Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Hard Hearts

Hard Hearts
Mk. 10:2-12[1]
At times, it seems that the whole structure of the family is coming unraveled. The casual attitude with which we approach marriage and divorce is one more example of the way in which we as a people are practicing injustice and thinking we can get away without suffering any consequences.  We get married to get divorced, to get remarried to get divorced again, to get remarried again and so on. The attitude seems to be that “if this doesn’t work out, I can always get out of it.” [2]  I wonder if we don’t place more value on the process of buying a house than we do on taking vows of marriage and love.  That’s probably an overstatement, but I don’t think it’s too far off.  Neither do those who study these trends.  Their studies make it clear that our casual attitude toward marriage and divorce has harmed our families, our children, and the whole fabric of our society. [3]
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus takes on the casual attitude of the Jewish leaders about divorcing a wife.  In that setting, a woman could not divorce her husband.  Only the man had the legal right to divorce his wife.  They knew that fact very well when they asked the question “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  Notice they asked “is it lawful?”, not “is it godly?” or “is it right?” or “is it harmful?”  They seemed to approach it as a matter on a par with dividing up the family inheritance.   Jesus knew what they were up to, so he had them repeat it for him: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” [4]  In this case, the Law wasn’t prescribing divorce, it was trying to protect the woman by making the husband give her some way to be able to remarry.  If not, she would have been reduced to a life of begging or worse to support herself.
But Jesus went to the heart of the matter, literally.  He knew that their casual attitude toward sending a wife away was one that came from their hard hearts.  In other words, it was a selfish act that created suffering for the wife, and they couldn’t care less. He confronted them with the fact that “from the beginning” it was not the case.  They appealed to legalistic hair-splitting, and he trumped them by going back to the Creator’s original intention for marriage. [5]  Jesus says that God’s intention for marriage was to create one family out of two separate people.  It was intended to unite two people in such a way as to make it as if they were one person. 
But he goes even further than that.  They wanted to talk about the “Law,” so he trumped them again.  They cited an off-handed stipulation of Moses regarding divorce and remarriage (Deut. 24:1-4), and he appealed to the Ten Commandments!  He said that for a man to casually divorce his wife was the equivalent of committing adultery against her!  Once again, it was the casual, hard-hearted, selfish attitude that Jesus was addressing.  When a man sent his wife away due to selfish reasons, he not only did her irreparable harm, he also violated the Creator’s intention for marriage, and thus was guilty of committing adultery.
Divorce is an unfortunate and painful reality in our world.  Living in marriage with another human being is anything but easy. These days, both men and women have the “right” to send their spouses away with a “certificate of dismissal.”  It would be a mistake to think that everyone who divorces does so casually or selfishly, though I think there are a lot of people who do.  I’ve been married twice, and I’m at the end of a second divorce.  Although I’m the first person to admit that I’m not easy to live with, If I had my choice I probably would never have been divorced.  But I know for a fact that both of the women who divorced me did so after a long and painful process of deliberation.  They didn’t do it casually, or with a hard-hearted lack of concern for my welfare.  It was something they felt they had to do in order to be able to live their lives in peace and happiness.  That happens sometimes.  After two people have spent a portion of their lives together, it seems better for them to go their separate ways.  But it means breaking up a family, and it’s painful and tragic.[6] 
I don’t think Jesus was addressing that situation at all.  And I certainly don’t think he was branding everyone who remarries after divorce as guilty of perpetual adultery! [7]  In fact, I believe Jesus would be sympathetic toward both parties in a divorce that comes at the end of this kind of soul-searching. [8]  What Jesus was confronting was the casual, selfish, and hard-hearted way in which many assume the right to send away a spouse with little more than a “don’t let the door hit you on the way out”!  That kind of approach to divorce essentially abandons all concern for the welfare of the other person and violates anything resembling love, or justice, or compassion.  It tears apart the fabric of a family.  Like the other issues of justice we’ve been looking at, any behavior like this that comes from a hard heart undermines the well-being of everyone involved, and it ultimately undermines life for us all.
Jesus makes it very clear—a casual approach to marriage and divorce is not consistent with the way of life that he calls us to follow.  He calls us to a life of “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.”  That means we have to think about how our actions affect others—especially when it comes to our families.  He calls us to the decision to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.” That means abandoning the selfish and hard-hearted way of life that so many have adopted.  That applies to our marriages as well as to any other relationship.  He calls us to be transformed by the love of God, and so live our lives with hearts filled with love for God and love for others.  That means living with those who are closest to us, who can sometimes frustrate and madden us, with understanding and love.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/7/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. David Garland, “Biblical View of Marriage,” Review and Expositor 427, where he comments that “‘to have and to hold as long as we both shall live’ has been changed to ‘as long as my spouse meets my needs and I am fulfilled.’”
[3] Cf. Diana Garland, “Divorce and the Church,” Review and Expositor 422, where she says, “Marriage has been redefined by our culture in the past twenty years. It has become an agreement to live in friendship and support and sexual intimacy with the partner; it is no longer defined as the creation of a new family unit.”
[4] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII: 646, where she says that they were trying to get him in trouble with the Herodian rulers, like John the Baptist, over the casual way in which they approached marriage and divorce.
[5] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII: 645; cf. also Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 180; and A. Y. Collins and H. W. Attridge, Mark, 467-68.
[6] Cf. Williamson, Mark, 178: “A divorce may revoke a legal contract, but one cannot un-live the vital ties created by life together in marriage.”
[7] Cf. John Shelby Spong, The Living Commandments, 80, where he recognizes that that the biblical ideal is monogamous marriage, but wants to propose that “there is a very large area between what we could call ideal and what we would call immoral.”
[8] Cf. Perkins, “Gospel of Mark,” NIB VIII:646: “Christians have not been as adept as was their founder at avoiding the divorce business. Some have created an elaborate legal system for determining when a marriage may be declared void. Others are experimenting with ritualizing divorce. One cannot come away from this Markan story without the sense that Jesus would have declared both approaches attempts to put human traditions in place of God’s intention for humanity. A failed marriage represents a human tragedy for everyone involved.”  Cf. also Diana Garland, “Divorce and the Church,” 428.

1 comment:

David Engler said...

So on the mark no judgment just the truth. Divorce is one of the million reasons Jesus hung on a cross. Just another human act that falls outside the will of the one who spun us into existence....The habitual sin of a fallen world. Thank you Jusus for rescuing us from ourselves.