The story is told of Sam, a young man, who was contemplating his future. He had an older friend, Harry, who was single and so Sam asked Harry why he hadn’t married. Harry said that he wanted the perfect woman – spiritually deep, intelligent, kind, and beautiful. He went on to say that he had traveled the world looking for her. And finally he found her. Sam asked – yes? You married her? Harry said that no he hadn’t married her. Sam asked, “But why not?” “Ahh,” replied Harry. “It seems that she was looking for the perfect man.”
Yes, today’s Gospel reading is one of Jesus’ teachings – this one on marriage and divorce. And I have to tell you that I really wrestled with this one this week for what I hope are obvious reasons. I am married to a man who is divorced and have seen firsthand the pain of that in his life, our life together, and in our family’s life.
Some experts estimate that as many as 45% of marriages will end in divorce within 15 years. A study out of Rutgers University in 2005 found that only 63% of American children grow up with both biological parents -- the lowest figure in the Western world. And, perhaps most curiously, the divorce rate of Christians is nearly identical to that of non-Christians. What do we make of this? And what do we make of Jesus’ words today?
Jesus is clearly speaking of marriage and divorce. The Pharisees correctly observe that should the husband decide to divorce his wife, the law of Moses said that he could by giving her a certificate of divorce and sending her packing. And various rabbis interpreted this to permit a divorce for as simple a reason as the husband didn’t like his wife’s cooking. And we thought “no-fault” divorce was a modern invention! So, in answer to the Pharisees’ question, the answer was Yes, the Law permits a husband to divorce his wife. The Pharisees knew the Law.
But Jesus had more to say than simply to parrot what the Law said. You know, we say that we are people of grace, people who are not legalistic, people who know that we do not have a saving relationship with God because of anything WE have done. But, you know sometimes, I do believe that we get a little stuck in wanting to know precisely where the lines are – the lines that define “us” and “them”, the lines that include and thereby exclude, the lines that define who is in and who is out, the lines that show us who the law keepers are and who the law breakers are. You see if I know all those lines, then my life is just a little easier.
But, thanks be to God, Jesus looked at things so much differently. He said that this Law was given because of the hardness of heart of sinful human beings. He knew that we all want to know precisely where the lines are and he frustrated our attempts in this. He said, “Yes, the Law that came to you through Moses said that you could divorce your wife. Yes, there may well be times when that is necessary for any number of reasons. But, I want you to understand this – that is NOT at all what God intended for a husband and a wife in their life together.” And Jesus goes on to describe what God had in mind.
God had in mind a relationship of soft hearts, two people who leave their loyalties to their families behind them in order to create a union that becomes so intimate and so close and so shaped by the love of God, that these two individuals become one flesh. Please remember this – divorce is not a sin in and of itself. NO, there are often good reasons to divorce. Divorce is the result of the condition of sin. We are a broken people living broken lives in a broken world. And we are in desperate need of a Savior.
And so we come to another aspect of today’s Gospel reading. The story outside of the story. Let’s compare the people who came to Jesus – we have the Pharisees and the little children.
The Pharisees and the little children. The Pharisees came with the motive of trapping Jesus, of tripping him up because of his frequent disregard of the Law – not washing hands correctly, not observing Sabbath correctly, welcoming all sorts of unsavory people. So they try one more time. They ask their question – one that they think is sure to cause him problems. And Jesus says in essence, “You ask me this because of the hardness of your heart.”
On the other hand the little children – not just children, but “little” children – come seeking Jesus’ touch. When has Jesus touched people in the Gospel of Mark? Jesus touched people in order that they may be healed! These children coming to Jesus may well have been the children that we would see at All Children’s Hospital or in the “sick” part of any pediatrician’s waiting room. Remember what we know about children in ancient times – they weren’t even included in the census until they were 2 or 3 years old, so desperate was their plight. These children were in desperate need of a Savior, in desperate need of the touch of Jesus. In desperate need of his welcoming embrace.
One of the distant memories that I can actually feel is of a Christmas Eve perhaps 50 years ago. We had just gotten into our car to drive home from my Godparents’ home. We always spent Christmas Eve with them. It was very cold. Dad was driving. I was in the middle of the front seat. Mom was on the passenger side. (This was in the days of no seat belts, no child seats). Mom put her arm around me and I nuzzled my face into the very soft fake fur of her winter coat. I felt safe and cared for and loved.
That’s how it was for the children coming to Jesus.
My friends, the words of Gospel today are not that Jesus condemns divorce. The word of Gospel is that Jesus engages with those who challenge him, seek to trip him up, think the worst of him. The word of Gospel is that Jesus embraced snotty-nosed kids, kids with a fever, kids who were sick, kids like you and me.
Thanks be to God.