Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Let’s be honest. Few, if any, preachers out there will want to write a sermon on this Gospel text.

October 7, 2012

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Commentary on Mark 10:2-16

Let’s be honest. Few, if any, preachers out there will want to write a sermon on this Gospel text.

There’s just no way around its challenges, its heartache, and its ramifications for and ripple effects on all of the relationships involved. And, it’s one of those texts in the Bible that if read out loud, you must preach on it. Divorce has touched too many lives to leave a passage like this, especially when Jesus is talking, just hanging out there for all to hear.

Preaching this text will demand sensitivities to both sides of a complex and painful life reality. I do not mean here to imply, or give excuses for, an easy way out. When divorce is merely convenience, for a whole host of reasons, then the poignancy of this passage will give way to our wills and whims. However, I do want to suggest that to reduce this passage simply to the negativity of divorce will not hold either experiential or theological weight in the lives of our listeners.

I realize that the following reflections chance disagreement and discomfort, but trust that the regular users of Working Preacher and listeners of Sermon Brainwave presume candid commentary when it comes to how a text works on us. In other words, this may not be the kind of “Preaching This Week” you have come to expect. But, this is not one of those texts that you can dance around, explain away, or use to justify behavior. You can only be honest and risk rejection.

So, confessions from a professor of preaching because I don’t see how I can write on this text and compartmentalize my own experience: my parents separated when I was a senior in college and divorced a few years later after 27 years of marriage. There is no “good” time for divorce, for the couple, for the children, or for the extended family and friends. But sometimes, more often than we care to admit, there is a “necessary” time. My parents needed to divorce. It’s that simple. They are better people, parents, and grandparents because they are not together.

I think about the couples hearing this text who find themselves in difficult relationships, but stay together for the sake of the kids. I think about the couples who go ahead with divorce because the children need to know the truth about the complexities of relationships.  Who or what trumps whom or what? The marriage? The children? And who gets to decide?

The truth about divorce lies on both sides, or maybe multiple sides, of its realities.

What Jesus Says and Doesn’t Say
My colleague and co-host of Sermon Brainwave, Matt Skinner, wrote an excellent and thorough commentary on the historical and exegetical issues behind this passage when it last appeared in the lectionary (2009) — a must-read for anyone preaching on this text. For this time around, I want to take a slightly different approach and explore the multiplicity of places it will land with our hearers, especially three years later.

In the end, when Jesus debates the Pharisees, he appeals to a greater law, the law of God’s creation. Can Jesus really do this? It most certainly causes the Pharisees to wonder about their own interpretations of God’s law, but it should also create some squirming in our own sometimes self-righteous shoes. If we are honest with ourselves, we are constantly negotiating human tradition and experience in the context of determining God’s will. The issue of divorce is no different.

We would also do well to remember that the designated passage for this Sunday does not end at 10:12. Instead, we have the brief story in 10:13-16 of people bring children to Jesus, an act the disciples try desperately to curtail. To what extent is the question “to whom does the Kingdom of God belong” (10:14) at the heart of the test posed by the Pharisees? Is the issue at stake less about divorce and symptomatic of the larger subject of vulnerability?

Those persons on the edges of humanity, women and children, and for Mark, any outsider, marginalized by ritual, tradition, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, will find their place in the Kingdom of God. The reality of divorce, of not being married, of not having children, has made all of us outsiders for a time. I wonder if Jesus calling us back to the created order is not simply to hold up an ideal vision of the perfect relationship, but to remind us that to be human is to be in relationship, whatever that relationship might look like. To be marginalized is to be alone.

This is where the Gospel of Mark starts, in the lonely places. This is where Jesus will end up, on the cross. Being alone is not what God wants for us. But this theological claim does not necessarily prescribe paradigmatic relationships. In other words, the theological point in all of this, especially for Mark, is not God stipulating idyllic models of relationship but God saying, “I am here, in my Son, to be in relationship with you. Nothing can separate us any longer.”

Preaching Strategies for a Sensitive Text
A few additional homiletical reflections:

  • A text like this already has taken, and will continue to take on, a life of its own given the current circumstances surrounding and challenges to definitions of marriage. A sermon, whether explicitly or implicitly, needs to acknowledge these assumptions.
  • Jesus says more here about marriage than divorce which elicits even more complexity. Expectations of marriage now are not the same as they were then. The realities of the human condition are not the same either, including life-expectancy, expressions of love, and notions of meaningful, nurturing, and mutually satisfactory relationships. Will a sermon on this text be willing to name and acknowledge such differences?
  • One of the primary theological challenges for this passage is that Jesus appeals to God’s will and not to God’s law. How to determine the distinction between these two is at the heart of the debate when it comes to thinking about marriage in our current context.
  • Be exceedingly aware of your congregation and the multiple ways this text will be heard. There are some persons who have always wanted to be married, yet have not been able to find the “right” person. There are members of your churches who have never wanted to be married and don’t get what the big deal is in the first place. How will they hear this text and your sermon? Will your sermon marginalize them even further? Is there space for their voices in the conversation?
  • There is no doubt that with marriage amendments on ballots in state elections across the country this text will be heard differently than it was three years ago. Will a sermon invite conversation around these issues or close it down? Will it foster an environment of respectful debate and difference or elicit further conflict and divide?

A final thought. A text like this can so easily collapse into our will verses God’s or our sinfulness verses God’s intent. This dynamic is never as easy as one over the other. Name it. Problematize it. This sermon may neither solve anything nor give simple answers to exceedingly complex questions. It may, rather, open the door to reflections on and conversations about faith, real faith, and how faith and experience work together. And, in the theology of Mark, it will claim that despite all of our efforts and attempts to interpret this text into our lives, the final promise is that our God really is here in the midst of it all.