A Sermon Preached at Saint Ignatius of Antioch
October 7, 2012
After yesterday’s wonderful wedding ceremony, it is either serendipity or irony that today’s Gospel reading would take us into Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and their question about divorce. It’s a tough passage, even with the sharp barb of vv.11-12 removed, and I am tempted to reflect on marriage as a metaphor for the church. But the text in Mark’s Gospel is not about metaphors; it presents two opposing options in stark relief. I’ll ease us into it through one of the prayers offered yesterday. The prayer for the couple being married was: “Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.” This appeal makes marriage a sign of the greatest possibility in God as it also reflects the reality of our unfinished, sometimes messy, Christian existence. It captures something of the puzzling way in which Jesus understands our life of faith as a life of new possibility and hope in an old, broken world, and this includes marriage.
Reading through Mark’s Gospel, this episode seems to come right out of the blue. But there were two contemporary debates going on—a rabbinic debate about the legitimate grounds for divorce, and a more public debate about the illegitimacy of Herod’s marriage to Herodias, which the Gospel of Mark makes more visible than the other Gospels. And as with the matter of paying taxes to Caesar (yet another debate for the Jews of Jesus’ day), the Pharisees sought to trick Jesus into taking a position on these issues that would be dangerous for him. John the Baptist took a stand in that public debate about Herod’s marriage and lost his head. If we read this episode, as “Jesus’ teaching on divorce,” we may question its relevance to our life in the 21st-century Western world. But in fact Jesus’ responds to the question about divorce by giving his views on marriage. Is he an idealist, or just an optimist? He unfolds his view of marriage in full awareness of human hardheartedness, stubbornness, selfishness; so how can he say what he does? What use is it to trot out this creation blueprint of marriage when we all know that in the next chapter of the Genesis story, the first married couple is thrown out of the Garden of Eden? Fair questions I think; but the answer is not that he was an idealist, or optimist. Jesus was a realist, but his view of reality, unlike that of the Pharisees, was shaped by his understanding of his Messianic ministry. He knew about something that his disciples had a hard time understanding, and his opponents had a hard time believing. Jesus’ ministry on earth was introducing something I will call kingdom possibility.
As a way of defining our life of faith in Christ, its potential and its limitations, this thing I call kingdom possibility draws its meaning from two elemental statements of Jesus. The first comes at the outset of his ministry: the kingdom of God has come near. The second comes just after our text in the story of the rich young man. You’ll remember Jesus’ words to his disciples: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” His disciples are completely astonished and can only ask, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus response: “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” These two truths uttered by Jesus define the territory in which we live today, in which the kingdom has come near and with God all things are possible. And it is in that territory that Jesus speaks of marriage.
The kingdom of God had drawn near. While some faithful Jews hoped this would mean the overthrow of the Romans, what it meant was the beginning of a long contest in which the power of evil would be broken by the power of God’s love—a contest in which we are still involved. And Jesus’ teaching, from the Beatitudes to the cross (and beyond), defined kingdom power in terms of changed lives and new possibilities—hearts that were turned to God, from self to service and sacrifice for others. The circumstances in which the life of faith is lived might not change, they might even worsen, but God’s presence meant kingdom possibility, the possibility of faithfulness and the possibility of forgiveness and renewal when faithfulness failed. Christian existence as depicted for us in the NT is the constant navigation from faithfulness to forgiveness and back again. We navigate those same waters ourselves when we come together like this.
In this Gospel episode we are squarely within that kingdom frame, where human frailty and inconsistency make all seem impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. It is a typical scenario: the Pharisees have found Jesus, as it happens, in the same place John the Baptist had worked, teaching the people. With those two contemporary debates about divorce swirling, they invite Jesus to weigh in. What does the one whose followers call the Messiah have to say about divorce? He does not take the bait. He turns the question back to them. They are focused on “permission” and only get as far back in Moses as Deuteronomy. Jesus drives them farther back from “permission” and “concession” to “divine creative possibility,” to Genesis 1 and 2 and the marriage union conceived by God in which two people become one new entity in God’s presence. After the Scriptures are quoted, his advice is brief: “what God has united, let no one separate.” The spiritual bond of marriage does not create a mere partnership of convenience but a new entity. This is the possibility, and in this discussion, as an alternative to divorce, it is a kingdom possibility. The kingdom has drawn near, and what is impossible for people, is not impossible for God.
We all know the statistics. In this country, the rate of marriage success and failure is the flip of a coin. And the percentages do not change among those who claim to be Christians. Marriage is hard work: two people trying to live out their unity—each living for the other and for the marriage and for their God—face many risks. Equipped only with a natural human “hardheartedness,” as Jesus describes the situation of a fallen world, the risks of failure are real. But in the light of kingdom power, which can soften hearts and turn them outwards, armed with God’s possibility in the face of the risks, there is strength and hope to go forward together.Some marriages are made in heaven; others seem to have been made in hell. Most stand somewhere “in between.” We know this place “in between” is a broken world, marred by incompleteness, selfishness, and we are not adept at sustaining unity. And sometimes divorce becomes necessary, but our failure is not the end, because Jesus has claimed this ground “in between” as a place of kingdom possibility; where God’s grace and redemption, God’s own presence, bring unity and vitality in marriage within our grasp; where new beginnings are possible; where what is impossible for human beings is possible with God. Amen.
Philip H. Towner
© 2012 Philip H. Towner