And all the RCL preachers just looked at this Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 10:2-16) and thought, "Uh oh. I wonder if I could preach a sermon on the Old Testament text."
Let's not beat around the bush. Here it is. It's what we're dealing with. On Sunday, like it or not, we are going to hear Jesus say, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." Boom. Drop the mic. Exit, stage left.
I don't know about you, but, as a preacher who often stands in the pulpit in front of many divorced and remarried people, my instinct is to start looking for explanations. Divorce isn't the same now as it was then...In that culture, divorced women would be particularly vulnerable...Jesus says lots of hyperbolic things like 'if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off'...Let's talk about the little children at the end of the lesson instead.
As a preacher and as a student of the bible, there are two divergent directions that I feel the need to explore. First, how might this text not really mean what we think it means? Would a twenty-first century Jesus who knew how divorce works in our lives still say the same thing? Are there cultural barriers that we can't see through that might otherwise change the tenor of this difficult text? And, second, what if this text means exactly what we think it means? What if divorce and remarriage is the same thing as adultery? What if our church has been mistaken in allowing the remarriage of divorced persons for the last several decades? I'm not actually preaching this week, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't wrestle deeply with this text before Sunday.
Over the coming days, I'll explore these in more detail, but, for now, here are some mitigating and aggravating points that will guide my thinking between now and Sunday:
- Matthew gives us the infidelity exception, which Mark leaves out. Does this matter?
- When is a marriage not really a marriage? We don't use annulments in our church, but the principle might still apply. Surely Jesus doesn't want an abusive relationship to persist.
- What is adultery anyway? Given Jimmy Carter's admission in his Playboy interview, maybe we need to worry less about divorce and more about fidelity.
- Given the Pharisees' question and the ensuing argument, in which Jesus and his opponents cite two contradictory passages in the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis 2 and Deuteronomy 24), might this passage be more about the nature of marriage as a spiritual union than the regulations regarding divorce?
- When Jesus says that the law (Deut. 24) was written because of their "hardness of heart," is he prioritizing a "spiritual" law over a "practical" law? Does this change how we read the Old Testament?
- Why does Mark follow up with the bit about receiving the kingdom as a little child? How is this teaching on divorce related to the teaching about children?
- Should the church have a much clearer and more distinct theology of Christian marriage (as opposed to secular/legal marriage) and get out of the wedding business except when the couple understands their marriage to be primarily an image of God's love for the world? How do we distinguish between the two (other than, perhaps, what Jesus says about divorce)?