R – E – S – P – E – C – T

Proper 22, Year B (Genesis 2:18-24; Mark 10:2-16)

My long-time friend Melody and I were recently enjoying a meal together and catching up. We met 28 years ago in EFM (Education for Ministry). At that time, I was engaged to be married and she had been married for two years. She and her husband are the Godparents of my children.

When Melody noted that they would soon celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary, she shared this wisdom, told in the form a joke: 

              Do you know the secret to a long marriage? 

              Don’t get divorced.

We laughed a knowing laugh. One that included both gratitude for our spouses and an acknowledgement of the struggles and seasons endemic to relationships. That, with God’s grace, we hang in with one another through the winter seasons to discover spring again.

And then we recalled our friends for whom the “don’t get divorced” solution was not going to work. Abuse, addiction, and infidelity were among some of the things that caused the marriages of some of our friends to end. And for some of them, they were safer, happier, and healthier for no longer being married.

We all have a variety of stories, experiences, and emotions that emerge for us when we think about marriage and divorce. It is deeply personal — whether it’s our parents, our children, ourselves. And we bring these experiences and feelings to the hearing of today’s gospel. How could we not?

And so how can we hear today’s gospel without feeling shame, judgement, or without patting ourselves on the back in a self-congratulatory way? 

How can we hear the good news for us? The good news that God loves us — all of us — and has a vision for how we can live together.

Looking at the text, we first need to look at the context. In this encounter with Jesus, the Pharisees are not seeking to explore the economic and justice issues experienced by divorced women in 1st c. Palestine. 

Instead, they are testing Jesus. Setting a trap for him. They want to expose him for his “lack of orthodoxy.”[1] They want to get him on the record for opposing Mosaic Law.[2]

 And Jesus, seeing it for what it is, goes theological on them.

 First, he asks “What did Moses command you?” Which forces them to acknowledge that Moses gave no command[3] but allowed divorce.     

And then, Jesus quotes Genesis, which is foundational for the Abrahamic faiths … and our theology of marriage. And it likely causes you to recall that line in the Book of Common Prayer from the Blessing of a Marriage: “Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.”[4]

This is God’s dream for us in marriage. That we experience the unity, love, and faithfulness of God, albeit imperfectly, in our marriages.

But it does not always go this way. We fall short of this dream. We fall short of the ideal. The gospel text and our experiences acknowledge this. 

Jesus cites a “hardness of the heart” which immediately evokes Pharaoh in Exodus. What was the result of Pharoah’s hardened heart? He dehumanized the ancient Israelites. He enslaved them. He oppressed them. And, of course, God “heard their cry on account of their task masters…”[5]

So, here is a piece to the puzzle of what can and does go wrong in human relationships. From the theological human predicament writ large to the private exchanges of a couple: it has to do with respecting the dignity of one another.

Think again of today’s Genesis passage. It has been said:

“God made Eve from Adam’s rib so that men could never say that women were ‘other.’”[6] (repeat)

For all kinds of problems arise when we “other” others; when we dehumanize one another. 

Name-calling is a common way this happens. Then, eventually, sadly, words lead to actions. 

Years ago, I was talking with a marriage counselor, picking her brain for insights I could use in my work and premarital counseling. And here’s what she told me: if both parties respect one another, there is hope for the marriage. Respect for one another allows couples to navigate and overcome all kinds of challenges. But when one or both parties no longer have respect for the other, that is when a marriage fails.

Further, I think we can extrapolate and say: that’s when relationships fail. Any of our relationships. So, is it any wonder our Baptismal Covenant includes: the promise to respect the dignity of every human being … with God’s help.

And so how does today’s gospel passage end? With people bringing little children to Jesus. 

In the ancient world, children were of no status; they had no rights. It didn’t mean that their parents didn’t love them, it meant that they had no power or agency within their society. And when you think about it, it was only in the 20th century that our country created child labor laws to protect children, to give them rights … to respect them as human beings.

And so, what is the theological statement Jesus is making here? What is being affirmed when Jesus says: “let the little children come to me; do not stop them”?

It’s the good news that God loves us — all of us — and has a vision for how we can live … and live together.

For our worthiness and belonging comes from God. And from being made in the image of God. When we respect that in ourselves, and we respect that in one another … God’s dream for us is being actualized. It is nothing less than an inbreaking of God’s Kingdom. The process can be complicated, messy, and take time, but it is no less real. 

Wherever you find yourself today, hear Christ’s words: “come to me.” And find the life-giving dignity and healing love that God dreams for each of us — all of us — and our relationships. Beginning in Christ’s embrace.

[1] John R. Donohue, S.J. and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.  Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark. The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota, p. 293.

[2] Byrne, Brendan. A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel. Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota, 2008, p. 153.

[3] John R. Donohue, S.J. and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.  Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark. The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota, p. 293.

[4] Book of Common Prayer, p. 428.

[5] “Yahweh said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrow.’” Exodus 3:7.

[6] I recall hearing this from a guest lecturer at Perkins School of Theology in the 2000s. I cannot recall which early Church Father said this, though I believe it was one of the Cappadocian Fathers. And, if they didn’t, I am now. 🙂

Working Preacher’s Sermon Brainwave podcast #804.

Image above: Creation of Eve and Adam, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57386 [retrieved October 3, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adam_and_Eve_Lubok.jpg.

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