Those readings from Job and Maya Angelou
are juicy and wonderful:
“We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.”
Man, just that sentence alone, is enough
to stutter over for a goodly amount of time.
Then from job,
we could spend this time
debunking the myth of Satan
the way I de-mythologized the idea of Hell last week.
But that would be boring
compared to Maya Angelou,
even if the story of Job is fascinating.
What we are stuck with, however,
is Jesus’ words on divorce
which cannot be left
unexplained and unchallenged.
Last week Jesus told folks
to pluck out their eyes
and cut off their hands and feet,
but I felt no compunction
to tell you that was bad advice.
I was pretty sure you wouldn’t go home and do it.
This week, however,
because divorce is common among us,
and because The Episcopal Church
clearly contradicts Jesus’ strict admonition
against divorce, I feel the need to address it.
Now, when I do this –
cover territory we’ve traveled down before –
I feel like I am repeating myself and
doddering on senility.
But that is not what’s happening.
It is because some things
cannot be allowed to go unsaid –
they are too raw or too much present
in and among us.
Like I said, there was little danger
that anyone was going home
to pluck out their eye last week,
but today’s excerpt from Mark on divorce
can set our teeth on edge
and also leave us with a very wrong idea
about Jesus and divorce.
In addition to all of that,
it is useful to consider today’s topic
in the context of how we treat Scripture differently
than fundamentalist Christians do,
and how we can arrive at a very different
conclusion about divorce,
than Roman Catholics do.
We can engage in coherent dialogue
with Fundamentalist Christians
about how to live in peace and wellness
as we share the earth together,
but we cannot have a coherent dialogue
with Fundamentalists about Scripture.
The reason is, we would be having an
apples to oranges conversation.
Today’s reading from Mark
is a portal through which to see
this very difficult problem
that faces many of us on a very personal level
as we find ourselves in uncomfortable
and even painful circumstances
with family members, friends and co-workers
who are Fundamentalist or Biblical Literalist’s.
The first huge divide between us
and those who believe
the Bible is the literalword of God –
given or even written directly by God –
is that they believe whatever is said in the Bible
is absolute, just as God is absolute.
Secondly, they believe the Bible
is the sole revelation of the mind of God –
that what is written in the Bible
is the only way we have to know for certain
God’s intention and hope for us.
But for The Episcopal Church
and progressive Christians,
the Bible is only onesource of revelation –
and the Bible is notabsolute.
Because of what Fundamentalists and Literalists
believe about the Bible,
their world is a closed system:
it is as if they live in a stone house
with each stone a dictate of the Bible,
held together by the mortar of authority
and fellowship with their Christian community –
emphasis on theirChristian community.
Take out even one stone,
such as Jesus’ words on divorce,
and the whole house will eventually fall down.
The Fundamentalist way of thinking about the Bible
it is truly an all-or-nothingproposition.
So, any discussion about theology
between our two perspectives on the Bible
is a comparison of apples with oranges –
in other words, we are not
even talking about the same fruit.
In talking with people who believe
that every word of the Bible is literally fact,
we imagine we are talking about the same thing –
the same kind of fruit –
but in fact, we are talking about
wholly different things
even though we are both talking about the Bible.
How our tradition understands the Bible
as distinct from Fundamentalism,
is clearly seen in how we understand
Jesus’ teaching on divorce.
First of all,
when we hear the words of Jesus
we must begin by listening to them in the context
of his century and his generation,
rather than begin by hearing them in our context.
Here is how we do that today.
“Some Pharisees came to test Jesus,” which means it was a hostile question.
“They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’”
The question being asked of Jesus
that you and I do not hear,
because we are Christians
living in the 21stcentury, is this:
“Hey Jesus, do you agree with Rabbi Hillel
or are you on the side of Rabbi Shammai?”
I’ve talked about Hillel and Shammai before
because they were the elephant in the room
whenever Jesus was teaching.
They were the greatest thinkers of their day –
the leading authorities on how to interpret Torah.
Shammai was the conservative,
and what we might call today a Torah Literalist.
Hillel was the liberal,
who believed that
was necessary and not otherwise absolute.
Shammai taught that Chapter 24, verse 1
in the Book of Deuteronomy
allowed a man to divorce his wife.
Hillel also taught that Chapter 24, verse 1
allowed a man to divorce his wife.
But they disagreed
upon the grounds and requirements
Shammai taught that adultery
was the only grounds for divorce,
while Hillel said that any reason was legitimate,
but that the man could only divorce his wife
if done in the proper and humane way.
Both taught that only the husband
could sue for divorce.
So that is the context
in which Jesus is asked this question.
We need to recognize that the legality of divorce
is not in dispute –
only the groundsfor divorce.
Jesus does not disagree with the legality of divorce;
he makes a theological comment
about the nature of marriage.
And by the way,
we should also understand that polygamy
was still legally practiced in Jesus’ day.
Having more than one wife
was not illegal,
and Jesus never makes a case against polygamy.
What Jesus says,
is that Deuteronomy 24, verse 1
was given to us because God understood
our hardness of heart.
In other words, God ‘gets’ human beings.
God understood that we are human
and that there is no perfection
among human beings,
and that human beings may begin a venture
with the greatest of intention
but there is no guarantee we will finish it.
God, in Deuteronomy 24, Jesus says,
was letting us off the hook –
giving us an out and a backdoor, so to speak.
Now I can hear the perfectionist in me,
and those who are terribly scrupulous
and very hard on ourselves
about the slightest failure,
feeling uncomfortable that such huge backdoor
only leads to complacency.
But allow me to remind us
about the fundamental meaning
of one of the 10 Commandments
most associated with this issue.
“Thou shall not take the name of your Lord God in vain.”
We have been wrongly taught
to trivialize this commandment to mean
we are not supposed to saydamn
and other unsociable swear words.
That is not what this commandment was about.
What this commandment tells us,
is that we should never swear an oath
in the name of God.
For us, in our 21stcentury context,
that means we should use the Civil Oath
in the court of law, for example.
Because we are human.
Any oath we take,
no matter how earnest we are in our intent,
is never a sure bet.
We may mean what we promise
but not be able to keep our promise.
There are always forces beyond our control
that we cannot foresee.
And besides that, we are human
and we have frailties
and sometimes…we just don’t keep
the promises we make.
So, according to this commandment,
we are not to trivialize God-the-absolute,
by taking an oath in God’s name
that is anything but absolute.
In other words,
do not promise what you cannot guarantee.
Those ancients were very wise.
We need to be disabused
of the idea that when someone gets divorced
they have broken a promise to God.
In the Episcopal wedding ceremony,
we ask God to blessour promise to one another,
but we do not promise God
that we will never break our marriage vows.
So you see how interesting, complex,
and rich this seemingly absolute teaching
But, having said all of that,
Jesus isn’t content to let us off the hook.
He always leaves us with some unique wisdom
on the subject,
elbowing his way to a position in between
Hillel and Shammai.
God understood you, Jesus says,
and gave you Deuteronomy 24, verse 1,
but remember Genesis?
God also created us male and female, one flesh.
Jesus insists that any conversation about divorce
include a reminder of the purpose of marriage:
which is to enjoin us
in a union that makes us one and interdependent.
And though the verbiage of Genesis
is male and female,
we have now said that this is also true
for men who marry men
and women who marry women.
Just another example that, for us,
the Bible on its own is not absolute.
What Jesus is pointing out
actually seems like an obvious truth:
marriage makes us one flesh
and even though we may get divorced
it literally rips us apart.
We know this to be true:
Whether we have been divorced
or had a deep and intimate bond broken
outside of marriage,
we know that divorce is not a separation
but an amputation.
Jesus is simply telling the truth.
The dissolution of a relationship
that follows the union of two people
in body, mind and spirit,
is an amputation.
It is painful and grievous
even when done for all the right reasons;
and even when the best possible healing takes place,
that missing limb will be with us in the next relationship
like an amputee’s phantom arm.
That is just the nature of things, Jesus reminds us.
It is his shorthand way of saying
we bring all of who we are
into this most intimate relationship,
so those with whom we have been intimate
will travel with us into the next relationship
whether we want them there to or not.
And as an aside,
this is also true of other profoundly intimate relationships,
like family – all of whom
migrate with us into our marriages.
Even if we were disowned by our parents,
and maybe especially if we had such a fracture,
they are a phantom limb in our marriage
still throbbing and sending signals
to our nerve endings.
So you see,
Jesus does not question the legality of divorce –
that divorce is legal is presumed
throughout the whole conversation.
But neither does he deny
the deep and pervasive truth of marriage,
and its physical and intimate union:
It makes us one flesh
and stays with us wherever we go
and with whomever we are with.
And there is one more thing
in these words of Jesus.
People were bringing little children to him
in order that he might touch them;
and the disciples spoke sternly to them.
But Jesus went ballistic and said:
“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God
like a little child will never enter it.”
On the surface of it,
the debate about divorce
and the little kid-thing
would seem to be totally disconnected.
But they are not.
As I pointed out recently,
in another such Gospel story,
in the ancient world children, like women,
had no rights.
They were on the bottom rungs
of a rigid hierarchy of social caste.
Children had nothing to give
and therefore they had little worth.
They were vulnerable and needy
and merely a necessary hassle.
Children were like women,
who men could dismiss and replace.
But Jesus says, “No.”
Jesus tells the powerful and the insiders,
all of whom were men,
that when we stand on the margin
with women and children
and all others who are marginalized,
that then we will become open
to the Kingdom of God in our midst.
That translates to us this way:
When we recognize our power,
and then willingly enter into our powerlessness,
and stand with others in their powerlessness –
it will open us to God
in ways we have never known.
It is our presumption of power and control,
and our lust for perfection,
that keeps us from knowing God’s presence
even though it is always present
within and among us.
Jesus’ teaching on divorce
is really about the nature of marriage.
And his teaching on marriage
is really about sharing power and powerlessness.