The first thing I want to say today is, You know that I don’t choose the readings that get read from the lectern each week, right? There is not some agenda being pursued in the selection of texts! There is a lectionary, a series of appointed readings for each Sunday in the year, in a three year cycle. I just want to make that clear!
The second thing I want to say is that some of us who are gathered here this morning have been divorced. Some of us have been divorced and remarried. Some of us have been touched by divorce — the divorce of our parents, the divorce of children or siblings. Some of us have friends who have been divorced. So, put your hand up if you are in any of the categories I have named: if your life has in some way been touched by divorce.
The reality of divorce touches us all.
This is where it’s important for us to realize that this text is not a text of judgment aimed solely and specifically at individuals who been divorced, or divorced and remarried. This text addresses us all. And this text is rooted in an awareness of the realities of divorce. This text is rooted in an awareness that divorce is often a painful rupture, a sundering of a sacred trust.
This text is rooted in an awareness that divorce has consequences, that the fallout from divorce lands disproportionately on those who are most vulnerable, most often women and children. This is what’s at the core of Jesus’ teaching in this text. Jesus’ teaching is grounded more in compassion than in judgment, though there is a note of judgment in the text. But the judgment that is in this teaching is not so much a condemnation of individual behavior as it is a wake-up call for all of us. Jesus’ teaching here, as it so often is, is a social teaching.
Let’s look more closely at the text. It starts with Pharisees coming to Jesus, and what does the text say? They came to test him.
That’s the first thing to notice here: it’s a test; or, more accurately, it’s a trap. His inquisitors are trying to get Jesus to say something that will get him in trouble, with one group or another. Their primary concern is not with questions of divorce, or the meaning of marriage, or the needs of women or children or men. Their primary concern is with getting Jesus into hot water.
We have perhaps all participated in conversations like this, where someone might ask a leading question, or raise a red herring. You might see this in the political leaders’ debates during this election season, where again the question is not about the best outcome for the people affected, but about scoring points.
What Jesus does is model for us the Christian response to conversations like this. First he exposes their tactics. He says, in effect, why are you asking me about the law — you’re experts in the law; you know what the law says. And they respond, Oh yes, well, the law says a man can write a certificate of dismissal and divorce his wife.
And then Jesus pushes beyond the law, and courtroom tactics, beyond red herrings and traps, and says, Look, we’re not here to score points off one another. Life is not a game or a competition in which we try to trip one another up so that we can get ahead. Marriage and divorce and the lives of families are not dice to be rolled, or pawns to be played, assets to be accumulated, or liabilities to be disposed of.
That’s what’s wrong with the way things are, Jesus says. And this is where the challenge to all of us comes in. Jesus is noticing that in his culture, in his time, human relationships have become transactional. Marriage is no longer seen as a covenant, but as an arrangement, an economic arrangement. And when the basis of marriage is economics and not covenant, then spouses and children get seen as assets and liabilities.
And that’s where Jesus reminds his listeners of the creation story. Jesus takes us back to the beginning, to Genesis, to remind us of God’s original intention for human relationships. Of course that is the intention with which we hope all marriages begin, an intention for lifelong fidelity.
Sometimes that doesn’t work out, and there are many reasons for that. Some marriages should not have happened to begin with, perhaps. Some marriages need to be ended for the sake of everyone involved. That’s not at issue here.
What’s at issue here is when we allow other things to become more important than our human relationships. When economics, or our self-interest wrongly understood, when those things trump love. When human relationships are seen as places of transaction or exchange, rather than as places of love and mutual service, of covenant. Places that remind of who we really are, who we are meant to be, and of what is most important in our lives. Places that take us back to the very beginning, when our love for one another, and our love for God were at the center of human existence.
It amazes me that Jesus saw this already in his day. We certainly see it all around us today. And we hear the same kind of arguments made today by religious leaders, like Pope Francis.
Pope Francis in his teaching reminds us of our obligation to go beyond what the laws require of us, and to instead be voluntarily bound in a covenant of mutuality and service to one another. In his address to the United States Congress last week, the Pope spoke of the family; he also spoke of immigrants and refugees and indigenous peoples, of care for the earth, and the proper practice of business.
I was struck by something the Pope said about business. He said, “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.” You see that? The Pope is pushing beyond the usual transactional definition of the bottom line — profitability — and pushing towards a covenantal definition: part of what business is about is creating meaningful work for people in the local community.
That goes beyond transaction, beyond what is required; to what is helpful and beneficial to the common good.
Today’s text ends with the story of people bringing children to Jesus. And the disciples trying to dismiss them. This may seem like an incongruous shift from the earlier discussion, but it continues the theme of Jesus’ teaching. More so in Jesus’ day, but still somewhat true in our day, we can be tempted sometimes to ignore children, to dismiss them, certainly to look down at them. Because as adults, we know so much better. We live in the real world of work, and responsibility, and paying bills. We’re busy, with important things to do. Children can sometimes seem like a distraction from all that.
But then Jesus says, Not only are you not to ignore these children, or dismiss them. You’re actually supposed to become like them. You’re supposed to be like these little ones who know nothing about the world of work and paying bills, and responsibilities; you’re supposed to be like these little ones for whom play and joy are priorities. You’re supposed to be like these little ones who know little about competition and tripping each other up, and getting ahead. Perhaps this is an idealized portrait of children; your actual results may vary!
Jesus’ call to be like little children is another reminder to us to go back to the beginning, to the simplicity and innocence of childhood, to a time when we were better acquainted with our vulnerability and dependence, and more resigned to it. A time before we developed the foolish notions that we could take care of ourselves, that we didn’t need other people, that we didn’t need God.
It’s a social vision, of mutual dependence and mutual vulnerability; and of dependence on God. One way we practice living into vision is at the Communion table. We each come, just as we are. There is no precedence based on wealth or status. There is no discrimination based on marital status, or sexual orientation, or the shape of your family. There are no bars to participation based on what you’ve done or where you’ve been.
The same fare is served to all: a bit of bread, dipped in some juice. No matter who you are, that’s what you get. No matter who you are, that’s all you get. A bit of bread, dipped in some juice.
Nothing but the body of Christ, for us, and the cup of God’s blessing, for us; the same for all, here at the table where our poverty meets the richness of God’s grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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