Fr. John Allison
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
October 3, 2021
Christ Church, Hudson
Several years ago when this Gospel reading came up in our lectionary it was two weeks before my wedding to Kathleen and I remember what it meant for her, a divorced woman, to stand before the congregation at her church and read the words, “if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” She then went on to preach a beautifully personal sermon and I won’t attempt to repeat it all here because I couldn’t do it justice but what I was acutely aware of in that moment was how scripture intersects with our lives in very real and immediate and sometimes uncomfortable ways.
Every one of us here has some association with this passage. Whether you’re divorced yourself or married to someone who has been divorced or the child of divorced parents or you have a friend or family member who has divorced, Jesus’ words cut to the quick. I’ve known people who have stayed in abusive situations because of this passage; I’ve known people who have divorced and remarried but left the Church because they could not reconcile their actions with this teaching.
In Jesus’ time, just like our own, divorce was a very present reality of life. According to Jewish law divorce was legal, though there were differing interpretations as to the conditions under which it was acceptable. For those who followed the rabbi Shammai sexual infidelity was the only justifiable cause while for those who followed the rabbi Hillel even minor details of the relationship could be grounds for divorce, though in both cases it was only the husband who could divorce the wife and if it happened it meant almost certain marginalization and ruin for the woman. Roman law, however, opened the same possibility to women and as Jesus makes mention of the possibility of a wife divorcing her husband we can assume that at least a portion of Mark’s audience was Gentile. Whatever the case, divorce was a part of the fabric of society much as it is today.
Of course, the Pharisees knew all of this and their question to Jesus is yet another one of their attempts to trap him—essentially using marriage as a weapon to maintain their authority. Depending on his answer he ran the risk of alienating one or another of the groups who were listening. Jesus responds, however, as he often does, by referring back to Moses. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” You see the heart, for people of Jesus’ day, was the center of judgement and understanding and emotion; a hardened heart was not aligned with God’s intention for us to love one another as God loves us. And yet, since that first act of disobedience in the Garden we’ve been trying to realign ourselves to God’s intention, trying to find unity with God, unity with one another. Jesus came to offer us a way to do just that. Indeed, marriage is often seen as a symbol of unity between Christ and the Church and, even more broadly, union between the human and divine. For Jesus the law about divorce is a concession to human frailty. Moses did provide for divorce because we are imperfect beings. No matter how hard we try, we don’t always succeed when we rely solely on our own limited selves. We can hurt ourselves; we can hurt others by our actions.
As mortal beings, made just lower than the angels, as we’re reminded in our epistle today, we cannot love as perfectly as God loves us and yet it’s that call to do so that pulls us forward. It’s the knowledge that we can’t do anything without God’s help that reminds us that we are creatures made in God’s image and that all things come of thee o Lord.
Marriage is such a gift, a sacrament. Marriage, as with all the sacraments, points us to the love God has shown us in Christ. Jesus shows us that in his reference back to Genesis as God includes marriage in the created order. Some may not be called to marriage, which is a whole other subject Paul explores at various points in his letters, but Jesus’ larger point is that God desires us to live in unity. Marriage is one manifestation of that original unity. In Jesus’ day marriage was very different than it is today and the idea of romantic love was not its driving force. Nevertheless, it was a call to live in mutuality, to live in interdependence with one another in a way that sought to align ourselves with God’s desire that we live in wholeness with the rest of creation. “Therefore, what God has joined together let no one separate.” We, of course, can’t help but think of such words as related specifically to marriage but God’s plan for creation from the beginning was one of unity, of mutuality and interdependence and in this teaching we are invited to see the many ways we turn away from the wholeness of God’s original love for us and for all of creation.
As Jesus ends his teaching, we’re told that people bring little children to him so that he might touch them but the disciples speak sternly to them; they try to stop them from interrupting, it seems. But Jesus has other ideas. He calls the children to him. “For it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.” In much the same way, he calls us to him; he calls us to receive the Kingdom as child. He takes the children in his arms and blesses them. In Jesus’ time, children were among the most vulnerable of society, so vulnerable that many never lived into adulthood. Jesus called them to him in their innocence, in their total dependence on the care of others, and he blessed them. He calls us to him also. He calls us in all of our brokenness and imperfection and vulnerability to be blessed by him. He calls us to turn to him, to turn away from those things that are not reflections of his love for us. He calls us to union.
In that sermon Kathleen gave three years ago, she began by saying the words she offers to God each morning: “Here I am Lord, to love you with the whole strength of my being, as I am.” That’s a good prayer for us all. We all come to Jesus just as we are: married, single, divorced, remarried, never married—whatever. Jesus is there waiting. Jesus is there with us. When we turn to him, he’s there to take us into his arms and bless us—whoever we are and whatever our condition may be.
God’s greatest desire for us is joy, to be united with God in wholeness of being—mind body, and spirit—and we will arrive there by different life paths. That’s the promise we have in Jesus.
That’s essentially the prayer we began with today in our collect and I think it’s worth praying again: “Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.