Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on October 4 2009. Psalm 26:1-12; Mark 10:2-16
As we all know, or as we all should know, there are times when we find ourselves in a tough situation and discover that the stated issue really isn’t the issue. That can be particularly true in a situation of conflict.
Someone comes to you with a beef. You’ve done something to offend that person, you are told, or you said something they took the wrong way. You feel attacked, but you know it won’t do any good, any good at all, for you to respond in kind. So what do you do? You stand back, analyze the moment as best you can, and then you probe in an effort to get to the bottom of it.
Asking questions in a time like this can deflect some of the anger or frustration of the moment... unless, apparently, you’re at one of those health care reform town hall meetings! The more you are able objectively to look at the situation, the clearer the picture becomes to you. The issue presented by your attacker really isn’t the issue at all. There is something else going on in that person’s life that he or she doesn’t really want to deal with. But they have to release their frustration some way, so their anger is being taken out on you.
Ever experience an encounter like that? Boy, if I had a nickel for every time that’s happened to me, I’d feel like I’d already won the lottery.
On his way to Judea, Jesus is confronted by a group of Pharisees. They ask him what they consider to be a theological question. Except, the question they put forth to Jesus really isn’t the issue, not according to Mark’s interpretation. He says they ask Jesus about the issue of divorce, not because they sincerely want a clarification of the law in regard to divorce, but because they are attempting to put Jesus to the test.
And what does Jesus do? He stands back, quickly analyzes the situation, and then begins to probe. Instead of giving them an immediate and direct answer, he asks a question. Knowing the Pharisees are well-versed in the Levitical law, and place a great deal of emphasis on the tiniest, most minute elements of the law, he goes to their source of biblical understanding. “What did Moses command you?” he asks them. In other words, what does the Bible say?
Jesus didn’t really need to ask the question, did he? He knows why the Pharisees have come to him, and he knows what the Levitical law says according to Moses. And I doubt that he’s stalling for time. Jesus is setting up his case based on his one, singular operating principle in life. What is God’s will? What is God’s intention so God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven? That is the principle that governs everything Jesus says or does.
This group of Pharisees has come to test him, to be sure. But there’s something else to this encounter as well. And that, I think, deserves our giving it some attention, if for no other reason than Jesus’ response comes across as being so black-and-white with no possibility of compromise whatsoever. His answer to the Pharisees’ question, as it is outlined for his disciples in a later conversation, could be – and has been – used as a hammer against people who have experienced divorce.
I came across this myself early in my pastoral ministry... and I mean very early. I was a twenty year-old college junior pastoring a tiny rural congregation between Sparkman and Fordyce, down in DallasCounty. Actually, “congregation” is hardly the word to describe the church. If one family happened to be absent on a given Sunday, our attendance was demolished.
And to say that I was pastor of the church is a bit of stretch too. We drove over Sunday morning from Arkadelphia, I preached in the morning and evening worship services, did a little visitation in the afternoon, and for all that and $25 a week was given the title of “pastor.”
But the “job” did have its perks. As I have described it you before, the custom – at least in those days – was for a family to invite the preacher and his wife, if he had one (which I did) to their home for Sunday lunch. It was, more often than not, much more than merely lunch. It was a feast, and was without doubt the best meal Janet and I enjoyed all week.
The first time we visited with one of the church families, as we were eating the lady of the house asked my opinion of divorce. As I recall, I took a large gulp of my iced tea and responded that I wasn’t sure I had an opinion on divorce. I was very fortunate in that there had not been much divorce in my family, or even our larger family... that I didn’t really know anyone I could think of who was or had been divorced (ast least as far as I knew), so I hadn’t given it a lot of thought. My main concern in those days was passing my courses at Ouachita so I could graduate and go to seminary and really learn what the Bible says. And besides, I was only twenty years old. I’m sure I had an opinion about a number of things, but not divorce.
The lady of the house then commenced to quote me this scripture from Mark’s gospel and tell me that she thought divorce was a sin, and that when divorced people re-married they were committing adultery. After all, it was in the Bible. Jesus said so.
Okay, so I’m thinking, what is this really about?
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. She then told me about another family in the church who held prominent places of leadership. In a church that size, it didn’t take much to be considered prominent. All you had to do was show up on a fairly regular basis and you were prominent members. This other family just happened to be one of the few family units who attended the church. Prominent indeed!
The mother of the family had been married before, I was informed (prior to this dinner conversation I did not know that), and now she and her current husband had what our hostess considered to be an illegitimate son. Except the lady who was telling us this didn’t use the word “illegitimate.” You can imagine, without my telling you, what word she used.
Not only did the previously-divorced woman teach a Sunday School class, but it just so happened that her eight year-old son was the only male in the church who would pray publicly. Our hostess was convinced that when the boy prayed God wasn’t listening. God could not possibly hear the prayers of a boy like that. And when I called on this boy to pray, from her way of thinking, I was just as sinful as he was.
Boy, what a mess. Did I mention I was only twenty years old?
It did not take me long to discover, as you can imagine, that this had become a huge and painful thorn in the side of this tiny church. The feelings between the two families festered and festered, and as a very inexperienced young minister, I felt the enmity every time I stood in the pulpit. And soon the anger of this woman became directed at me because I “didn’t do anything about it.”
I felt I was being tested. And in reality I was.
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” the Pharisees ask Jesus. And as he does so often, Jesus answers their question with a question of his own.“What did Moses command you?” In other words, what does the Levitical law say about this? Well, Moses allows for a man to divorce his wife as long as he issues her a legal certificate of dismissal.
Did you pick up on that? The law allows for a husband to divorce his wife, but it says nothing about the legality of a wife to divorce her husband. The reason it isn’t mentioned is that there is no provision in the Hebrew law for a woman to be able to do such a thing. When it comes to the issue of divorce, it is without doubt a man’s world.
But Jesus won’t let it rest there. Why did Moses allow for this provision? Because, Jesus says to them, your hardness of heart. It’s a sinful world in which we live, where covenants made are just as easily broken, where one’s word is not binding and hearts are hardened. We live in a sinful world, and Moses finally had to make provision for it.
The Pharisees are essentially asking Jesus what they can get away with. Wrong question, for that is not the level on which Jesus operates. His incarnational purpose is to show us what God desires, not what God allows. Remember: his overriding principle of life was how to bring God’s purpose and will to earth as it is done in heaven. And God’s will is that man and woman become one flesh, and that nothing short of death can separate them from that commitment of marriage. That is God’s will.
You know what Jesus has done? He’s taken their question about divorce and turned it around to a discussion of marriage. People joining together, and staying together, is God’s will. Separation is not God’s purpose.
Still, what Jesus said seems awfully harsh, doesn’t it? What about those who have endured unhappy relationships? Is it God’s will that people remain in marriages that are filled with anger, unhappiness, or physical abuse? What does Jesus’ response say to those here today who have been touched by the reality of divorce?
Well, did you notice that included in today’s reading is that passage about the children? The disciples were attempting to hinder the children from coming to Jesus, but he would not allow it. What does Jesus say? Mark says he was indignant when he 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.”
Is that little story included in this part of Mark’s gospel because that is simply the sequence of it, that this is when it occurred? Despite the fact that these two different encounters seem strangely joined together, I don’t think so. “...it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
What is it that characterizes a child? A child is dependent on the mercy and love of his or her parents, of those who are responsible for them. In the eyes of God, we are all his children, at God’s mercy. Even when we are hard of heart, sinful though we may be, the final word is not according to the law of Moses. It is according to the kingdom of God. And in God’s kingdom, the operating principle is not law, it is mercy... even for the hard of heart.
With a little bit of digging, I finally got to the bottom of the controversy in that little church I once “pastored” in DallasCounty. I didn’t say I found a solution, but I did discover the motive. It turns out that the lady who asked my opinion of divorce had both a son and daughter who were divorced and had re-married. And, I also found out, her marriage was not a happy one. So, in reality, she was less interested in a biblical response to divorce and re-marriage than she was in visiting her personal pain upon others who had become unwitting victims of her anger.
Remember: in situations like this, the issue is rarely ever the real issue. Jesus knew this, and so should we.
What we are finally left with is what every child is left with... the need for mercy and forgiveness, the knowledge that in our imperfect world, inhabited by flawed people such as ourselves, the law is not the final word. With God, grace is always the bottom line. And aren’t you glad for that?
Thank you, Lord, for your mercy and your grace. We fall down on our faces to receive such a gift, for we are sinners indeed. Take our very human flaws and use us for your kingdom. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.