Holy Communion at Stewkley – 18 after Trinity – 4 October 2015
Reading Hebrews 1.1—4;2.5—12
God’s final word: his Son
1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.4 So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.
5 It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. 6 But there is a place where someone has testified:
‘What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
a son of man that you care for him?
7 You made them a little lower than the angels;
you crowned them with glory and honour
8 and put everything under their feet.’
In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. 9 But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. 12 He says,
‘I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the assembly I will sing your praises.’
Gospel Mark 10.2—16
2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’
3 ‘What did Moses command you?’ he replied.
4 They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.’
5 ‘It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,’ Jesus replied. 6 ‘But at the beginning of creation God “made them male and female”. 7 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this.11 He answered, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.’
The little children and Jesus
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
I normally try and preach a sermon on one broad topic, usually from the gospel reading, which hangs together nicely, shares some theology, and provides pause for thought during the week ahead.
Today, it’s not easy to do. Our gospel reading from Mark is in two parts. The first is about divorce. It is difficult to do justice to this in only a few minutes, and the visiting preacher does not know the congregation well enough to avoid risking upsetting individuals for whom this teaching is close to their own hearts and experience.
The second part is about little children. It’s a lovely passage, one we can all associate with, is uncontroversial, and in these days of ageing congregations, a teaching we should all put into practice every moment we are in church and when we aren’t.
I could, instead, talk to you about the reading from Hebrews. But it’s all about Jesus the Son of Man being compared to the angels. There is a real problem in translation right in the middle. And this passage opens a series of readings from Hebrews that lasts 6 or 7 weeks and is really more suitable for a sermon series rather than a one-off.
Back to the gospel then, and I suspect the pairing of divorce and the little children is deliberate on the part of the lectionary designers. It enables the timid preacher to ‘cop out’, talk about children, encourage us all to be simple in our faith, and leave with a warm feeling.
Personally, I have never been one to avoid trouble, so if you will forgive me for any offence, I will say a little about divorce as Jesus taught it. My reasoning is that it is important. Sadly, 66% of marriages will fail in the first few years and end in separation or divorce.
Let’s start with what we need to know in order to understand what Jesus taught. First, the ancient world was patriarchal. Married women were regarded as the property of their husbands. Within Judaism, only a man could divorce his wife. Roman law was different: a woman could divorce her husband, and this is why the possibility is referred to in verse 12, which Jesus effectively condemns, saying the woman remarrying another man would commit adultery as a result.
Secondly, marriages were based not on love but property and relations between families. Jews regarded Romans and other gentiles has having weaker standards of morality, hence the controversy about Herod and his marriage to Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, and John the Baptist’s outright condemnation which led to his death.
Thirdly, the text in Deuteronomy 24 that allows a man to divorce his wife is quite clear, and this passage is quoted by Jesus. For this reason, the Pharisees could not have been asking about the legality of divorce, and Jesus was not overturning the provision for divorce which had existed for generations.
So if Jesus did not intend to change the law, what was going on when he spoke privately to his disciples? What is said was pretty clear, after all.
‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.’
The real issue is what constituted appropriate grounds for divorce. The parallel passage in Matthew 19.3 poses the question more precisely: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”
Jesus is constantly thinking of the vulnerable, the persecuted, and the disadvantaged — and there is little doubt that women were at a gross disadvantage in marriage. When we try and interpret what Jesus actually said, it is in this light.
We must also distinguish between the teaching of Christ intended to apply for all time, and that which was restricted to the society and time in which he moved. His teaching about divorce falls, I think, mainly but not exclusively in the second category.
Going back to Deuteronomy 24 for a moment, the law says a man can divorce his wife for “something objectionable” which gives her no protection whatsoever. So Jesus is being much more restrictive, in order to protect the vulnerable. God, he says, in creation intended two human beings would join together and become effectively one. It was a human failure that God’s intentions were frustrated, and that divorce was permitted.
As one might expect, God’s commands are not arbitrary, but have a principle that drives them. In a patriarchal Jewish society where only husbands had the prerogative of divorcing their wives, a prohibition of divorce provided a safeguard for women who could be left seriously disadvantaged after a divorce. Further, as Jesus spells out to the disciples in 10.10-12, in situations where either party could initiate a divorce, it’s the faithful partner that is harmed when his or her spouse divorces in order to marry someone else.
The words of Jesus are of course God’s own Word, and so it is well that we take time do understand them, as they apply to us today. As it says in the beginning of our reading from Hebrews:
1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
The heading in my translation is God’s Final Word — His Son. Here we have the end of the story of God’s faithfulness to humans, and the way he has kept his promises made in the Hebrew scriptures and brought to fulfilment in the Son of Man.
God’s faithfulness to us is mirrored in our faithfulness to each other. God’s love for us is mirrored in our love for each other. This is what lies behind Jesus’ teaching about divorce — that it is permitted; that it is a human failure and not the intended state of things; and that, in it, God shows his concern and care for the weak and vulnerable. Amen