I've heard the collective groan of RCL preachers out there--those of us who are facing some lectionary challenges this Sunday. Sometimes the crafters of our weekly readings take time to make subtle, gentle connections between the readings, allowing the preacher to tease out an insightful sermon that is shaped by two or more of the lessons. Sometimes those who stitch the lectionary together make choices I don't understand, and I struggle in those weeks to pay attention to more than one reading. But, on Sundays like this one, there is almost no choice. The OT (Genesis 2:18-24) and the Gospel (Mark 10:2-16) make it hard to preach about anything but marriage and divorce.
My friend Steve Pankey wrote earlier in the week about the pastoral challenges these readings present, and I like some of his humorous but half-way-serious suggestions for opening jokes, which you can read here. More importantly, however, he makes the point that preachers must be careful not to "proof text," and take one reading out of context and beat people over the head with it as if it were the whole gospel. Like him, I cringe to think about the bad, grace-less sermons that will be preached this Sunday.
In yesterdays bible study on the lessons, someone asked me, "Where's the grace in this?" Sure, sometimes Jesus is sharp in his application of the law, but there should be at least a shred of redeeming gospel-love in the reading. If it is to be found, I think it is located in the tension between the Pharisees and the children, whom Mark sandwiches together in this gospel lesson.
The reading starts with the Pharisees trying to test Jesus, and I think "test" is a key word. In the back of our minds, we should be asking, "How are these religious authorities approaching the kingdom of God if they keep coming to Jesus with tests and traps?" Then, after Jesus lays out some pretty serious consequences for divorce and remarriage, he points to the children who were trying to approach him and declares, "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." That should help us realize that we, like the disciples, are in danger of receiving Jesus' teachings more like Pharisees than like children. And, if we want to get into the kingdom, we'd better start like children.
What is Jesus teaching on divorce? Does the "Matthean Exception" apply? Should we allow divorced people to remarry in the church? Must the bishop give her/his approval? What about third or fourth marriages? All of those questions are Pharisaical. Children don't ask questions like that. Children know that divorce is wrong. They know that marriage is a special, blessed, and holy thing. They approach marriage like Genesis 2 (totally and completely) and not like Deuteronomy 24 (legalistically and fatalistically).
Does Jesus like divorce? No, of course not. Divorce is another reminder that the world we live in is broken and has fallen out of sink with God's will. If we, like the Pharisees, want to ask, "What's permissible?" the answer will always be, "Only perfection." But that's not the point. Jesus didn't start out trying to teach the people about marriage and divorce. He isn't giving us instructions on how to live together. He's responding to a stupid question by pointing out that such an approach to God's kingdom is wrong in the first place.
So take heart, preachers and congregations. As long as we approach God's kingdom (and this Sunday's readings) the way a child would, we'll find grace and hope and redemption.