Today we celebrate the Feast of Saint Francis. It is very tempting to just preach on the awesomeness of animals and tell some of the strange stories about the life of Saint Francis. But the very thing that makes the Gospel today so unwelcoming to preach on, is the very reason I think we need to take a closer look at what it has to say.
This beginning part of this Gospel has been used as a weapon to shame other people so many times that it has become one of the more dreaded passages found in all three of the synoptic Gospel. The statement by Jesus about marriage has been used to condemn the marriage of same-sex couples and his comments about remarriage have been used to condemn people who do get divorced and remarry. But was this really Jesus Christ’s intention when he answered the Pharisees’ question? Or perhaps Jesus had something far more important to say about what the Kingdom of God truly looks like.
Let me start by making what I hope is an obvious point that, while there were certainly homosexuals in the ancient world, there was not anything like same-sex marriage, truly there was not anything like modern marriage, period.
In Jewish law, in the ancient world, a man is allowed to divorce his wife and issue a certificate of dismissal. In Ancient Jewish custom it was only the man who was allowed to initiate a divorce. And let’s be clear, this is not divorce like any we see in our country today. There were no lawyers or alimony: divorce was much more akin to being fired from a job than a modern divorce. And this could be done at any time, for any reason. This is why Jesus tells the Pharisees that it is only due to their hardness of hearts that they were allowed to do dismiss their wives, but the certificate would allow her to marry again. That certificate was all the woman would leave the marriage with, she would be without any safety net or legal recourse.
This is what Jesus stands opposed to, the abandonment of a wife by her husband. What may sound unreasonably harsh to our modern ears changes its tone when we understand that Jesus desired to point out the injustice and cruelty of treating a child of God - a person created in God's image - as if she were a possession to be discarded on a selfish whim.
But Jesus takes this a step further in his later discussion with the disciples. He states that “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." This is one of those saying of Jesus that sounds so definitive, so absolute that it can cause real anxiety in the heart of a person who takes the Gospels seriously. It is not unlike when Jesus said to pluck out your eye if it causes you to sin, or when in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says that even looking at another person with lust is adultery. These sayings are of the sort that seem to set the bar for discipleship so unbelievably high that we could not possibly get over it. But they are also sayings that point to the Kingdom of God.
It is so tempting to want to turn what Jesus says into a new ‘law’ regarding divorce and remarriage. But I truly think that would miss the point of what Jesus is trying to say.
Marriage and divorce are things that we should most certainly take seriously, but we live in an imperfect world, where divorce is not always about abandoning one’s spouse, but can be about much deeper issues.
Anyone who has been divorced can attest to the trauma that it causes. Even the most amicable of divorces can leave a person feeling like a failure. But can any of us really say that Jesus would want us to stay in relationships that are emotionally or physically abusive, or even relationships that cause such unhappiness that the people involved become bitter and cynical? There are times when divorce seems like the only way to maintain one’s own person-hood, but it is far from the ideal.
Ideals are what Jesus proclaims, not as a way to shame, but to encourage us to strive for the Kingdom of God where relationships of all sorts are fueled by unconditional love and forgiveness and are not broken by our pride or selfishness or pain. In the Kingdom of God we are able to fully honor the image of God in others and ourselves.
Jesus seems to change the subject at the end of today’s passage, but Mark never puts stories side by side accidentally. And what looks like a shift in topic is actually the conclusion, necessary to understanding all that Jesus says before.
In these final verses people try to bring children to be blessed by Jesus. But the disciples try to keep the children away, rebuking the people who are bringing them. Children, like women, were barred from participation in the synagogues and perhaps the disciples saw them in this light, intruders into the arena of adult men conversing with their teacher. Jesus does not see the children in this way, and says, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” In the ancient world children were defined, NOT by their innocence, but by their complete lack of status. Not only were they totally dependent, but they were without rights or a say in the course of their own young lives. It is to people like this that the Kingdom of God belongs, such people do not press their will upon others, such children are free of status and power and therefore do not use their power to abuse, cheat or kill. Children lack the pride that cuts into relationships, that severs marriages and prevents us from having forgiveness.
People who do not hide behind pride or status, power or money, that is what people in the Kingdom of God look like. It is almost too strange to imagine, but we all are marked by God’s image and therefore citizens of God’s Kingdom, but our true natures have been distorted by pride and selfishness. The things in this world that cause us so much pain, that cause us to inflict pain on each other, these are the things that distort God’s image within us. It is not our mistakes and failures that prevent us from entering the Kingdom of Heaven, it is our pride that keeps us at arms length both from each other and from God. Our desire to be independent and completely self-reliant blind us to wonders of our very existence, from the forces that hold our very atoms together, to all the things that had to line up just right, just to get us to this moment, to the sheer overwhelming vastness of the universe in which we live – the control we think we should have and are always grasping for, and having anxiety over – it is not real. And the realization and acceptance of that brings us true freedom, the acceptance that we are not really in control and that we don’t need to be, allows us to turn our attention to more important matters like love and gratitude and forgiveness.
I said at the beginning of this sermon that I would not be talking about Dogs and Cats today, but I can’t help but point out that the opportunities they afford us to see and practice the Kingdom of God. Our pets, have no real status in our culture. They cannot advocate for themselves, and they rely on their owners completely for food and shelter. They provide us with an image of what it looks like to be without pride, animals never strive to be anything other than themselves. They are bound to us by their need for us and their love.
But more importantly, with them we are given an opportunity to see what it feels like to let OUR guards down, to at least for a little while, feel the release that comes with letting go of our pride and our need to control the world around us. Our animal friends give us the opportunity to love unconditionally and in that we get to experience Joy. A Joy not unlike what is waiting for us in God’s Kingdom.