but invisible, and definitely part of the domestic sphere of women, not the public arena inhabited by men.  As a respected rabbi, Jesus could not be expected to bother about children!  But, as always, he notices and cares for those who have the least power, those who are generally not noticed, and whose voices are not heard.  It reminds us, of course, that children are often the primary victims and the ones who are most hurt when marriages fail.  And asks us to hold up to our own relationships the ideal of how Jesus noticed and responded to the needs of others.  But it says something theological as well – Jesus actually holds up these grubby, disregarded children as the ideal of discipleship!  Unless, he says, we can be like this, we simply won't get the point of all his talk about God's kingdom.

It's something about trust, of course.  That in relationship with one another and with God, our needs will be met.  That we don't need to be tricky and grown-up and defensive and self-preoccupied, we just need to be.  That we can trust enough to love.  Mercy, Jesus is reminding us, can be found by those who, like children, are open enough to trust in love, over and over and over.  Marriage, it seems to me, is a lifelong lesson that happiness, like righteousness, is not an achievement but a blessing.



[1] Vss. 1-4

[2] John 4.5-42