Download or listen to the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, “More Unrealistic Advice” (Mark 10:2-16)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’m tempted to begin the same way I began last week, talking about the sort of advice Jesus gives to sinners. Last week, it was about sin in general: if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off; if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. Because, Jesus says, if you could, it would be better to enter life with God in Jesus Christ maimed or crippled, than to enter hell whole and complete. If you could, because, as we heard, sin is not in your hands or feet or eyes; the sinful actions you do are just the symptoms of a disease that is fatal, terminal. It would be as if you had a fatal physical disease, and it caused symptoms in your arm, and you cut off your arm to stop the symptoms. It might gain you a few days, or weeks, or months, or even years, but the disease would still kill you in the end. It is the same with sin: you might be able to curb some of your sinful actions, but you cannot remove the disease that way. But still we try to find some moral advice in Jesus’ words.
Today, His words are about marriage and divorce. The Pharisees come to Jesus looking for advice. Legal advice, you might say. “Is it lawful, is it within the boundaries of the Law, for a man to divorce his wife?” Mark says they came to test Him, or tempt Him. Perhaps they’re trying to get Jesus to take the same position on divorce as John the Baptizer. John had in fact told Herod: it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife. So if the Pharisees could get Jesus to take the same position, maybe Herod would do the same thing to Jesus that he did to John, and the Pharisees would be rid of Jesus. Whatever they were thinking, Jesus says to them, “Let’s go back to the one through whom the Law was given, Moses. What did Moses command you?” “He allowed a man to write his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away.” “It was because of the hardness of your heart that Moses gave you this command.” It was because of the hardness of your hearts. Hearts swollen with sin become fossilized in rebellion against God. Sinners will try to destroy other sinners. The commandment that Moses gives in Deuteronomy 24 is to protect the woman from being married, divorced, married, divorced, and sent away without resources or help. It’s because of the hardness of your hearts that Moses gave you this command, because sinners will do what they want in spite of God’s command, and hurt other people. But it was not always this way. Let’s go back even further, to the beginning of creation. Before hearts began to harden. From the beginning of creation God made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two of them will become one flesh. And from that union comes one flesh: a child. So: what God has joined together, let no man separate. What God in His good and perfect will has joined together, let not people with hardened hearts tear apart.
But the disciples are not quite with it, maybe like us. They’ve heard Jesus, and they know what He’s said, but they’re not quite sure, so they ask Him about it. But what about this, Jesus? What about these extenuating circumstances? What about these reasons, these excuses? Things happen, Jesus. People grow apart; they find their soul-mates. But Jesus simply restates the Word of God: “If a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery. If a woman leaves her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” No exceptions, no loopholes, no way out. Jesus would never be licensed or hired as a marriage counselor (or probably a pastor, either). His advice is too hard, to impractical, too unrealistic. It just won’t work. What if we’re already divorced? What if the sin is already done? It’s like Jesus is saying there’s nothing we can do, no way out from under the Law. Oh, we try. We claim “no-fault” and just cause, but our self-justification rings hollow. We try to keep the Reign of God at arm’s length, but if the Reign of God comes in Jesus according to the Law, we literally have no hope. It’s true: we can’t do anything. The sin has already poisoned everything, and cutting off limbs won’t help.
Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s why the very next verses are about people bringing children to Jesus to have Him bless them. The disciples still haven’t quite gotten it. Just like they tried to keep that man from casting out demons in Jesus’ Name. And who needs Jesus more than those possessed by the devil and children? As we confess in the baptismal liturgy, they’re the same people. Do not stop them, Jesus says. The Reign of God is made up of children. No adults to be found. Not like Neverland, where children never grow up, but helpless children who need everything, ask for everything, need everything given to them. They’re brought by others, they do not say anything, Jesus receives them. The Reign of God has no adults who just need a little help to help themselves. There are no adults who just need a little advice to get their lives in order. No adults who can justify themselves with ingenious theological arguments. Just children. Just sinners. Jesus will not receive those who are not helpless like infants. Jesus will not receive those who refuse to be sinners. Jesus didn’t come to help you; He came to save you. No advice, just forgiveness. Because He has joined Himself to you, His Bride. Flesh of flesh and bone of bone. God united with human body and blood. Sin of your sin and death of your death. He will never divorce you, never send you away. He made a vow to you, sealed in His own blood. He welcomes you, receives you, puts His hand on you and blesses you with His own holy Name in water and the Word. Divorcees, adulterers, sinners all of us. Dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Living with each other as sinners, but forgiven sinners. Sinners, yes; helpless, yes. But joined together as the one beautiful Bride of Christ, sharing the wedding feast of the Lamb in His Reign, which has no end.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/6/12