Sunday, October 08, 2006

Pentecost 18 - Year B

NB: Had a wee bit 'o help from Willimon's Pulpit Resource.

Usually, Jesus seems to be the enemy of legalistic, literalistic interpretations of biblical law.

“The Sabbath was meant for people, not people for the Sabbath,” he corrects a group of cranky old clergy after getting in trouble when his followers pick grain for their Sabbath meal ON the Sabbath.

And he sometimes appears to be playing fast and loose with the strict laws on ritual purity. “Look! A glutton and a drunk. A friend of tax collectors and sinners! He puts his hands on those filthy lepers and heals and hugs those disgusting, diseased street people,” his critics charge.

So, it’s a bit surprising to hear Jesus take a hard-line when he’s asked a question on what was a hot topic that day: is it OK for a man who has divorced his wife to get remarried?”

Maybe this would have been a good time for him to say: Hey, what about the WOMEN? Shouldn’t they be allowed to get a divorce as well? Why do the men get to do what ever they want leaving the women to get hung out to dry?”

Or he could have paraphrased his earlier statement for a new situation: “Marriage is made for humanity, not humanity for marriage.” People first. Institution second. It would sound like vintage Jesus.

But no. His eyes squint and spits the question right back at them: “What does Moses say?”

“Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her,” they spit back.

“Yeah, he did that because you folks were so nasty to each other. But you know what God wants. Right from the beginning, the bible says that “God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. Period.”

Later, when they were alone the disciples asked, “Seriously, Jesus. What do you REALLY mean about divorce? You were just trying to stick it to a bunch of pompous pastors and religious snobs, right? You didn’t REALLY mean all that stuff, did you?”

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. End of story,” Jesus says.

Maybe there was too much starch in his shorts. Maybe he was reacting to the charges that he’s being too wishy-washy. Maybe he just needed a little more fibre in his diet. But there it is. He said what he said. No commentary needed.

I know what some of you might be thinking, because I’ve thought it too: What do you know about it, Jesus? You’re single. You never had to fight about who takes out the garbage or who picks the kids up at school, about who cuts the grass or who cooks the meals. You’ve never been ditched for a boys’ drunken night out, and you’ve never received the silent treatment during playoffs.

You’ve never found lipstick on the collar, or strange hotel receipts that fell out of her purse.

You’ve never looked across the dinner table and wondered who this stranger is you’ve been living with for too many years.

Jesus, all of us either are people who are divorced and remarried. Or know and love folks who are in their second or even third marriages. What about them? They’re trying to make their relationships work. Are you calling them adulterers?

Would you tell a woman who gets smacked around by her husband to stay where she is, to stay committed to her wedding vows, even if her husband has not? Or if she finds the courage to escape an abusive marriage, are you saying that she can’t find another relationship, another partner, one who will treat her with the dignity and respect she deserves? Are you condemning her to a life of loneliness because of the actions of her abusive husband?

If so, then that’s quite the statement, Jesus.

But Jesus says what he says. There’s no wiggle room. Jesus couldn’t be any plainer.

That’s when Jesus’ lowers his voice: “Don’t you get it? I’m TRYING to protect them. With all these easy divorces around, women and children are left to beg on the streets. They’re at the merciful whim of their husbands and fathers. I’ve seen guys walk away from their families because his wife put too much salt on the potatoes or burned the chicken. Without him, there’s no way for the woman to support her children. They have no land and no job. I’m trying to protect those who cannot protect themselves.”

At least that was the argument folks made 2000 years ago to explain why Jesus said what he did.

So what is this story saying to us today? Does Jesus’ blanket statement about strenuous fidelity to marriage vows still stand?

Maybe. Some folks say that it’s too easy to get a divorce these days. With the divorce rate floating back and forth between 45 and 50 percent, some suggest that we need tougher guidelines for folks trying to end their marriage.

But that makes me wonder, creating more hoops to jump through may slow the divorce rate, but will they make for stronger marriages? Or will they simply put legal barriers to situations where divorce will happen anyway?

But I think for us as Christians, the question is: Was Jesus making a once-and-for-all final word about divorce and remarriage, or was he dealing with a specific issue of society’s most vulnerable people being hurt by those who are supposed to protect them?

We can bat that question back and forth because I don’t have a definitive answer. I know what God’s ideal regarding marriage is because Jesus lays it all out in this passage. But I also know a how messy human relationships can be, how human relationships can be filled with joy, fraught with pain, or burdened with boredom.

And I have to admit, I prepared this sermon with much fear and trembling, because I know that many of you have been hurt by divorce, the breakdown of what was to be a lifetime commitment. Maybe you, your parents, your child, or someone close to you has seen a marriage fall to ruin, and the experience has scarred everyone within arm’s reach. Divorce causes very real and legitimate pain. And Jesus’ words sound needlessly harsh as they stand alone – outside of their history.

But I think what Jesus is talking about is not divorce per se, but commitment. Commitment to promises we make to each other, and commitment to protect the weakest, most vulnerable people around us.

That’s why, over the past few weeks, and for the next few weeks, when we gather our gifts as our offering to God, we include baskets of food for the Food Bank. It is a symbol of our commitment, as people of God, to protect those who cannot protect themselves from hunger. It’s a small thing. But it’s something. And in offering our food to the hungry, we renew our commitment to God as followers of Jesus Christ.

So, if today’s gospel makes us squirm then it’s doing its job. It’s what Jesus meant for it to do. We know that in God’s perfect world, people’s commitment and love last forever. But in our broken and fallen world, people get hurt and they hurt each other. Everyone is scarred in some way. No one is exempt.

Jesus was calling people to a greater vision of what the world can be, the way that God wants it to be, the way that God is busy making it into. It may have been a backhanded mode of preaching good news, but it is good news nonetheless, if we have ears to hear it. It was certainly good news for wives who lived in fear that her husband might leave her and the kids, leaving them poor and penniless. And it was good news for the children who never felt love and affection, let alone a blessing.

And its good news for us, because Jesus is saying that when God makes a commitment, God honours that commitment. And Jesus is asking us to do for each other what God has done for us: to be a people of commitment and blessing, knowing that there is forgiveness when we fail, and healing when we break.

And in return, we offer to God our thanksgiving.

May this be so among us. Amen.


Blogger Psychols said...

It was a disturbing sermon Kevin. As a divorced and remarried person, I must admit that Jesus' message about divorce worried me (and continues to worry me) but I once attended a lecture by a Roman Catholic theologian who also urged us to understand Jesus' words in the context of the time. When he mentionned divorce and taught the same thing that you did.

As an aside, he also said that "Turn the other cheek" and "if he makes you go a mile with him, go with him two." were acts of passive defiance against the Romans. It was a fascinating lecture.

Psychols (formerly cycles2k)

10:53 PM  

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