Thursday, October 29, 2009
Monday, October 26, 2009
When I sat down to read the lessons for today, I found myself wondering what was so special about Bartimaeus. It's a healing story, but there are so many healing stories. It's about a poor man, a beggar, blind, but there have been other poor people, other beggars, other blind people. I read through the story a couple of times, looking for something that would stand out as different or exciting. In short, something to talk about for the next twelve or thirteen minutes!
I have preached on Bartimaeus before, so I looked at an old sermon I had, and it was terrible. It had nothing in it worth repeating. I almost wondered if I had written the sermon while I was asleep or something.
So I started my research with the goal in mind of finding at least one interesting thing, and instead I discovered that this text is not just important, it's a turning point in Mark's gospel!
Now, I can be forgiven for forgetting that because we don't read the Bible in church as a narrative. We read little sections of it that biblical scholars like to call pericopes. Pericope means "cutting." It's just a little cutting, a little section from the whole. And we have to do that, of course, because the Bible is so long and so filled with meaning that we can't possibly read through it like a story and explain it for more than a couple verses at a time.
But when you look at this story in its context in Mark's gospel… Well… Let's look at it together. What has preceded this lesson is a series of interactions and teachings that lead up to the conclusion of Jesus' ministry. We've been reading through them one by one each Sunday. Jesus has been giving final instructions about the equality of men and women, welcoming children. You will remember the rich man who wants eternal life, and Jesus changes what "eternal life" means for the man. Jesus foretells his death and resurrection for the third time. And last week we had the request of James and John to sit with Jesus on his right and on his left.
And now the section for today begins, "When Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho." Now this is important. The stretch of road from Jericho to Jerusalem was the pilgrims' way to Jerusalem. People making a pilgrimage to the holy city would piously travel this route, and since people who make pilgrimages tend to be heavenly minded and predisposed to be generous, this route was a good place for beggars to come and beg.
Now, Mark doesn't spell any of this out because he didn't have to. It would be like saying, "He turned off the interstate and saw a man pumping gas." You don't have to be told that there are gas stations right off the interstate. You just know that.
All right. Now. That's how this lesson begins—with the beginning of Jesus' walk to Jerusalem. And you know what's next, right? After this story is the triumphal entry, what we read on Palm Sunday just before the procession of the palms.
So the story of Bartimaeus is a turning point in Mark's gospel, because it is the last healing story, the last interaction Jesus has as a private citizen, because after he enters Jerusalem, the plans are set in motion for his betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
So let's take a look specifically at the text for today.
Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, is sitting by the roadside. Bartimaeus is written as one word, but in Hebrew it's Bar Timaeus, or son of Timaeus. There is a way of translating that from the Hebrew to mean "son of the unclean," which might be Mark's way of letting us know that this man comes from a family of outcasts. He's not just a beggar because he's blind—he comes from a poverty that goes back over generations.
Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing along and he calls out "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Now, again, you and I don't blink an eye at hearing those words, but see this is first time in Mark's gospel that Jesus is referred to as "Son of David." And in the story it would be exactly like saying "Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, have mercy on me!" It's a scandalous thing to say. Here a blind man is calling Jesus the Messiah. Before now, the only people who have called Jesus the Messiah have been the twelve disciples.
Well, the people around Bartimaeus sternly tell him to be quiet. But he calls out even louder, and the second time he even omits Jesus' name! He just says, "Son of David," just to reinforce the audacity of his greeting.
So Jesus tells the crowd to let Bartimaeus come over to him. And Bartimaeus throws off the cloak and runs over. Now some have suggested that throwing off the cloak is symbolic of throwing off the old, and embracing the new. And others have said that it's a symbolic contrast to the rich man who won't sell everything he has, whereas Bartimaeus, in throwing off the cloak, gives away everything he has. I don't know. Both of those readings seem a little too precious to me. But what do I know?
Bartimaeus comes to Jesus and Jesus asks, "What do you want me to do for you?" It's funny, because that's exactly what Jesus asked James and John when they said—in last week's lesson—"Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." Jesus responded there as well, "What do you want me to do for you." Remember in that story James and John wanted to sit beside Jesus in his coming kingdom. The disciples ask for power and position, but Bartimaeus asks for vision. You can take that symbolically or literally: the ability to see, or the ability to perceive, or both.
Bartimaeus asks to see again, so clearly he was sighted at one point before. Jesus says, "Go; your faith has made you well." And, Mark writes, "Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way." Bartimaeus not only receives his sight, but he becomes—in a sense—a disciple.
Now, some interesting aspects of this story remain. (I told you, I was looking for just one, and I feel like I found a whole box of them!) If you read through the previous healing stories in the chapters of Mark that lead up to this story, you will find that Jesus "sternly orders them to tell no one." But Jesus is now on his way to Jerusalem, and the end of his private ministry. Bartimaeus a poor, beggar has identified him as the Messiah, and he does not deny it. Jesus' need to protect his identity is gone. He is the Messiah.
But even though that will be celebrated next in the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the other side of it is that owning up to his identity as the Messiah puts a great big bull's-eye on his back. The events are set in motion for his Passion.
There is a rather simple facet of this story that just tickles me. And it might be the simplest, most basic thing of all, and that is that even a blind man could see Jesus for who he is! Jesus has been ministering privately in towns and villages, and people have been thrilled with what he's been doing. They've been proclaiming his good works, despite Jesus' call to be quiet, but by the time he rounds the corner to Jerusalem, even the blind man begging by the roadside calls out "Here is the Messiah of God."
It's a bittersweet moment, I think you will agree. When you see the story in its context, you can't help but feel that this is a rosy moment just before things start to get tricky. He's going to enter Jerusalem and there will still be teachings and arguments with the Pharisees, but the healings are over now. Bartimaeus is the last one. Jesus is saying goodbye to being a little boy from Nazareth, the Son of Mary. He is now a public figure, and will be addressed as Teacher, Rabbi, and Lord.
In Jesus' last healing—the healing of Bartimaeus—he does not even touch him. No mud cakes, no laying on of hands. It is Bartimaeus' faith that heals him. At the culmination of Jesus' ministry, the faith people have in Jesus has become so powerful and so pronounced that Jesus doesn't need to lay hands on anyone. Bartimaeus can simply be in the presence of Christ and receive sight.
Well, now, I've given you a lot to think about. I never settled down to just one aspect of this story to preach on, or to bring into the here and now. But upon reflection, I think what I want to bring you is the idea that this story is not really about healing. Oh, it is, of course, ostensibly. But when you look at all the elements of it, it is really about the culmination of Jesus' ministry.
He is more than just a teacher or a healer, and of course, that's nothing new—we've read our Bible for years and we know that he's the Son of God—and of course the Cross and Resurrection are just around the corner. But for this moment in Mark's Gospel we see Jesus as he begins to emerge from the wonder-worker identity and assume his true role as "the one who is to come."
You know—I have heard it said—"It is one thing to wait for a Messiah, but it's something quite different to say that the Messiah has come." To say that you are waiting for a Messiah is to say that Jesus is not him—the day has not yet come, we've got more time to do what we want. But to say, "Jesus, Messiah, have mercy on me." Is to accept Jesus as the one we've been waiting for. And to accept that, compels us to follow him.
You can call yourself a Christian and never really follow Jesus. You can be a Christian and say, "I believe." "I'm a member of this church." "I worship Jesus as the Messiah." But worshiping Jesus is not the same as following him.
Following Jesus requires more than just identifying him out of the crowd, or even mentally assenting to his teachings. I know plenty of people who think Jesus was brilliant, that he had an amazing take on life, that he was special, or whatever, but they don't follow him. Following Jesus is saying, I'm going to do what he does. I'm going to prioritize what he prioritizes. Prophets will come and go, but Jesus is the One. He's the One for me.
When you come to that place, you can follow him. You can follow him into Jerusalem and wave Palm branches. You can follow him to the cross, and you can stand at the door of the empty tomb. And you can do it because you know whom you are following. You might not know where you are going, but you will know whom you are following. It will be so obvious, that even if you were blind, you could still see him.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
The most complex meaning that can hide behind the mask of anger is love. Affection that is too deep for words. So, anger. Anger at the inability to control how strong the love is. Do you know what I mean?
The little boy who cannot express his love for a little girl, so he hits her. Anger/love.
The older man who sees a younger man about do something he did when he was younger, and has always regretted, or never felt he had the support he wanted. What to do? Anger/love.
The woman who cannot stop a younger woman for falling for a guy who is bad news. "How can I talk with her?" Anger/love.
We want to protect people from making mistakes, and this is a love so strong that it's power can frustrate our expression of it.
God, give us the words...take away the anger.
Monday, October 19, 2009
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." Mark 10:35-40
There is a moment in every person's life—I'm sure the psychologists have a term for it—it happens when we are very, very small. It's the moment we realize that we cannot do everything we want to do. Or, maybe it's not so much a moment as it is a growing realization. Long before we have words we realize—I can't get out of this crib. I can't just have milk any moment I please.
And if I were in a grumpy mood, I might say that life goes downhill from there! But, of course, it doesn't. What really follows is process of trial and error, attempting to figure out what is easily possible, what is possible with effort, and what is just plain impossible. What I am speaking about is quite simply the lifelong process of learning.
I remember from psychology class in college that frustration is anger produced by the lack of maturity to accommodate new information. Frustration is that moment when we are confronted by new information, or a new circumstance that we cannot readily pigeon-hole in our current set of possibilities. We are simply not aware of how this fits into what life has been so far.
That is why traumatic events are so traumatic. They literally force your brain to accept and accommodate an entirely new way of thinking about how life can be—and what can happen. This has never happened before. I've always had that person in my life.
You might say that this process is life. We are constantly absorbing and adapting to new information and new possibilities, at every age, and until we die. And there are things that are possible at each age that are impossible at others. When you are a child it is possible to crawl under the dining room table, without moving any chairs, without banging your head, and at the speed of light. Ask my daughter. Actually, no, don't ask her, because she can't talk yet—for a handful of precious months, language has yet to be acquired. But after that, I expect her first words to me will be "Daddy, can I have a cell phone?"
There are things that are possible when you are in your young adult years. Actually the years between 15 and 25, are a period of unparalleled discovery. Life expands from home and school to...well, everything else. Life opens out, beckoning you to take a series of steps that, once taken, cannot be retraced. The decision to go to a particular school, or branch of the service, or whatever, is typically made based on reasons that have little to do with what will ultimately happen to you. You go to XYZ College because it's close to home, or far away, or they have a good program for this field of study.
But unless you are exclusively honed in on your future career, none of those reasons are ultimately influential. It's the roommate in the dorm room who told you that you should come audition to sing in the choir, or try out for the softball team. And when you did that, you met soandso, and he became Mr. Right, and you got married, and his job took him to such and such where you had a child…
You went off to visit some friends, and had no idea that you were walking down a path that closed behind you. But life opens out with new possibilities, new information, new people with their own set of new information and possibilities. Life!
And all along the way you discover that those barriers between what you think you can do and what you know you can do are really very flimsy. You never thought you could live on your own.
You never thought you could land that job—not enough experience, don't know the right people. And then you got it, and you were good at it. Or you were terrible, but you met soandso who helped you get the other job.
Do you see what I'm saying? What is possible and what is impossible changes!
John and James come to Jesus and ask, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"
When I read those words, I expect John and James to say "No!" You won't believe this. But it's true. Even though I know this story like the back of my hand, every time I read the question Jesus asks James and John, I expect them to say no. Because I know what he is really asking them. He is asking them if they can drink from the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism. Jesus is alluding to two Old Testament metaphors: the cup of wrath, and the overwhelming flood.
Can they take upon themselves the full responsibility of not just living the life Jesus teaches, but being a person upon whom rests the mission and power of God. Can you, James and John, leave everything behind? Can you let your life be absorbed into the ways of God, and be someone in whom God entrusts the message of the coming kingdom?
But more than that. James and John, are you willing to be crucified for this? Are you willing to stick with it, even when people revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely on my account, and kill you? That's what Jesus is asking.
And they—if they have any sense in their brains about what is possible and impossible—they should say no. Because what Jesus is asking is impossible. Well, okay…it's not impossible. It's just really, really hard if you don't really, really want to do it.
So they say "Yes, we can." And Jesus says, yes they can. But it seems to me that this is something they will have to prove. You don't learn what's possible really, until you do it.
Sometimes I think of the Church as being a place where people come to find out what is possible. You have a falling out with your friend, and it's bad, and you don't know if the relationship will survive. And you come to church and you hear that it's possible. It is possible to forgive…will you do it? You might have to push yourself a little bit. It might be hard at first, but it's possible. Will you do it?
Some folks do not like to hear that things are possible because they like the thought that something they don't really want to do is not possible. As my son. I say, "Peter, clean up your toys." He says, "I can't I'm watching TV." "You can do it, Peter."
The Bible says give. It says give in the Old Testament; it says give in the New Testament; Jesus says give. We say, "I'm sorry, but for me, that's not possible." Yes, it is. It is possible…will you do it?
Jesus said, "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel." Did you know that those words are inscribed in prominent lettering around the Altar window at Virginia Seminary? We saw it every day at 8:15 in the morning, coming to Daily Morning Prayer. Stand up, Prayer book in hand, face forward, and there were the words of Jesus himself, "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel." Those words say: "It's possible. Will you do it?"
Look through the Bible sometime—it's all about possibility. You will read words of great comfort. "Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." You will read words of warning, "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter." And you will read words of challenge, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."
The angel declares to Mary, "You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus." Mary replied, "How can this be?" And the angel said, "Nothing will be impossible with God. And Mary said, "let it be with me according to your word."
It's all possible. Can you feed the poor? Can you love the unloved? Can you forgive the person who ripped out your heart? Yes. Will you do it?
James and John reached a point in their discipleship where they realized that they are no longer just followers. When Jesus asks if they are able, I can imagine them mentally thumbing through the pictures of their time spent following Jesus. "Here's the one of us baptizing hundreds of people…you remember that day? Beautiful day. The sky was deep blue, hundreds of people. And Bartholomew made grilled fish that evening!"
"Oh, look at this one! This was in Tyre, or was it Sidon?, no Tyre, I remember the woman with the foot problem was in Tyre. She was healed instantly, do you remember that?" "Look at this one! Wow! This is from the very beginning. We fished all night, caught nothing, and then Jesus said, `Throw out your nets on the other side,' and BAM! we got three boats' worth."
James and John thumb through their memories—stuff that was impossible, had become possible. The common denominator was Jesus. Somehow with Jesus, it's all possible. "So, are we able to drink from the same cup, and be baptized with the same baptism? Are we able to take upon us the full responsibility of this man's mission and ministry—accepting all the costs, accepting the sacrifices? …yeah! Yes. We are able."
What about you? Will you follow? Will you give, and forgive? Will you seek and serve? Will you love?
See, the question isn't whether it's possible anymore. Of course, it is possible. The real question is: Will you do it?
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Last Sunday you were subjected to a sermon about marriage and divorce. And now this Sunday we've got the story of rich man who comes to Jesus and the "eye of the needle" and all that. Next Sunday we've got Jesus teaching even more about servanthood and sacrifice. These are some pretty serious topics. You know, some folks don't like coming to church because we read and talk about serious things. I am sure that there are many people who might otherwise come to church if we left those things alone.
I remember a few years ago I had a parishioner who was getting a divorce, and she was in church every Sunday. She said that coming to church gave her the comfort she needed to get through all the paperwork and arguments and legal stuff, and she made up her mind that if anything came up that was uncomfortable, that she'd just get up and walk out. She didn't sound a trumpet; she didn't get upset or complain—she just got up and walked away.
Well, there were a few Sundays of easy lessons. I think we were going through John and there was a lot of love language. I in you, you in me, God in us, everyone just loving each other. And that was just fine. But then we came along to something about making peace with each other, and she would get up and go. Or the lesson would be about talking to one another in love, and she would get up and go.
Finally one Sunday, she made it through the service and had come to coffee hour and I was going to give a talk about the services in The Book of Common Prayer, and she sat down. When I mentioned that I was going to begin the class with a discussion of the service of marriage, she rolled her eyes, then fixed me with a look of absolute betrayal and left.
The last time I saw her the divorce had come through. She was in the church parking lot, sitting in a brand new sandy-beige colored convertible sports car—top down. There was music blaring from her stereo and she was just stopping by to say goodbye—she was moving to Florida. "Thank you for listening." "Thank you for being there." And all this. And I was glad for her that she was feeling better, but I was slightly…well, what's the word? Distressed? No. I suppose disappointed. I was disappointed that she had reduced her experience of "church" to the comfortable stuff.
And I don't mean to sound judgmental, really. We all have seasons in our lives when we need Kleenexes and love—and I do believe that the church needs to be a comforting place in this harsh world. But we also talk about serious, meaningful things that keep us from stagnating in the coziness of comfort and joy.
I think of that woman when I read our Gospel lesson for today. A man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus said to him, "You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'"
He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
For many people going into Christian vocations, these words are in the background. If you were to talk with a monk or a nun—many monasteries require their postulants to give everything they have for the communal life of the monastery.
This is not an easy lesson to preach because of the dialog. Jesus gives the eye of the needle saying, which is to say that it's pretty much impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples ask "Well, then, Jesus, who can get in?" And Jesus responds that it's not humanly possible, but with God all things are possible." But it really doesn't flow, does it? There is no straight line between Jesus' words and the question before him.
So in order to get at the heart of this lesson, you have to go back and ask: what does the rich man want? He comes to Jesus and asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Now, I find his words very interesting, especially the word "inherit." It's almost a dead giveaway that the man is rich, or at least, someone who is used to thinking about property. He might ask "what must I do to achieve," which would actually be worse, but it would have been more proper really to say, "What must I do to be welcomed to eternal life?"
"Eternal life" is really at the crux of the matter. He wants eternal life, but that's not really what he wants. What he wants is eternal security, or perhaps even, eternal control. He's got money. He has plenty of the security that comes with being able to buy food and drink and a nice place to live, vacations here and there, maybe another car. He wants to be able to put a padlock around all that. I've got the car, the house, the wife and children, the food, the money, the boat—now, if only I could make sure things will stay good. If only I could make sure that—win, lose, or draw—I'm going to be okay.
You wouldn't believe how many people think of Christianity like that. Maybe not consciously. It might never get down into the conscious level of their brain, but there are a lot of people who think of eternal life as an insurance policy. And I can understand that because the message is out there in various churches that Christianity is mostly about "getting saved." And if you're "saved," the ticket to heaven is punched, you're a good man or woman, and that's it.
And that's what this rich man believes, do you see that? How do I get my ticket punched? What is my deductible? How do I make sure it's all going to stay like this?
Jesus says, "Have you kept the commandments?" The man says, "Yes, every last one of them." And Jesus says, "Well, you're missing the big one." (He might just as well have said, "You're missing the one that tells you what "eternal life" means.") Jesus says, "Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and then come and follow me."
You can see the man's face fall. That didn't sound like eternal life. That sounded like change. The man doesn't want change; he wants to keep things as they are. But fundamentally, for Jesus, it's a question of what "eternal life" means—and it doesn't mean comfort and security and control in the ways that the rich man defines comfort and security and control.
Jesus gives the rich man five verbs in that sentence. Go, sell, give, come, and follow. And those are challenging verbs, too. Go, sell, give. Surely the rich man was used to: Go, buy, sell. But not: Go, sell, give. I'm sure the rich man was fine with: visit and listen. But maybe not: come and follow.
The words of Jesus require this man to change everything about his way of living. The control and security of money and self-leadership would have to be crucified. He would have to sell everything, which meant that he couldn't hang out with his rich buddies anymore. No more money, no more wealthy friends. People would have to relate to him for who he is, not what he owns.
He would have to exchange his definition of life, and eternal life to the life of faith that God would provide for his needs. See, it isn't just the money. It's the man's whole understanding of what life looks like, and is about.
And that is why it is seemingly impossible to be rich and to enter the kingdom of God. Because discipleship requires you do the very opposite of what we think of when we think of success. Instead of putting money first, you put people first. Instead of relating to people because they own what you own and like what you like—you become a servant, a giver, a person whose only real commitment is to doing whatever God asks of you.
No one does it perfectly—and to be frank, I don't know many people who do it all that well, because it's humanly impossible. But with God, all things are possible. And here we come to the meaning of those words. With God, it is possible to change—to change the way you see the world, and the way you relate to people. With human effort it is impossible to see success as anything other than fancy vacations and money and people who run in the circles of the high and mighty. But with God, we can see how false that definition of success is.
The man who has all the possessions and wants to put a padlock around it all—he is not free. It is a trite expression, but the things that he owns, own him. And they don't just own him, they control him and they make him want more. They make him less satisfied with who he is, because they take his freedom away.
The freedom of Jesus is the freedom to find riches in the service of others, and in the simplest acts of generosity that many people in this cold world never experience.
With God it is possible to reach for this new life and to make a change. It is even possible to go, sell, give, come, and follow—because Jesus has rewritten the meaning of the words: life, eternal life, success, and failure.
There is an old story about a man who went to church after having been away for years and years. He sat in the back; he wore an expensive suit, nice haircut. And in the church they had a time in the service when people could stand up and tell everyone what God had done for them.
So this man put his hand in the air and stood up and said, "I know you all haven't seen me in the last ten or fifteen years, but the last time I was here I was a young man, just starting out, and all I had was a dollar. Just one single dollar in my pocket. The pastor said that I should give what little I had, and I would be blessed, so I put my dollar in the plate. After that I went on, and I want you to know that I am now a multi-millionaire. I have a beautiful wife, three beautiful children, a boat, cars, the whole thing. And it was all because I put everything I had in that plate. Thank you, Reverend." And the man sat down.
One of the ladies who was seated in the same pew, scooted over and whispered in his ear, "I dare you to do it again!"
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Sunday, October 4, 2009
I was talking with a member of the parish about our Gospel lesson for today. This was some weeks ago. Somehow the issue of divorce had come up, and I was at that time working on this text and felt absolutely stuck. It happens a lot with me. So I mentioned today's lesson and talked about some of the context.
It's Mark 10:2-12. Astute readers will notice that the lesson actually goes through verse 16, but 13-16 is really another topic. So let's just deal with the divorce teaching today. Let me read it to you again.
Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, '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." Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
You might not have the same baggage that I have when I read this lesson. When I read it, I am instantly thrown back to high school. I went to Eastern Mennonite High School, and one of our required classes was called Kingdom Living. It was a great course. You might think that it was some kind of indoctrination class, or some kind of brain-washing thing, but nothing could be farther from the truth. It was a class in critical thinking.
In that class the teacher made us examine what might happen in our lives if we made certain choices. For instance, we had to evaluate what our lives would be like if we didn't go to college, or didn't get married, or decided not to have children, or what have you. And we had to project ourselves into those situations with real world dollars and cents questions about mortgage payments, insurance.
It was a real, honest-to-goodness class, and it forced us to look into the future with the overriding question: How do I live in the real world, facing real things, and still maintain my primary commitment, which is to Christ.
The most interesting project in this class was that we were paired up, boys and girls, and for the purposes of the exercise were to assume that we had fallen in love and wanted to get married. We could decide what our jobs were, and the teacher assigned salaries. We were to plan the logistics of our wedding and honeymoon, and make a budget for our first years of marriage. And as we worked on that, our class time was spent in Bible study about what Christian marriage is about.
It is at this point that the divorce passage from today comes to my mind, because the meaning of this text that we spent the most time with was '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." Some of you might remember better the King James Version, where it says a man shall leave his father and mother, and the husband and wife shall "cleave" to each other.
And the popular shorthand of this text was "leave and cleave." You have to leave home and start life anew with your spouse. If you are a teenager, there are all sorts of jokes about cleavage. "The secret to a good marriage is good cleavage." And we told all those jokes. It was a Christian school, but boys are boys. You understand.
The point that was made to us is that we couldn't expect a good marriage and be running home to mommy or daddy when things are tough. You have to leave and cleave. And while I'm sure that Jesus intended to convey that message, I am almost positive that that's not what he's talking about primarily.
You see, this whole business comes up in a discussion with the Pharisees, and what Mark doesn't say is that there was a lot of debate about the terms by which a man could divorce his wife. The scripture was unclear, so local rabbis had to listen to the man's reasons and make the legal decision.
At that time there were two rabbinical schools, the Hillel and Shammai schools, and they were—you guessed it—at odds with the basic criteria for divorce. So it's kind of like--in this day and age—Jesus getting a question on health care reform. There is blood in the water—lots of tension.
Jesus asks for what Moses taught them, and they respond that Moses said a man could draft a certificate of dismissal and divorce. Now, a certificate of dismissal sounds pretty legal, doesn't it? No emotion there. A man is walking home, stops in at the lawyer's office, writes out a certificate of dismissal, stops by the post office, and then grabs a bite to eat. Nothing to it. And in Jesus' time, it could very well be that simple for some. Marriage was a contract of ownership.
This is going to sound crazy to you, but marriage was very much a contract of ownership. The man owned the woman. The family presented a dowry to help defray the man's burden of having to provide for another mouth to feed, but you know...she'll bear some children who can help out, and she'll cook the meals, and warm the bed, and you know...marriage. Not the marriage we think of now, thanks be to God, but that was then.
Jesus tells the Pharisees that Moses allowed it to be as simple as a certificate of divorce because of their "hardness of heart"--but what does that mean? It means that the culture was, and has been until very, very recently, that men and women have not really valued themselves as equals. The "hardness of heart" is the inability of the men to see that their wives are equal to them.
Jesus goes on to explain, "From the beginning of creation, '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."
God made them male and female. In other words, God made two kinds of people: males and females. He didn't say "Here's a male, and he's the owner of the female." No, two kinds of the same thing. Equals. So a man leaves his father and mother, and a woman leaves her father and mother, and the two equals become one flesh. So they're not just two--read, not just one owning the other--but one flesh. If he decides something, she's got to be on board. If she decides something, he's got to be on board. They don't have to agree, but they have to know--they have to function as one.
In fact, Jesus believes so completely that husbands and wives are equal that he says that if a man divorces his wife and marries another, he's committing adultery. This assumes that the husband is dismissing his wife…do you see? If he's just deciding the marriage is over, and he treats her like property by legally dismissing her, then he's committing adultery. Divorce, if it must happen, must be a decision that both wives and husbands agree to—the one flesh has to decide that together.
Now, you all know this. I know this. Many, many, many other countries and cultures still have a male dominated culture, and arguably we still do too, even though I would argue we are streets ahead of where we were even a short twenty years ago.
If I were preaching on this text in India, or Uganda, or even Mexico, what I have just said might arouse some very angry comments.
Since you believe that what I have just said is true...and since those of you who are married are already living the reality of this text quite well... Well, what else is there to say about it? I might as well start the Nicene Creed and let you out a little early!
But I suppose that there is something to say, and that is that while our overall culture is much much better at valuing our spouses as equals—this is something that every couple must come to on their own. And it's not something that can simply be decided with our heads once and never has to be addressed again. The plain fact is that seeing each other as equals is very much a matter of the heart and of daily practice.
Just before Karin and I were married, we attended a dinner party, and happened to be seated at the table of Bishop Lee's wife, Kristy. For those of you who did not come to know Mrs. Lee, she is a very forthright woman. Karin and I were both very surprised at how much she told us about family life and being the bishop's wife. I have forgotten most of it, but I remember being shocked at how open she was about the complexities of her marriage.
The one thing she told us that I will never forget--in fact, I told this story when I preached at a friend's wedding—is that she told us about the early years of her marriage, and some of the rocky times when they found themselves in counseling.
She said that the lesson they learned—and that she wanted Karin and me to learn—is that you have to decide to be married everyday.
And that is true, and it's true about every other commitment that really means something to you. You have to decide to be true to your marriage, your baptism—if you are ordained, your ordination vows—whatever you have decided is most meaningful to you, you have to decide every day that it is still worth your energy and commitment.
Some of you have needed to divorce, and I want to say quite clearly that there is no condemnation or criticism behind my words. There are marriages that simply cannot or should not last, because the relationship is not exclusive or because there is abuse, or any number of legitimate reasons. What I am saying is that the two equal spouses, if they desire to be one flesh, must make that decision daily. In fact, most especially when it is not easy to do so.
Marriage tests our ability to collaborate more than any other relationship, because of that mysterious component of love. I have heard marriage referred to as a dance. It sounds very poetic, and there are surely times when it is roses and candlelight—thanks be to God! But there are also disagreements over substantive things—money, children, priorities, who gets time to do what—that place one spouse over the other. Being equal isn't always so easy at those times. Listening and responding in love and honesty can be tricky, even in the healthiest marriages.
So, while we may have made great strides toward equality, it is still something to be negotiated daily in each marriage. And I think that's why Jesus speaks of married people as "one flesh." One flesh does not mean one body, but one unit, an indivisible bond that becomes indivisible by daily practice.
No one has a perfect marriage. A lot of people wonder if they're normal. Who knows? But as long as a husband and wife can love each other exclusively, over a lifetime's negotiation of roles and tasks, and still see each other as equals—well, that's pretty darn good. And I think that's a marriage God has joined together.
And what God has joined together, let no one rend asunder.