Submitted by Dr. Robert Zielinski
I have a good many pastor friends. And when I lamented to them that I had drawn THIS week, THIS Gospel to preach on, virtually each and every one of them came back with some version of “you know, there are other readings that day, you don’t have to preach on the Gospel”.
Sometimes in Bible reading, we come across something that seems to mean one thing, but then someone who knows more tells us about the context, or gives us some information about the culture of the time that maybe we didn’t know, and we realize that maybe the passage doesn’t mean what it first seemed.
I’ve never heard anyone try to do that with this passage.
Until I read the preamble I am given to read to you before the Gospel, what you see printed before you. That would lead you to believe that the message you were about to hear was about elevating the status of women and children.
Jesus elevating women and children above their accepted station of his day. A worthy sermon topic, for sure.
But does anyone really hear that when they hear this Gospel?
So, I am going to talk about the elephant in the room.
Here’s a news flash: Jesus is not crazy about divorce.
He tells those Pharisees, and then in private, his disciples, that Moses was easy on them about divorce because they couldn’t handle the truth. God’s idea of marriage is an unbreakable uniting, two becoming one. No excuses.
This is awfully uncomfortable, though, because divorce has become so common place in our society. The trend began a couple decades ago, and shows no sign of letting up, so virtually everyone here today has either been divorced themselves, or is very close to someone who has. And so, we feel very bad about reading this black and white, clear cut condemnation in the Gospel.
But Jesus uses this technique of upping the ante on traditional interpretation of sin in many other places, and it is not always nearly so uncomfortable for us.
In the Sermon on the Mount, he talks about the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” which has to be the easiest of the Ten. Most of us get through our whole lives without ever seriously threatening to break that one. But he says that even if you never actually do the violence, if you just harbor anger and resentment toward anyone, you have the heart of a murderer, and you are no better.
And as long as we are on the subject of adultery, he also says in the Sermon on the Mount that even if you never pursue it, just looking longingly at an attractive person means that in your heart, you are just as guilty as if you actually had the affair.
A fourth example is a bit uncomfortable. Remember the wealthy young man, righteous and proud of it, who comes to ask what he needs to do to achieve the Kingdom of God? Jesus says, “You know the commandments,” and the man says “Yes, sir, and I keep them all faithfully”.
So Jesus replies “Great! You’re almost there. Now go give away all your possessions and join us.”
Uh ohhhhh. He found that weakness we all have for our “stuff”. The man, who didn’t realize that he was probably failing the very first commandment by putting his wealth as a sort of god before the real God, skulks off in silence and shame.
So what gives? Is Jesus just trying to make us feel bad?
Of course not. Well, maybe a little. His first point here, is to remind us that we are all imperfect, that we are all fall far short of God’s ideal in everything we try. In his mind, our efforts are like vaulting from one ledge to another with a thousand-foot deep canyon in between. It doesn’t really matter if we miss by an inch or a yard. The end result is the same. Falling short is falling short. And we all fall short.
He tells us these harsh truths to get us to do less finger pointing, and more looking in the mirror.
This is certainly applicable to divorce. Divorces are always a two way street; both parties, if they are honest, can find things they could have, should have done differently. But most of the time, when it comes to any broken relationship, (not just divorce, but any one……spouse, family, old friend, our relationship with our workplace, take your pick) most of us spend a lot of time complaining about the other party, and little time reflecting on what we could be doing better ourselves, and the positive effect that might have on the situation.
My wife and I celebrated our 27th anniversary last spring. But it isn’t her first marriage, which I guess makes us both long term adulterers. Like virtually any pair who has been together this long, we have struggled, sometimes very hard, to keep it going.
But we have learned from our struggles and those of others close to us, that you never really know what is going on in someone else’s house once the doors are closed and the friends have gone home.
So, by upping the ante, by setting the bar unreachably high, Jesus reminds us that our job is to acknowledge our own sin, not deny it, sweep it under the rug. And it certainly is not to judge the sins of others. Less finger pointing, more mirror gazing.
The second point of these extreme targets is that Jesus cares at least as much, if not more, about what is going on in your head, and in your heart, than in your actions. Action is important, to be sure, but intent and sincerity are even more important.
I am sure that one reason why we have too many divorces today is that people’s heads and hearts are not in their marriage. They don’t care enough, they don’t take marriage seriously enough. Perhaps people see giving up on the marriage as easier than doing the hard work needed to make a relationship last through decades of inevitable ups and downs. I think you have to adopt the attitude in marriage that you are in a stalled submarine at 10,000 feet under the sea. There is no way out of here, so we better figure out a way to get this tub moving again.
But that is certainly not always the case. I bet there are many among us today who are not guilty of failing to take their marriages seriously. They tried very hard, and wound up divorced anyway. But whether they did or they didn't, why do they feel as though some of us do not want to forgive them? Why do some of them not want to forgive themselves?
To answer that, let's get to the Good News...finally.
Recall that in the very next paragraph of today’s Gospel, which thank goodness is included in the reading today, Jesus welcomes in the little children and not just encourages, he requires his followers to approach the Kingdom of God as a little child.
Children in Jesus’ time, even more than today were entirely at the mercy of adults. There were no safety nets to protect them, not even the imperfect ones we have today.
So Jesus is really saying here is you must come to me just like the weakest, the most vulnerable, the most humble among you, the ones who have come to expect the least.
And only then will I give you the most.
His lofty reminders of God’s perfect intentions are intended to humble us like he humbled the wealthy man by pointing out the sin we like to shove under the rug or gloss over. Even in our strengths, he finds the imperfection to remind us we can never be good enough.
Because until you get that, until you understand that we are all weak, that we are all vulnerable to sin, until you can humble yourself like a little child ….you can’t really get Jesus.
Thank God he gets us.
You see, Jesus likes to toss out the ideal, the perfect as our target, knowing full well that we can’t ever hit it. He knows we can’t keep his commandments all the time. Sometimes not for ten minutes. Never get angry at one another, never let your eye drift at the pretty girl or handsome guy strolling by…he knows we can’t do it. He’s making a point.
He gets us. He knows we will mess up.
And he forgives it anyway.
That’s why he came.
That’s the Good News.
He doesn’t say this sin or that sin is really bad, and I can’t let you go on that one. God’s ideal for marriage may not include an escape hatch. But it also doesn’t include abuse or addiction or infidelity, or any of a hundred other things that mess up the perfection that he intended in marriage. He knows that mistakes and misery became inevitable once he let the people loose on earth, that with humans in charge, the world will never live up to his ideal.
He gets us.
So, today’s Gospel may remind us to face our own sin and admit it, not sugar coat it. But it is not our job to carry it around forever. We are to lay it at the foot of the cross, where Jesus’ job is to forgive it. And because of that, we are to forgive others. And maybe most importantly of all, we can forgive ourselves.
When we mess up, no matter how or how badly, and you know we will, we can go to him, like a child to a loving parent, humble and dependent. But it’s OK, we can trust him. He was here, he knows how we are. He doesn’t like our sin, but he gets it.
He gets us.