Job1:1, 2:1-10; Mark 10:2-16
19th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 07.10.18
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today’s gospel reading is not an easy one to read or to hear. For some here, you will have experienced the hurt of relationship break-down, for some the pain of divorce. Others of you will have had parents, children or friends go through divorce. This is an incredibly sensitive subject, and one that a ten-minute sermon cannot hope to deal with adequately. In addition, our society is changing so fast. In recent decades what has become acceptable has changed markedly: same-sex relationships, living together before marriage, living together without ever getting married. Just this week, another significant legal change: the legalisation of civil partnerships for heterosexual couples. Traditionalists call such changes an outrage; liberals are incensed that changes are not happening fast enough.
Well, in our time this morning, I won’t be able to explore the depth of these issues, but I hope we may be able to draw a couple of principles from the words of Jesus that may help bring hope and direction in the midst of these situations.
We need to begin by putting the words of Jesus in their historical context. In first century Judaism, the prevailing view on marriage and divorce was that it was okay for men to divorce women on any grounds – bad cooking, lack of subservience, not being pretty enough. And the assumption and the tradition was that you didn’t get divorced to live a single life. You got divorced to re-marry someone else straight after. Women, on the other hand, had no right to a divorce, even when trapped in abusive relationships. So marriage had become a cheapened act, easily cast aside by men, often leaving the divorced woman penniless.
That was the general historical context in which Jesus’ words were spoken.
But there is a more specific context too. Back in the early 1990s vicars and bishops were often rung up by journalists and asked for their view on marriage and divorce. The questions would be quite broad and general but they were always asked with a specific couple in mind – Prince Charles and Princess Diana, whose marriage was going through such difficulties at the time. Journalists were hoping to catch clergy saying something injudicious, something that could cause embarrassment to church and couple alike.
Well, it is notable that when the Pharisees ask Jesus their question about divorce, they ask him in the region of the Jordan River. That was where John the Baptist had had his ministry, the very same John who got arrested and ultimately beheaded for daring to criticise King Herod Antipas and his wife Herodias, for engineering a divorce from her first husband, Philip. So the Pharisees’ question is hardly a neutral question! Any comment on divorce would be interpreted as a direct comment on that divorce, the divorce of Herodias, a divorce that had flouted even the very permissive approach of the day.
It was the scandal of the times. Marriage was becoming trivialised; something that could be simply tossed aside for personal gratification or political expediency.
In response, Jesus pulls no punches. He does not vacilliate or try to keep the powerful Herod Antipas on side. Instead, he reminds his questioners of God’s ideal, that sexual union is to take place within the context of life-long commitment.
For Jesus, the deepest forms of human relationships are not to be trivialised by being used for political or selfish ends or for publicity. Marriage is not a contract of mutual convenience but a commitment to life-long loyalty and love, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.
Jesus was challenging the prevailing ethos of the temporariness of deep relationships, the idea that relationships could be picked up and dropped without thought, and seemingly without consequences. Jesus was saying that relationships matter immensely, especially our deepest ones.
We know that too don’t we? Our closest relationships matter immensely to us. At their best, we know them as life-giving, joyous, hope-filled, life-enriching. And if they go wrong, we can experience the pain, the damage, that can be caused to us and others for years. Relationships matter.
In a society which treats so much as disposable, where instant gratification is a driving principle, the glue that holds our deepest relationships together, faithfulness, love and trust, is often under-valued.
Jesus’ words are a call to us all. In our deepest relationships, faithfulness, love, loyalty must be core. They are not values simply to be abandoned when difficulties arise or our needs are less than 100% fulfilled.
If that is the ideal for sexual relationships, life-long faithful commitment to one person, and given the context of his own day (and indeed our own), how much Jesus needed to stress that, there is also recognition, especially in the Gospel of Matthew’s fuller account of Jesus’ words, that such an ideal is not always possible. Our hearts, Jesus says, are “hard”. We struggle to live in tune with God’s best intentions and plans for our lives. A relationship becomes fractured to such an extent, love and faithfulness become so diminished, that the task of healing and repair may ultimately be beyond us. As Job would testify, sometimes bad things happen to good people, and that can be as true in relationships as it can be in economics or in health.
God, through Christ, is at work within us, softening our hardened hearts, giving us grace and love and perseverance, beyond our own strengths and resources. I know that there are people here this morning who can speak of God helping them to keep loving through the hardest times in a relationship. But, sadly, there are times when relationships fall apart to such an extent, that even when helped by God’s Spirit, we are unable to repair them, unable to find the healing needed, unable to rebuild the trust.
And at such times there is a recognition that though it may not be God’s ideal, the ending of those relationships may need to happen.
For the God who is revealed in Jesus, is not just the God who calls us to live the ideal. He is the God who reaches out to us with grace and forgiveness. Look at the life of Jesus and you will see no condemnation for those who fall short, which, by the way, is all of us. Instead, we find a Jesus who welcomed and enjoyed the company of those who knew that they had fallen short of Jesus’ ideal, those who knew their need of healing and forgiveness. That group included tax collectors, people who had grown wealthy by exploiting the poor and vulnerable; it included prostitutes and adulterers, those who had failed to live lives of integrity in their relationships. Jesus welcomed them. And he welcomes us. Whatever your context, whatever your pain, whatever your regret or your guilt, know that God’s grace, his love, is greater.
Today as we reflect on our own relationships, let us desire with our whole hearts to live out lives of faithfulness, love and loyalty. And if those relationships fail, let us take comfort and hope, that amidst the pain, God’s grace still prevails.