Take a moment to think about the important relationships in your life.
Now, think about the boundaries and rules you set in those relationships.
Do those rules and boundaries enhance your relationships or hinder them?
Obviously, society as a whole sets rules and laws. Such rules are supposed to keep people safe and to enable a higher quality of life. Families do the same thing. Parents set rules for their children—supposedly for the same reason. We set rules and boundaries with our brothers and sisters, our partners and spouses, and even our friends. But…
Do our rules actually help us connect to each other in healthy relationship?
This is an important question to ask, because relationships move the world.
Relationships really matter.
And in a world in which violence, political posturing, religious propaganda, and materialism continue to drive and distract people—relationships could very well be the salve that leads us to healing and community.
In this Mark story, we find Jesus of Nazareth in a crowd of people, once again facing his religious peers, the Pharisees. The Pharisees were testing Jesus by asking him somewhat absurd and impossible-to-answer questions. Imagine much of what political debates look like. Candidates are paraded in front of us and asked a barrage of questions—many of them not really having the ability to answer them. In the end, it is often which candidate looks LESS foolish who wins such debates.
It’s a setup. And often, the real questions that could lead to some positive changes are never asked. For example, after yet another shooting in a school in the United States [in Oregon], how many concrete questions will be asked of presidential candidates regarding swift and federal gun laws that could combat this sad and horrific violence? Most likely, the questions will be ambiguous as best, and each candidate according to his/her party line will vaguely address it. But they will never get to the point.
It’s about relationships. Gun control laws have nothing to do with politics, or religion, or freedoms, or any of the absurd back and forth with the NRA.
It’s about relationship—protecting vulnerable children from such violence; raising youth to consider alternatives to guns in order to resolve arguments in the street or the classroom; giving incentive to gun shop owners to respectfully and honestly run their businesses without fear; pushing aside partisan politics to curb gun violence and to promote more…
But that’s not what happens. And that didn’t happen when the Pharisees debated Jesus.
This is why, I think, that this part of Mark’s Gospel is so often misunderstood.
First of all, context alert. We’re talking 1st and 2nd Century Israel and Palestine.
And, we’re talking about Jewish subcultures. Men married women.
Women were property and so were their children.
Men could remarry or marry more than one woman.
Women had no rights.
And now we rejoin the story. The Pharisees are asking Jesus about marriage laws.
But there’s a twist. Remember John the Baptizer, the guy who baptized Jesus in the River Jordan? Jesus’ cousin? Well, he was killed by Herod Antipas for saying that Herod’s divorce and remarriage was not lawful.
So the Pharisees ask Jesus this question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” anticipating a response that might make him guilty of treason.
That was the political distraction.
The religious distraction goes all the way back to the book of Deuteronomy [the last book of the Torah]. There were different schools of thought in Judaism about divorce. Some thought that a man could only divorce a woman if she committed adultery. Others pretty much said that a man could divorce a woman if she looked at him and made funny faces or burned dinner.
Jesus choose not to answer the Pharisees’ question. He asks them a question!
“What did Moses command you?”
This is was a trick question, because Moses never did actually command anything about divorce. Instead, the book of Deuteronomy was created as a guide and interpretation to life in that era and part of the world. As every religion does, Judaism adapted to societal changes and thus, rules changed. Deuteronomy reflected that, and so technically when the Pharisees respond with: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her” they were making the legal argument, according to religious law.
But Jesus flips it over.
“Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.”
The Pharisees may have been very good at quoting scripture and trying to make others look bad, but they were now grouped together with the Egyptian Pharaoh, the arch enemy of the Israelites in the Moses story, who also was hard of heart.
Well, that must have embarrassed or at least royally ticked off the Pharisees.
Jesus isn’t done.
He moves on from divorce to marriage itself. He talks about God’s creation and instead of referencing Deuteronomy, he quotes Genesis.
Jesus reminds them that from the very start of things, God created “them” male and female. There is no hierarchy.
A man leaves his father and mother and joins with his wife.
They become one.
And what God has joined together, let no one separate.
I’ve heard this quote a million times—either as part of a wedding, or in some hateful, misguided propaganda against gay and lesbian couples.
But I said that we’d not let ourselves get distracted with those things and that we would focus on relationships instead, because that’s what Jesus was doing here.
He shifted the whole conversation from religious divorce laws to relationships—relationships God intended to be important and life-giving.
But let’s not dump on the Pharisees. Jesus’ own followers were still harping on the dogma and doctrinal laws and missing the point. After the Pharisees scene, Jesus is with the disciples in a house, and they are asking him again about divorce.
Jesus’ response is tricky, if you don’t know the context.
Basically, his statement: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” is flipping the script again. Remember that in this culture and era men had all the rights. Adultery was defined like this: if a man had an affair with a married woman he committed adultery against that woman’s husband; if a married woman had an affair with anyone, she committed adultery against her husband. In other words, women were always to blame, and neither could they divorce their husbands. So Jesus’ words were blasphemous for that group to hear.
But his point was well-made: if God created humans equally male and female, why are women so powerless and considered property of men?
Likewise, why were divorced women left to suffer and starve, isolated from society?
Why were so-called “followers” of God’s law disenfranchising people, dehumanizing them, and pushing them to the margins?
And he drives it home when he welcomes children.
Children were [and I would argue that they are] the most powerless in the world. They don’t ask to be brought into this crazy mess of a planet, but here they are. Often they are neglected, abused, ignored, and considered property.
Side note: many last week were gushing over Pope Francis’ baby kissing episodes and the little girl from California who ran out to meet him, eluding security guards, delivering her personal letter to him. Consider, though, that many people were surprised, shocked, amazed even that the Pope would pay attention to children, as if it were something extra special or supernatural. Really?
It seems that many of us in the world don’t expect adults [especially religious rock stars] to embrace children.
Further, how many of you really know why the little girl ran to the Pope? The letter was about her parents who are undocumented. They have been living and working in the U.S. for years—picking fruits and vegetables. They are in real danger of being deported. Her letter was to ask the Pope to consider the many human beings who are mistreated and discriminated against because of outdated immigration laws. As a child, she was simply asking for religious people [who claim to love Jesus and love children] to work towards immigration reform so kids like her can be with their parents.
In spite of what some have said, I don’t think that Pope Francis welcoming her and receiving her letter was at all like the scene of Jesus of Nazareth calling the children to him. The kids in Mark’s story didn’t have to evade security guards and secret service; they only had to deal with annoyed disciples.
Further, when the disciples tried to shoo the children away, Jesus was furious. He called them out. He told them: Do not stop the children; for the reign of God belongs to them—not because they’re cute or good press or promote my agenda, but because they are the least. They are the women who are left out; they are lepers pushed away from society; they are Samaritans who are hated; they are the little ones, and you should bless them and love them.
It’s about relationships.
Friends, do this, please!
Any time someone or some church tries to use scripture as a way to exclude people, or disenfranchise certain groups, or to promote a political or even a religious agenda—redirect the conversation.
Don’t feel that you have to answer trap questions.
Instead, you ask the questions.
When someone claims that gay or lesbian people are outside of the Bible’s definition of marriage, and therefore, God doesn’t approve, ask them a question:
What did Jesus command?
When someone asks how your church could accept transgender people, or those who are in gender transition, or those who are still discovering themselves, ask them a question:
What did Jesus command?
When someone wonders how any American Christian could be friends with a Muslim, ask them this question:
What did Jesus command?
That question will most likely lead to silence, because people who use religion to justify their prejudice aren’t thinking about loving their neighbor as they love themselves.
And then, when children’s voices are silenced by guns; when women are made powerless and stripped of their human rights; when refugees are turned away; when addicts are locked outside the church; when people without papers are discriminated against and called names;
Remember, it’s all about relationship.
We are all related to each other on this planet. We were made that way. In all the craziness of culture, religion, and politics, it’s easy to forget that. But remember, we’re all related to each other. And the more we emphasize our connection to each other, the more we will find our way, the more we’ll show compassion and understanding; the more we’ll share; the more we’ll learn and grow.
It’s about relationship.