October 4, 2015
Pastor David Tryggestad
Our Savior’s Lutheran Church
Two weeks ago I asserted that the Bible gives us Jesus, and then Jesus, in turn, gives us the Bible, the Bible according to Jesus. Last week, I reiterated the assertion, and then added that this does not necessarily mean that Jesus gives us a softer Bible, an easier Bible. On the contrary, sometimes Jesus “ups the ante.” Today’s Gospel reading is one of those times.
This is a difficult and even painful text. I remember another time when this same text came around and my mother was visiting from out of town, sitting in the front row of the sanctuary to hear me preach. My parents have been divorced since 1972. What would I say to my mother about this text? I know a Lutheran pastor who is divorced who will not preach this text; when it comes up he invites a guest preacher and sits in the midst of the congregation, needing to hear words both of Law and Gospel. He knows the Law—he has lived it; he wants and needs to hear some words of grace.
I will never forget the heartache of a woman in a congregation I once served who, some time before I knew her, had divorced her abusive husband, with whom she had had children. It happened that he eventually wanted to marry again, and his fiancé was Roman Catholic. The man wanted an annulment of his first marriage, and the process was excruciating for his ex-wife. It seems that Pope Francis is working toward making annulments less painful.
The Pharisees in our Gospel come to Jesus to test him, hoping to entrap him. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus responds, “What did Moses command you?” They replied, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus retorts, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” Then Jesus cites a portion of the Second Creation account from Genesis, chapter two: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Then Jesus ups the ante: “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
In Jesus’ playbook, there is no provision for divorce. At least not in the Gospel of Mark. When Matthew tells this same story, Jesus makes an exception to his prohibition of divorce when there is “unchastity”—infidelity (Matthew 19:9). If this exception—this loophole—is an addition from Matthew and not from Jesus himself, Matthew seems to be embracing Moses’ allowance for divorce.
A little context is helpful. During Jesus’ time a debate about divorce was raging among some of the Jewish scholars of the Torah—the Books of Moses—the first five books of the Old Testament. One school wanted to restrict Moses’ allowance of divorce to unchastity only. Another school of teaching wanted to expand the allowance and add another category: “any matter.” “Any matter” could include spoiling a meal. It seems that a man could divorce his wife for burning his dinner. The Pharisees want to entrap Jesus, to draw him into the conflict.
A woman dismissed by her husband would be untouchable and almost always relegated to a life of poverty, with no source of livelihood. She would be outcast and destitute.
The stakes are even higher when there are children involved. This is at least the third time in three chapters in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus lifts up children. “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
What is at stake for Jesus in his teaching about marriage and divorce, in large part, has to do with the wellbeing of all parties involved, especially those who are vulnerable: the women and children. The consequences of divorce for women and children were nothing short of catastrophic.
More context: In the Gospel of John, chapter 8, the scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. Again, they seek to test Jesus. The law of Moses required the death penalty for adultery
– at least for the woman – death by stoning. Jesus says to them: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one all the accusers go away.
When Jesus and the woman are alone, Jesus says, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir.” “Neither do I condemn you. Go on your way and from now on, do not sin again.”
A word of grace. A word of forgiveness. Adultery is not the last word. Divorce is not the last word.
Jesus quotes the Second Creation story. There are two Creation stories in the Bible and they are very different from each other. We run into trouble in both stories if we attempt to read them as either history or science; neither story was intended for either of those things. The intent of the Creation stories is to tell us something about God and God’s desire to be in relationship with humanity and all of Creation. Put another way, Creation’s intent is praise of God and the wellbeing of humanity. The wellbeing of humanity means being in right relationships with God and one another. Jesus, along with the prophets before him, would insist that those right relationship need to be intentional about including the wellbeing of the vulnerable ones, especially women and children.
Our psalm for today, Psalm 8, is a psalm of Creation. It begins and ends with praise of God: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (By way, that’s not a question; rather, it’s a declaration!) Then our psalmist asks a question that humans have been asking since the dawn of time: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, what are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them?” I remember the first time I took our two sons to the Boundary Waters. It was a beautiful night as we lay on our backs on a large rock at the edge of the lake, the stone still radiating the heat of the day’s sun. We could hear the night sounds of the wild, the water gently lapping against the shore. As we gazed with awe into the star-studded sky, with the universe stretching beyond our ability to see, beyond our ability to grasp or even imagine, I asked aloud the psalmist’s question: “In light of this immense Creation, who are we that God should be mindful of us?”
This past winter I visited our daughter in California over the New Year. She and I and my teenaged grandson made a day-trip to the science museum in LA and we attended a documentary film about the Hubble Space Telescope. The images from outer space are spectacular—breathtaking. We learned that astrophysicists calculate that the universe is more than 14 billion years old. Think back to our psalmist, writing some 3000 years ago when the concept of the universe was much smaller. Imagine what song our psalmist might sing if he or she had known that the universe is at least 14 billion years old!
Does that unimaginable time frame diminish us in God’s eyes? Or does it “up the ante”? If God’s purpose in Creation is to be in relationship with humanity, then does it not heighten that relationship even more than our psalmist could have imagined?! If, as the psalmist sings, we are made “little less than divine,” or “a little lower than the angels,” then might it be that we are the culmination of Creation in God’s eyes—the culmination of 14 billion years?!
The psalmist sings: “You have made them [humanity] rule over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet . . .” In the language of the Creation stories, God has given us “dominion”—or another word: “stewardship.”
But sin enters the picture in our exercise of dominion—stewardship. Just as sin enters into the relationship of marriage, so sin is at work in our dominion over—our stewardship of—Creation.
The Creation stories—and our psalmist—tell us that our lives—and creation itself—are encompassed and enfolded in praise of God. God’s intention in Creation is that we be in right relationship with God and with one another, starting in our homes. That right relationship includes being in right relationship with God’s Creation—to be stewards, caretakers of this beautiful Garden God has given us.
Our readings today encompass care for the weakest and most vulnerable to praise of God for the gift of Creation, for the gift of God’s great love for us.
And all of us—and all of Creation—sinful and broken as we are, join in praise of God who loves us!
Thanks be to God!