Thursday, October 1, 2015
On Monday, I wrote about the difficult passage facing preachers and congregations this Sunday. Mark 10:2-6 must rank among the absolute least favorite for those who climb into the pulpit week after week. I've preached on many a challenging text, but Jesus' unqualified condemnation of those who divorce and remarry is perhaps the hardest. It forces the preacher to engage the reality of the text and attempt to straddle the first century, in which these words were first spoken, and the twenty-first century, in which they are now heard. It ain't easy, and that was my point...at least I thought it was.
I disseminate my blog posts through social media, usually using a tweet that is linked to my Facebook account. In a shameless attempt at self-promotion, I try to think of a catchy, perhaps controversial message of fewer than 140 characters (including the link to the post) that will grab people's attention. On Monday, I tweeted, "Who's ready for a sermon about adulterous divorcees? _Sigh_ Jesus doesn't make the gospel easy." Anyone who has spent more than 27 second with me knows I'm a smartass. I can't not be sarcastic. Twitter doesn't allow italics, so that "_Sigh_" was a way of me letting everyone know that I, too, find this text difficult. No, social media isn't the best medium for delivering sarcasm, but I thought that was pretty clear. If not, just read the post. There's nothing in it that suggests that I would look forward to (or even consider) offering a condemnatory sermon. But one of my followers on Twitter (@dennykeane) replied to my tweet, writing, "it's none of your business with the 'adulterous divorces.' Stick to the Gospel of love and mercy." I didn't have a chance to compose a post yesterday or Tuesday (tough week), but here's my reply.
I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is all good news and all grace. I believe that God is merciful beyond our comprehension. I believe that all Christians are called to share God's good news of forgiveness and reconciliation and salvation through Jesus Christ. And I also believe that Jesus said what he said--"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery"--and that we need to take him seriously. In other words, I believe that the gospel is one of "love and mercy" and that the gospel requires us to take sin seriously. The good news depends on us hearing both at the same time.
The Pharisees approach Jesus and try to trap him by asking him a question about divorce. Jesus' reputation for holding a high view of holiness had spread (see last week's lesson on cutting of whatever limb causes you to sin), and they wanted to see if Jesus would contradict the Law of Moses, which has very clear and permissive (if you're a man) rules for divorce. Jesus, neither taking the bait nor shying from a rhetorical fight, puts the question back to them: "What does Moses say?" When they reply with the expected permissive answer, Jesus appeals to a higher authority--the Law of Creation: "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.'" That's a rabbinic strategy on which I'm not an expert, but I sense that Jesus is pulling out the big guns. It's the kind of rhetorical appeal that doesn't invite much conversation even though there's more explaining to do.
If that weren't tough enough, the disciples, in a private moment, ask Jesus to be sure he meant what he said. "Um, Jesus? You said some pretty tough things back there. Were you being serious, or were you just proving a point?" We'd like Jesus to reply and give us some wiggle room. We want a pastoral answer rather than a theological one (see Steve Pankey's excellent post from Monday on the difference). But he doesn't give us even an inch of relief. Instead, he doubles down and makes it as plain as can be: if you divorce and remarry, you're an adulterer--period.
So, back to the twitter reply I received from @dennykeane, whose business is it? Jesus isn't likely to throw the first stone, but he forces us to confront the demands of the kingdom. You will be holy. You will live a life befitting God's kingdom. You will not cause a little one to stumble. In Sunday's exchanges with the Pharisees and disciples, Jesus reminds us that a pattern of divorce and remarriage is a human reality that obscures our view of the holiness of God's kingdom, and that is as true today as it was back in the first century. We cannot afford to lose sight of that, and I think that's the preacher's business.
Brokenness, failure, infidelity, sin--they are all realities in this world, and, thanks be to God, they are all absent in God's kingdom. As Jesus makes 100% clear, our hardness of heart is the reason Moses/God gave us the rules concerning divorce. Those rules are not, therefore, descriptions of kingdom life; instead, they are a recognition of what isn't the way it's supposed to be. If we pretend that the brokenness of this world--including the corruption of marriage--doesn't matter in the kingdom sense, we lose sight of the power of God's promise to make all things new. That doesn't mean that God loves adulterers any less. That doesn't mean that forgiveness isn't real. That doesn't mean God's mercy has any limits. But it does mean that divorce and remarriage isn't the way God wants the world to be. We cannot shy away from that. That proclamation is my business, and I won't back down from that.
It is our job--all of us who follow Jesus--to proclaim the universal invitation to God's kingdom and the uncompromising demands of kingdom life. Do sinners go to heaven? Absolutely. Can anything separate us from God's love? Absolutely not. Is sin a reality that we must confront and from which we must repent in order to experience the fullness of God's forgiving love? Without a doubt. Is it my business (and yours) to share Jesus' difficult yet ultimately hopeful message that sin is real and that God's forgiveness is even greater? Yes, yes, yes. On that, we cannot waiver.