Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:18–24 | Psalm 8 | Hebrews 1:1–4, 2:5–12 | Mark 10:2–16
“Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10:9)
Our Scripture readings today, especially our Gospel reading, touch on a very difficult and painful subject… divorce. It’s not a topic I’m eager to talk about, knowing how deeply personal it is, and knowing how many of us have either experienced it already ourselves, or are close to someone who has. My purpose in speaking about it today is certainly not to shame anyone… but to do what I’m always trying to do in my sermons… to help us to hear the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ more clearly, so we can receive the healing, and help, and hope He alone can bring… to help us hear God’s Good News, both for us and for our broken world.
Our Gospel reading today begins with a familiar scenario: Some Pharisees come to Jesus and ask Him to answer a difficult question… this time, the question was “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2)… that is, ‘is it right, according to the law, given to Israel by God through Moses?’ This is the kind of question you might expect someone to ask any religious leader or teacher like Jesus: asking for guidance to follow God’s ways in the midst of difficult situations. Divorce was a relatively common experience throughout the Roman Empire. Among Jews, it was a bit less frequent, but it was also widely debated, especially when it came to the reasons why a divorce could take place… and this was mostly because the Law of Moses speaks very little about it.
The closest it came was a case law in Deuteronomy Chapter 24, which was really about the rules for remarrying after a divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1-2, “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife.” The original law goes on from here, but this was where the Rabbis in Jesus’ day disagreed: what qualified as ‘objectionable’ in a wife, that could then be grounds for divorce?
The scholar Walter Kaiser nicely sums up this debate: “There were two main schools of thought: one which interpreted it stringently, another which interpreted it more broadly. The former school, which followed the direction of Shammai, a leading rabbi who lived a generation or so before Jesus, said that a man was authorized to divorce his wife if he married her on the understanding that she was a virgin and then discovered that she was not… The other school, following the lead of Shammai’s contemporary Hillel, held that “something indecent” might include more or less anything which her husband found offensive. She could cease to “find favor in his eyes” for a variety of reasons—if she served up badly cooked food, for example, or even (one rabbi said) because he found her less beautiful than some other woman.”
That second school of thought really gets me. It’s hard to imagine living with that level of insecurity in a marriage, especially for a woman who in that culture, held so little power. But in either case, it was only ever a man who could initiate a divorce, frequently leaving women in pretty vulnerable positions. One small solace was that in the law from Deuteronomy she would be given a certificate of divorce… freeing her from any stigma, so she could marry someone else. For the time, that was pretty progressive, but not really a perfect solution.
This was the nature of the debate that was still going on among Rabbis in Jesus’ day, and it’s easy to see how the question posed by the Pharisees might simply look like their attempt to figure out where He stood on all these issues… to figure out who’s side He was on. But as is often the case, there’s more to the story and much more at stake. This is especially clear when we remember what happened not long before to John the Baptist.
Back in Mark Chapter 6, we were told that Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee under the Romans, had John imprisoned for insisting his marriage to Herodias, who had been his brother’s wife, was unlawful in God’s eyes. Eventually, Herodias arranged to have John’ executed. The Pharisees weren’t simply asking a question about faithful living… they were asking a deeply political question with life and death implications. If Jesus responded publicly the way they expected Him to, in line with how John had spoken, they were hoping He too might find His head on a platter, or else lose face with all the crowds who had been drawn to Jesus after first being drawn to John.
The Pharisees were not asking an honest question about God’s heart for human relationships… they were laying a trap to bring Jesus down… one way or another.
Rather than taking the bait, and joining in the debate about how to interpret the law found in Deuteronomy 24, Jesus responds by revealing God’s heart for marriage, and for all humanity, by pointing back beyond the Law of Moses to the story of humanity’s beginning… way back in Genesis Chapter 2, our Old Testament passage this morning. This is the story where the Living God saw that it was not good for humans to be alone… how they were made for community… to share their life together for good. In Genesis 2, God takes the one human and makes them into two, male and female, so that these two might be united again in fellowship.
God’s heart is for humanity to be united in love. Not that everyone would get married, but that no one would be truly alone.
Rather than argue about what conditions must be met to break off this union, Jesus reminds us that God’s essential plan for us humans is that we belong… with Him, and with one another. Marriage was and is one special and tangible way this belonging takes shape in our world. It remains a gift meant to reflect something precious of God’s own self-giving love. But as we know, the story of Genesis 2 continues on into Genesis 3, where humanity breaks off fellowship with God, and with each other. Now what was meant from the beginning to reflect God’s love, reflects our own brokenness… but the Good News is, the story does not end with Genesis 3.
We know that Jesus does far more than talk about God’s intentions for us; He came to undo our brokenness and unite us in His self-giving love. Through His entire life, and death, and resurrection, Jesus was sent from the Father, and filled with the Holy Spirit to reconcile us, as broken as we all are, to God, and to each other again… in this new community called the Church.
To reconcile us He entered fully into our fractured, and isolated existence… incarnated, taking on our flesh… all that it means to be human like us. In His own life, Jesus Christ brought together the Holy LORD of all, and our estranged humanity: He is at once the Son of God and Son of Man… both now together for good.
To reconcile us, He took upon Himself all the burden of brokenness that we were (and are!) carrying. He suffered utter rejection and abandonment by those who boldly claimed they would be with Him till the end. He let His body be broken up, and His blood to be poured out, His hands and feet nailed to the cross so that all who were cut off from God and their neighbours might be drawn near and embraced.
To complete this reconciling work, which even death cannot defeat, Jesus rose again, and lives today to keep us close to the Father’s heart… giving us His Spirit so that our fellowship as God’s family might start to reflect God’s self-giving love for us and for our world… helping others to encounter Christ’s saving love at work… not only in our marriages, but in everything we do.
Of course this does not mean that everything we do, including our marriages, will work out. Jesus reveals to us God’s heart for marriage as a life-long union of mutual love. This is the vision He calls us His followers to uphold as well. Even so, the scholar Donald Juel reminds us that: “Christian life is lived in the midst of a broken world, and believers are by no means exempted from the forces that tear at basic relationships. Christian marriages sometimes still end in divorce. We all know this to be true. But the Good News we also know to be true is that even in our most broken moments, our Saviour Jesus has shown us God’s heart towards His family, the Church: and He has absolutely no intention of giving up on us! In Jesus, God has joined us to Himself, and no one can separate us.
Through Jesus, God’s forgiveness, grace, reconciliation, and self-giving love are ours, and through the Holy Spirit at work in us, they are meant to be shared with each other, and with those around us too. The Good News tells us that thanks to Jesus Christ no one has to be alone. All are welcomed and embraced, invited to share in God’s family.
So may all the ways we treat one another, and other people in our lives reflect this Good News: In Jesus Christ, we truly are together, for good. Amen.
 Walter C. Kaiser Jr. et al., Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 432.
 Donald Juel, “Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 253.