Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (10/7/2018)
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
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None of us is faithful in marriage. The hazard in interpreting Jesus’ high bar for fidelity is to turn the marriage relationship into a work, a badge of righteousness or worthiness in and of itself. We all fall short of God’s intentions for partnership; nevertheless we are made for each other. God joins us together in relationships of loving support even when marriages or partnerships dissolve, reminding us that in the end, we rely entirely on God for acceptance and abiding love.
I’ll never forget the way my professor of homiletics introduced the subject of preaching at weddings. “None of us is faithful in marriage,” he said. None of us is faithful in marriage. Of course, he didn’t mean that it’s impossible to avoid outright betrayal. Rather, he was making a point to acknowledge the human proclivity for self-centeredness in spite of the promises married people make to their partners: “I take you to be my spouse,” each person vows, “to join with you and share all that is to come, and I promise to be faithful to you until death parts us.” It’s a pledge of solidarity and self-giving love no matter the circumstances. But, none of us is faithful in marriage, that is, none of us is capable of abiding perfectly by our own vows. In the ups and downs, all married people fail our partners in one way or another, and we find ourselves repeatedly in need of forgiveness and a fresh start.
This is why when I preach at weddings, I don’t shy away from the fact that marriage is hard. I usually say something like, “This is a wonderful day of celebration,” but I always add something like, “and you will inevitably let each other down.” What a killjoy, right? The truth, however, is that the love we celebrate at a wedding, the love we ultimately trust, is not the love that the couple declares to each other, but the love of God that sustains them even when they fail to live up to it. The truth is that we’re bound to break our vows in both small and not-so-small ways. None of us is faithful in marriage.
This is an important confession to make before we venture an interpretation of Jesus’ teaching against divorce in our Gospel from Mark today. Marriage and divorce are charged topics in the church, topics that generate conflicting views of right and wrong. Historically, Jesus’ command that no one separate what God has joined together led Christianity to condemn divorce without exception. But it’s hard to imagine that Jesus would sanctify a relationship characterized by abuse, or marred by irreconcilable differences. So, why the uncompromisingly rigorous standard for marriage?
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” the Pharisees ask Jesus. Keep in mind that they’re not interested in an earnest discussion about divorce. No, the Pharisees, defenders of the religious status quo, intend to trap Jesus with a question that has no good answer, and thereby discredit him no matter how he responds. In typical fashion, Jesus evades the trap and reframes their question about the legality of divorce to address the meaning of marriage in the first place, the purpose of partnership as God envisions it from the beginning. It is not good that a person should be alone; God makes us for each other. And “for this reason,” Jesus quotes from the second chapter of Genesis, “the two shall become one flesh.” His reference to the story of creation shifts the conversation away from the question of legality and toward the more fundamental question of what it means to be human. Marriage, as Jesus reminds us, is a definitive sign that to be human is to be in relationship.
What’s more, Jesus’ teaching against divorce calls into question the assumptions of first-century patriarchy. Wives were regarded as the property of their husbands, and had no rights or resources apart from them. In the case of divorce, women were not entitled to alimony or legal recourse, which subjected them to economic hardship and even destitution. So, Jesus’ position takes into account the interests of the more vulnerable partner in the relationship, insisting that women must not be summarily abandoned.
In any case, today’s Gospel is more nuanced than we’ve often made it. The hazard in interpreting Jesus’ high bar for fidelity legalistically is to turn the marriage relationship into a work, a badge of righteousness in and of itself. Those of us who are married might be tempted to think, Well, at least I’ve kept this commandment, in spite of the difficulty of my own marriage; at least I’ve earned God’s approval in this way. But ultimately, none of us is faithful in marriage.
Jesus’ vision for marriage is not a standard against which to measure our worthiness. It’s neither a cause for self-justification nor for shame. Rather, it reflects God’s original intent that the creation be whole and perfect. Of course, human brokenness – what Jesus calls “hardness of heart” – thwarts the divine purpose such that perfection remains out of reach. And, divorce is but one of the many ways that we are disappointed in our life together. What we have built in hope often comes crashing down in heartache.
All the more reason to acknowledge the many ways that God makes us for each other. The tragedy of Christianity’s historic stance on divorce is that we’ve tended to privilege judgment over mercy. But, those who have experienced the pain of a broken relationship certainly don’t need to be censured by the church – for some, the community on which they rely for belonging and support in the wake of a separation. To borrow the words of one interpreter, “God is most reliably present among the vulnerable, the hurting, and the dispossessed. And if that’s where you find God, then that’s probably where you should find God’s church.” It is not good that a person should be alone, especially in a season of loss and loneliness, especially in the church.
After all, none of us is faithful in marriage; we all fall short of God’s intentions for partnership. Nevertheless, we are made for each other. To be human is to be in relationship, and God joins us together in relationships of loving support even when marriages or partnerships dissolve. Those relationships – family ties, friendships, and yes, connections to our kindred in Christ – are signs of the grace by which God promises to heal and renew us, reminding us that in the end, like children, we rely entirely on God for acceptance and abiding love.
 Mark Bangert.
 Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Assembly Edition, 288.
 See C. Clifton Black, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, 145.
 James J. Thompson, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, 140.
 See Black, 145; Charles L. Campbell, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, 145.
 David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2018/10/pentecost-20-b-the-issue/.