I recently saw what we call a meme on Facebook— that’s something that gets shared around the internet, usually a photo or picture with a message written on it. And in this meme there is a husband and wife talking. Both are dressed like they are in the 1950’s.
And the husband says to his wife: “I’ve been thinking. I’m the MAN of this house, so starting tomorrow I want you to have a hot, delicious meal ready for me the second I walk through that door. Afterwards, while watching ESPN and relaxing in my chair, you’ll bring me my slippers and then run my bath. And when I’m done with my bath, guess who’s going to dress me and comb my hair?”
And the wife replies: “The funeral director.”
In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, we listen in on Jesus’ conversations about a topic that is still very relevant today—marriage and divorce. The religious leaders, the Pharisees, come to test Jesus, to trip him up. They ask him “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” They know the answer, according to Jewish Law. They know that in Deuteronomy 21:4 it says that if a man marries a woman “but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.”
They are asking Jesus this to see what he will say, if he will state what the Law says. In typical Jesus fashion, he answers their question first with another question: “What did Moses command you?” And they answer him with the basic answer that everyone would have known at the time: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”
So here’s some fun background to this law about divorce. There were two camps of thinking about this. As we heard in Deuteronomy, a man could divorce his wife “if he finds something objectionable about her.” One camp said that this only included adultery—so the only way a man could divorce a woman is if she was unfaithful. The other camp said that anything the man found objectionable was a reason to divorce her. Like, she could burn the dinner one night and he could divorce her. Or as Pastor Randy has said, “If your wife makes bad coffee, it would be grounds for divorce.”
But did anyone notice what all of these laws about divorce had in common…? Only the husband can divorce the wife. The wife has no say in any of it. Which was standard back then, because women and children were considered property, not people.
But here’s the thing. Jesus takes that law and makes it both more equal and more demanding.
First he says "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 7'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
So in just a few sentences, Jesus holds everyone to a different standard. He quotes the Genesis passage we read earlier, and says that once two people are married and have become one flesh, since God has brought them together, they shouldn’t be separated.
This is hugely different than what was said before. Before, a husband could divorce his wife. Now Jesus is saying that divorce is not something God wants to happen.
And then Jesus says to the disciples: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
This is a MUCH higher standard than what was previously set. And, did anyone notice how equality is built into what Jesus said…? He said “If SHE divorces HER HUSBAND…” When before divorce was only a choice the husband could make, Jesus includes women in the decision and the higher standard.
And although the equality of the genders thing is cool, Jesus’ statements on divorce are hard to hear. All of us have been touched by divorce in some way. You may be divorced yourself. You may have remarried after a divorce. You may have a family member or friend who’s been divorced, or a friend or family member’s parents have been divorced. Either way, everyone has seen divorce at some point.
And I think everyone can agree that divorce is not fun. Even in the most cordial of situations, divorce is painful. And if there are children involved, it is even more painful as everyone figures out how to co-parent and be fair to the kids.
And we can also agree that sometimes divorce needs to happen. If a marriage is unhealthy for various reasons, it is sometimes better for a person to be without their spouse.
Jesus ups the ante and says that divorce is not what God wants for God’s people. God is saddened by broken relationships, and divorce is part of that.
Now some people have read these Bible verses and have interpreted them to say that divorce should never happen, that no matter what is going on in your marriage, that you should stay together because divorce is not in God’s plan. These verses have been used to keep people in abusive relationships, in relationships that shouldn’t have happened in the first place, in relationships that clearly needed to end. And that is just plain wrong.
But these verses DO challenge us to look at marriage, and the other relationships in our lives, and to know that God loves marriage, God loves our relationships with one another, and wants them to thrive. And Jesus wants us to put God first in these relationships, so they will be centered in our faith and healthy. God wants that for us.
This passage isn’t just about divorce, but about all of our relationships with one another. Healthy relationships are God’s business—just look at the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20 (that’s your homework)! All of them have to do with our relationship with God and with each other. Having God-centered relationships means listening for what God is telling us about how to live in this world with each other and be loving neighbors to one another. Because God first loves us, we are able to love each other.
Jesus end our passage from the Gospel of Mark by telling the disciples who were trying to stop people from bringing children to him: “"Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."
How are we supposed to be like children? Children love without abandon. Children do not see divisions among others like we do. They simply love.
Author Dave Simmons tells this story of taking his children to the mall. He writes: “I took Helen (eight years old) and Brandon (five years old) to the Cloverleaf Mall in Hattiesburg to do a little shopping. As we drove up, we spotted a Peterbilt eighteen-wheeler parked with a big sign on it that said, "Petting Zoo." The kids jumped up in a rush and asked, "Daddy, Daddy. Can we go? Please. Please. Can we go?"
"Sure," I said, flipping them both a quarter before walking into Sears. They bolted away, and I felt free to take my time looking for a scroll saw. A petting zoo consists of a portable fence erected in the mall with about six inches of sawdust and a hundred little furry baby animals of all kinds. Kids pay their money and stay in the enclosure enraptured with the squirmy little critters while their moms and dads shop.
A few minutes later, I turned around and saw Helen walking along behind me. I was shocked to see she preferred the hardware department to the petting zoo. Recognizing my error, I bent down and asked her what was wrong.
She looked up at me with those giant limpid brown eyes and said sadly, "Well, Daddy, it cost fifty cents. So, I gave Brandon my quarter." Then she said the most beautiful thing I ever heard. She repeated the family motto. The family motto is in "Love is Action!"”
Jesus challenges us to love one another, to hold ourselves to the standard of healthy, God-centered relationships—and as little Helen said, to put our love into action. “Love is Action!” Jesus loves us all, no matter what we do or how we mess up. And because we are loved by Jesus, we are able to share that love with each other and with those around us, especially in the midst of broken relationships. Amen.