The Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, PH.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity
(The following is a transcript from the service audio)
In the Name of the God whose love has made, and saves, and aids us, amen.
So, as I've been saying each week from this pulpit, we are following the Revised Common Lectionary, which means we're sharing readings across the Christian denominations, and we're in the Gospel of Mark.
And Mark has not gone easy on me this term. Today's lesson in Jesus' teachings on divorce are painful to hear. They hurt my ears when I hear them read and they hurt my heart. And I'm sure they hurt yours too. To begin, I just want to say quite clearly that I do not believe that Jesus is condemning divorce in this passage, or people who have been divorced. Given the text we just read, that maybe sounds like an outrageous claim, and I'm going to spend 10 or 15 minutes trying to convince you of it.
But regardless of whether I do, I want to acknowledge that it's hurtful and hard to hear these words, and it's hurtful and hard to hear these words coming through our reader and through our election from the mouth of Jesus, because all of us know good people who still feel deep wounds and hurt because of divorce in their own lives. And all of us know good people who through divorce have found new life and blessing, and sometimes those are the same people. And some of those people may be you.
These people are part of our lives. It's part of our reality, and the sort of flatness, the simplicity, of Jesus' teaching today seems not to account for all those good, loving folks that we know who hurt, and do their best, and find new life. And isn't that what the Christian message, the good news of Jesus Christ, is about? In the wake of hurt, doing your best, finding new life. So, to say again, we do not condemn, I do not condemn divorce, and nor does Jesus.
Let me explain why I think that, though. So, in the first century, in Jesus's time and place, divorce was generally accepted. It was a generally accepted practice among both Jewish people and Roman people. Within the Jewish religion and culture, out of which Jesus comes, there were rules for when and how divorced could be carried out. These rules are laid out in the Book of Deuteronomy. And by the time of Jesus's day, there were basically two schools of thought on when and how divorce could be authorized.
There was one which said that men could basically initiate divorce for any reason they wanted. And another school which said that there had to be serious immorality for a man to initiate this process. And this question, which arises to Jesus, happens in the context of that debate: When is it appropriate? For any reason or only for the most egregious reasons? And this question actually arises in three of the Gospels, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
In Matthew, Jesus takes the side of the people who say, "You can divorce, but only in really serious cases." In Luke, Jesus side steps the question altogether and just says, "Divorce is fine. Just don't get married again." It's only in Mark ... And it's so typical of Mark. It's only in Mark that Jesus seems so harsh and so tough, and so uncompromising with His teaching.
Although, to be clear, even this teaching exists in the context of other teachings where it doesn't sit so comfortably. Jesus says here, "A man will leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife." But later on, Jesus says, "A man should leave his wife and children and cleave to me."
In order to understand ancient divorce, I think we need to understand something about ancient marriage, because what marriage is and what it meant in the first century and among Jesus' people is not what marriage means today. Marriage then was not primarily or even essentially about love. It was about property, about family status, and about wealth. That's not to say that first century people didn't fall in love. Of course they did. And it's not to say that people who got married didn't learn to love one another. They did, but that's not why marriages happened for the most part in ancient Judea. It was about property, and status, and wealth.
And the language here is also in important. You all know, just from listening to me preach a few times, that I like to turn to the Greek, and the word that is translated as, "divorce," here is the word "Apoluo," which actually means, "dismiss." When Jesus dismisses the crowds, it's the same word. And that distinction, I think, really well captures the difference between what was going on in Jesus' day and what we today think of as modern divorce.
In ancient Judaism only a man could initiate a divorce, and he dismissed his wife. He just dismissed her. To be clear, couples did not divorce one another. Men dismissed their wives. As I said, love happened in the first century, but it's not why marriage contracts were written. And some kind of failure of love was also not why marriage contracts were rescinded.
Now, if marriage in the first century was about wealth and status and power, you can guess why men would break those contracts, for wealth, and status, and power. Our own is a patriarchal culture, but this also was and even more so a patriarchal culture. As I said, only men could initiate this process. They could dismiss their wives, and a dismissed woman could literally be on the street without rights, without resources.
So this is question, this is the problem that is being posed to Jesus: When is it fine for a man to do this? Some of you who may have been here last week heard my sermon last week in which I saw Jesus invoking the Israelite king, the king of Judah, Ahaz, as a person who sacrificed his children for the sake of power. And Jesus condemned this, and said, "It's never appropriate to sacrifice the vulnerable for the sake of power."
And now, here, we have this question, and we have this understanding of first century marriage where marriage is about wealth, and power, and women are vulnerable, and the question that these people are asking Jesus is, "When is it appropriate to sacrifice the vulnerable for the sake of power?" And, of course, Jesus's answer is, "Never."
There's a reason why the last two weeks in our Gospel readings, Jesus pulled a child in front of the crowds and said, "This is the one who represents the kingdom, this vulnerable one, protect this one." And there's a reason why in today's lesson, immediately after he gives this teaching about divorce, he pulls a child in front of the crowd and says, "This is what the kingdom of God is about. Protecting the vulnerable, never sacrificing them to power."
This lesson is not about divorce in the modern sense. It's about dignity in the Christian sense. It's not about how love ends, it's about the ends of love. What love is for, who it protects, and how. And this is why I am confident, despite what I acknowledge is the apparent textual evidence to the contrary, that there is no flat condemnation of divorce in this teaching.
In fact, I think it is a terrible, tragic irony that this teaching has been used over the centuries to keep women and children in dangerous and abusive marriages, for centuries. I think Jesus would recoil at that idea that his teaching meant to protect the vulnerable was used to harm and endanger them.
Again, this is not about the end of love. It's about the ends of love. Not about how love ends, how it concludes, how it changes, it's about how it endures, who it protects, what it does it and who it is for. And that's why, in our own lives, we can issue no blanket condemnations. We cannot haphazardly slap this teaching upon the complexities of our own lives and the lives of the people we love. That's too simple.
And Jesus knew it, and what he's trying to do is redirect the attention of his questioners to the basic, and mistaken, and unjust presuppositions of the question they are asking. "When is it appropriate to sacrifice the vulnerable to power?" That's the wrong question. The right question is, "How can my love protect the vulnerable from those in power?" And any decisions we Christians make, any actions we take, including difficult decisions about how our relationships have to end or change, should be made with attention to how our love can protect those who are at risk, including ourselves, in many cases.
This teaching from Jesus is about more than a narrow question of marriage. It's about more than the customs by which we human beings couple. And in fact, what this lesson, what this teaching is pointing to, I think, is shot through the Gospel of Mark. This difficult, difficult, demanding Gospel that I've been wrestling with you for weeks. The lesson this lesson is trying to teach is shot through the Gospel of Mark. From the first words of the Gospel of Mark, "The good news of Jesus Christ," it says in its first words. Up to the end of the Gospel of Mark, this teaching is everywhere in the gospel.
And the clue to it is in another word from this lesson. It says that the Pharisees came to test Jesus, to trap Jesus. This is a trap for Jesus. Now, as you heard me preach in my first sermon, the Pharisees are caricatured here in this lesson. The Pharisees are the ancestors of modern Judaism, and had a rich, and complicated, and wonderful religious life themselves. But what's important for me in this lesson or in this line is this idea that they were trying to trap Jesus. Why would this question be a trap? Why is a question about divorce the thing by which to trap Jesus?
And the answer is elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark. Earlier in the Gospel of Mark, we hear that John the Baptist was executed by Herod for criticizing Herod's divorce. John the Baptist's execution is invoked in this passage. And so, also, by that invocation, is Jesus's forthcoming execution.
Today's lesson in this question, in this trap of a question, is pointing to the end of the gospel, pointing to that cross, pointing to that empty tomb. And when we recognize that, we can recognize something about that ending, about that cross, and about that empty tomb, because this mantra that I've been repeating through this sermon, that, "This is not about how love ends, but about the ends of love," that could also be the mantra by which we read the final scenes of this difficult, demanding gospel.
The Christian good news, the good news of God in Jesus Christ, as it is revealed in this gospel, the story of this man, Jesus of Nazareth, and the story of his disciples then and now is not about how love ends, because we've seen the end. We've seen love nailed to a cross. We've seen it beaten, and scourged, and left there to die. We've seen it cry out in agony and breathe its last breath. And we've also seen that there is more to the story than that.
The story of Jesus Christ is not about how love ends. It's about the ends of love, why it matters, what it does, whom it protects, and what for. This is the good news. This is the story of Jesus. May we tell this story with our lives.