Dear Working Preacher,
Given the various readings on marriage and divorce this week, I suspect it’s occurred to more than a few of us that the prudent working preacher might choose to work with Hebrews this time around. 🙂 But, then again, preaching the gospel is rarely about being prudent.
The passage is often listed among the “hard sayings” of Jesus. But perhaps “painful,” “distressing,” or “agonizing” would be more like it, as each time this passage is read and heard in a congregation many of us cringe, either feeling assaulted by it directly or worrying that others are. A parishioner once told me that hearing this passage read in church felt like having someone dump garbage all over her. It didn’t matter if she’d cleaned up and put on her Sunday best for church that morning, because after hearing these words she felt she like she couldn’t get rid of the stink of her divorce. For this reason, we might anticipate any number of people listening a little more closely than usual to how you handle this passage.
And the recent use of this passage in debates about homosexual marriage hasn’t made things any easier. Considering the number of states that will soon have a vote on the definition of marriage in front of them, not to mention the role this issue is playing in the presidential election, that many more people, I suspect, will be paying attention to your words as well.
In other words, the pressure is on.
Trust me when I say that I’ve got neither the first nor last word on these issues. My thoughts in these areas are still a work in progress. But that’s no excuse for saying nothing, of course, and so I’ll offer several thoughts on this passage in particular as well as the larger issue of Christian marriage in a good faith effort to help honest working preachers wend their way through the thicket of issues this week’s readings raise. Take them or leave them as seems helpful.
First, on the passage:
Note that Jesus is on route to Jerusalem, walking steadfastly and purposefully to meet his cross and his destiny. Just now, that road has taken him beyond the Jordan River and across the boundary between what is known and unknown, familiar and unfamiliar. In Mark’s Gospel, location is often an important clue to interpretation. And so it’s worth noting how frequently Jesus goes beyond the prescribed boundaries — both geographical and social — to proclaim God’s mercy and grace even if that meant challenging the status quo. Is that what he’s doing here?
In order to answer that question, we need to recognize that divorce in the first century was not at all the same social phenomenon that it is in the twenty-first. There were two schools of thought about divorce in Jesus’ day — both believed a man had a right to put away, dismiss, or divorce his wife. One school was fairly strict — a man could do this only if his wife were unfaithful; the other was more lenient — a man could do this if his wife displeased him in any number of ways, including, according to one rabbinic source, “burning her husband’s toast.” Either way, the consequences for the woman were devastating — familial and public disgrace, potentially severe economic hardship, and limited future prospects for her and her children. So Jesus’ words were likely intended not to set up a standard by which to judge and stigmatize but rather to protect women who were so much more vulnerable before the law then men.
Along these lines, it’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t just say that a man who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery in general, he say that man commits adultery against his wife. In the ancient world, if a man was unfaithful to his wife he was considered to have committed adultery not against her but against her father and her family, the ones who entrusted her to him. But Jesus says it’s against her. So concern for the vulnerability of the woman seems a paramount concern.
I also find it striking that in response to the question by the Pharisees — “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” — Jesus actually refuses to render a legal judgment on divorce but instead turns the question on its head, shifting the conversation from legal to relational categories as he seeks protection for the most vulnerable.
Further, I find it instructive that he takes up the well known passage from Deuteronomy on the subject and re-interprets it — even relativizes it, in fact — in light of another passage from Genesis that would appear at first glance to be only tangentially related. And his use of Genesis itself is interesting. For most of history marriage was not about romance or fulfillment; rather, it was viewed primarily as a legal contract, the lawful exchange of property. It may be that by linking marriage to creation Jesus intended to retrieve, and even to elevate, marriage as something more than just a legal obligation. He may have wanted to assure men and women that, in fact, God blesses our marriages and wills for them to flourish, and that any time a marriage ends in ruin it grieves the heart of God, not because some legal standard has been broken but because of the damage done to Gods’ beloved children.
Now, to the larger issue of marriage:
The passages from Genesis and Mark seems to assume that marriage is between a man and a woman. In this they are no different than the rest of their respective cultures. Much of the Bible also assumes, however, that a man may have several wives, that he may take concubines, and that if his wife fails to provide him a child he may seek out another woman with whom to bear children. Any number of the Bible’s “heroes of the faith” — including Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon, to name just a few — fall into this category. Further, Paul — who says more about marriage than anyone else in the New Testament — does not seem terribly well disposed toward the estate of matrimony at all. According to Paul, it seems, marriage is at best a curb on our passions and all too often a distraction from our duties to the Lord. Indeed, he writes that “those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that” (1 Cor. 7:28). (Try preaching that this Sunday!) For all these reasons, discerning “what the Bible says about marriage” is rarely quite as easy as assumed.
In this case, it’s worth noting that Jesus’ words here aren’t really about marriage, but rather are about divorce. We should therefore be cautious about pressing these verses into a strict code of beliefs about marriage in general, let alone about homosexuality or homosexual marriage in particular. The Bible, actually, has very little to say about homosexuality, and Jesus nothing at all. For this reason, it may be that, like Jesus in this scene, we need to employ other passages, even those that at first glance may not seem to bear directly on the issue, to develop a larger ethic about marriage and homosexuality informed by Jesus’ unwavering insistence on care for the most vulnerable. (For those who are interested, I’ve written more about what the Bible says about homosexuality at my website.)
A final thought: a generation or two ago, we would have looked to this passage for instruction about whether or under what circumstances we can welcome persons who were divorced into our congregations, while today we seek counsel about what constitutes marriage itself. I take this as another sign that over time our perspectives, insights, and concerns change. Our views of marriage, that is, continue to develop. And this was true in Mark’s day as well. In Matthew’s later version of this story, for instance, he will add an exception to the standard regarding marriage and divorce spoken Mark relates, and if you look to Paul you’ll find yet another. Christians apparently have always struggled with these issues, so should we be surprised that we continue to struggle today?
Look, Working Preacher, you and I know that making sense of Scripture as God’s living word for us today is often not easy and at times can feel like its fraught with peril. We sometimes feel that we just don’t know enough to take a clear stand on the issues of the day. But this much we do know. This scene plays out while Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and his road takes him beyond the usual boundaries so that he may bring the gospel to all people. We also know that when Jesus gets to Jerusalem, he himself will be dismissed, put away, and taken beyond the boundaries of the city to be hung on a cross in the middle of a garbage heap. All this he endures in order to witness most fully and profoundly to God’s abundant mercy, steadfast love, and amazing grace for all people, regardless of their condition.
So wherever you may be on these issues at hand, know that I am praying for you. I am praying that you will find the courage to listen to these words with and for your people that together you may discern God’s will in this day and age. I’m praying that beyond whatever counsel or conclusions you may draw you will point your people unfailingly to the God of mercy … and come to know God’s mercy for yourself as well. And I’m praying that you sense the value and importance of your work, fidelity, and courage. What you do matters — now more than ever. Blessings on your proclamation.
Yours in Christ,