Mark 10: 2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied. 4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” 5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. 6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’So they are no longer two, but one. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
There, we just heard Jesus name a terrible threat to marriage, and it has nothing to do with anything on the ballot this election year. Yes, I’m talking about the constitutional amendment up for a vote this November, the one that would prohibit same sex marriage. I mention it because some some pastors and churches are already under pressure to join the crusade for or against it. So, now that I have your attention at the start of this election year, I might as well jump into the deep end and make this commitment to you: You hopefully know my commitment, in practice and teaching, to what the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective and the Bible, as I understand it, say about marriage. But I will not use this pulpit, nor my ministry, to tell anyone how they should vote on that amendment, or even if they should vote on it, as is being done in some churches already. Nor will I make your beliefs about marriage or the amendment a litmus test of your Christian faith and discipleship. And I hope no one else does, either.
Besides, no constitutional amendment can ever neutralize the threat to marriage that Jesus has in mind. If law and constitution could help save marriage, or marriages, I would propose that we first make a constitutional amendment against low-wage working poverty, for financial strains are surely killing marriages right and left. I would also propose an amendment against pornography, for that too is harming marriages, as well as the women and children whom it exploits. But the threat that Jesus has identified is so insidious that it not only hurts marriages, it hurts, even kills, all sorts of relationships, including our relationship with God, and thus, our eternal souls.
This threat is the same one I mentioned last Sunday: hardness of heart. In verse 5, Jesus told the Pharisees: ”It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law.”Note that he was not talking to promiscuous, party-hardy. loose-living libertines. He was warning righteous, rigorous, religious people, the moral crusaders who were striving to bring the nation back to God: the Pharisees.
And that crusading tendency just might be a symptom of the problem, if it means that we’re looking for dragons and monsters, enemies and adversaries to fight and defeat outside ourselves, while ignoring the dragons and enemies inside of ourselves. That’s one sure symptom of hardness of heart: projecting onto others what we least want to see in ourselves. And it seems to be a sadly recurrent theme in history, that triumphalistic, moralistic crusaders eventually show themselves just as susceptible to the sins that they crusade against, as are the sinners against whom they crusade.
That was the case in this First Century controversy about divorce. When they tested Jesus with the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they were dragging him into a long-standing debate among Jews of the time over that very question, “How easy should divorce be?” Jesus was not the only rabbi of the time to set a very high bar over and against divorce. But oddly enough, these most rigorous moral crusaders, who were trying to discredit him with this very question, were the most indulgent about divorce: to many Pharisees, a man could divorce a woman for just about anything that displeased him, as soon as she displeased him.
Not only was that terrible for marriage; it was especially terrible for women. Turning them out onto the streets was a ticket to poverty, and maybe even to prostitution as their only means of survival. But that was of no concern to these strenuous moral crusaders. They were hard of heart.
So hard of heart are they that even their way of reading the Bible was skewed. For the answer that Jesus gave them showed that their differences were over more than just divorce. He differed with them over how he read the Law of Moses. They saw every detail of the Law of Moses as an end in itself. So if Moses permitted divorce, then divorce must be okay.
Tragically and sadly, sometimes divorce is better than being bound forever to someone who abuses or betrays you. Nor am I saying that everyone with divorce in their history is guilty of hard-heartedness. We must not rush in with judgment where angels fear to tread. God knows how all marriages struggle, and how hard all couples must work at them. Whenever someone says to me, “I wonder if men and women can ever even be compatible,” I want to ask, “ What did you expect?” and “That, my friend, is precisely why God puts us together.” Couples make wedding vows for the same reason that all Christians make baptismal vows: the things required of us on our journey of discipleship, whether single or married, do not come easily nor naturally; they must be promised, not just suggested, worked at, not just taken for granted. That’s why I urge no one to give themselves intimately, in body and soul, to another person until such promises have been made and trust has been earned.
Nor do I take Jesus to mean that, after divorce, no one can ever remarry, when he says that “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.” I wonder if he’s telling the Pharisees, “You can’t dress up adultery as divorce whenever you expel your wives, to look for a better spouse, instead of working at being a better spouse.”
Still, nobody should rush from divorce into another marriage; rupturing the one-flesh bond between man and woman, whether there’s a ring or not, is one of the most painful things ever. Time and care must be taken to address what went wrong. The burden of proof should be against divorce and remarriage. But to say that no one gets any forgiveness, or any second chances after divorce, is at odds with all the other second chances that Jesus gives for everything else.
So, when it comes to reading the law of Moses, Jesus points us to an even greater good in the Law. It’s right there in the first three chapters of Genesis, and it takes priority over the permission to divorce. “At the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female” he says,….. “therefore, they are no longer two, but one.” Its the melding of very different beings–man and woman– each one a reflection of God–into a unity of body and spirit that also reflects God, through the love, respect, dignity and care they show for one another, mutually and equally. This harmony can happen in marriage, supremely, but not just.
Even if we are not married, this is well worth reflecting upon, because we all owe our very existence to this powerful drive toward the union of genders that God has built into creation. This drive and desire is nothing less than a reflection of God’s very nature, and of God’s delight in and desire for each of us, by name. What’s more, the Bible compares our glorious destiny of redemption to a riotously joyful wedding celebration: the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, the marriage of heaven and earth. In that sense, all Christians are married, at least once. So, the tender-heartedness that Jesus advocates for marriage is a survival skill that all of us need in our spiritual journey, whether married or single.
So, lets examine the nature of our love and respect for the other gender, whether we’re married or not, as a sign, an indicator, of our love and respect for God. Its what I mean by “tenderness of heart.” Another way of putting it is with the words I most want us to remember today: they are “willingness” and “willfullness.” Those are two words that the Christian psychologist, Gerald May, uses for what the Bible calls hardness of heart and tenderness of heart. Tenderness of heart is akin to willingness, while hardness of heart he calls, willfulness. Here’s how May described the two: “Willingness implies a surrendering of one’s self-separateness, an entering into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself. It is a realization that one already is a part of some ultimate cosmic process and it is a commitment to participation in that process. In contrast, willfulness is the setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control, or otherwise manipulate existence. More simply, willingness is saying yes to the mystery of being alive in each moment. Willfulness is saying no, or perhaps more commonly, ‘yes, but…’ But willingness and willfulness do not apply to specific things or situations. They reflect instead the underlying attitude one has toward the wonder of life itself. Willingness notices this wonder and bows in some kind of reverence to it. Willfulness forgets it, ignores it, or at its worse, actively tries to destroy it. Thus willingness can sometimes seem very active and assertive, even aggressive. And willfulness can appear in the guise of passivity.”
For a supreme example of willingness, consider Jim and Della, a young, poor, hardworking couple in O’Henry’s classic story, The Gift of the Magi. Each wants to honor and thrill the other with a Christmas gift. But being poor, they have to hock their most prized possessions to be able to buy it. Jim sells his heirloom gold pocket watch, which belonged to his father and grandfather, to buy Della a set of beautiful combs for her long, gorgeous hair. But unbeknownst to Jim, Della cuts and sells her long, gorgeous hair, to buy him a platinum chain for his heirloom gold pocket watch, that he has just sold, to buy her beautiful combs for the beautiful hair she has just cut and sold. We can laugh over the irony of each one getting a gift that the other cannot use. But O’Henry’s point is that their tender-hearted willingness to please each other, to the point of sacrificing their most prized possession for each other, is their true gift to each other.
All relationships, require the willingness to cherish, honor and protect, rather than the willfulness to grab, take and exploit; the willingness to invite and engage, to welcome and receive, rather than the willfulness to demand, impose or, should someone disappoint us, to expel; the willingness to serve and support, rather than the willfulness to control and to use; the willingness to listen and to learn, even when the truth hurts, rather than the willfulness of defensiveness and denial; the willingness to learn, grow and change, rather than the willfulness of dominating and demanding that others change.
Consider then what damage a hard-hearted willfulness can do to any relationship, especially to the intimate bond of marriage. Men and women are equally susceptible to it. But as a man I have to take some responsibility for the male versions of this willfulness against women, because they are staples of mainstream male culture, all over the world. Consider the contempt that is all too common toward women, even though we all came into the world through women. Go figure. This contempt for women and all things female is called mysoginy.
The worst examples of misogyny are physical, verbal, emotional or sexual abuse. Or when men withdraw from their wives into work, TV, sports or alcohol. Or pornography. Or the kind of crude talk about women that you often hear in locker rooms or some business board rooms. As the Pharisees show in today’s passage, there are religious ways of being willful and hard-hearted, too. In the church, whenever men interpret biblical words like “headship” and “submission” to mean domination, superiority or hierarchy over women, we’ve missed the whole biblical meaning of submission and servanthood according to Jesus.
Remember how Adam pointed to Eve that day in the Garden and said to God, “That woman, that you gave me, she offered me the fruit and I ate it.” That says to me that there has long been a deep wound of estrangement, shame, fear and distrust running through the male and female expressions of God’s nature in creation. I wonder if that wasn’t the fall: Adam blaming and rejecting of Eve, and God, in the same willful, accusing breath. Because of that wound, men are still tempted to use their unique, God-given masculine powers in willful self-assertion and dominance over women. Or failing that, in passive resistance and withdrawal from them.
The Law of Moses did not intend to heal that wound. The Law only served to bandage that wound, so we might limp along as best we can in our fallen condition. That’s the best that any law can ever do.
But as John the Beloved said at the beginning of his gospel, “Law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” When God administers grace and truth to us through the Holy Spirit, we’re talking about nothing less than lifelong radical spiritual healing heart surgery of the kind that God promised through the Prophet Ezekiel, when he said, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
In other words, justice between the genders require nothing short of a radical spiritual heart surgery that would uncover and remove our hardened shell of willfulness and replace it with tender willingness, a willingness to love, cherish, honor, delight in and please God and all those whom he gives us to love, especially our spouses, if God has called us to marriage. To survive and to thrive on the journey of marriage, and indeed in any relationships, in life itself, no human law or amendment can heal us where we hurt most. We must choose, as often as necessary, to be and to stay on that journey of the transformation of the heart, from stubborn, fallen willfulness, to gracious, tender-hearted willingness. Let’s pray about that:
You are love. We love because you first loved us. But only your love is perfect, complete, unalloyed with fear. You called and welcomed each one of us by name into existence through the very love that makes us so dependent upon each other, so inter-related, with not a one of us sufficient unto ourselves. We thank you and bless you for the mystery and the majesty of such love that ties the world together. With the strength of our weak and fragmented loves, we would respond to you. Reveal and heal all that is broken, bruised or hardened within us or among us. Make tender our hearts, and willing our souls, that we would not shrink from you nor ourselves, nor any others, when you reveal how much we have yet to grow; that we would not rush to defend nor justify ourselves when it is you who so willingly justify us. Bless and strengthen all the connections and relations among us, by conforming us ever more into the image of Jesus. For he is the gracious and truthful human face of your love to us, in whose name, for whose honor and will we pray. Amen.