You always know there is going to be trouble when you hear or read the words “Some Pharisees”. Because some Pharisees or Sadducees or lawyers or scribes, whatever religious group it might be, always bring problems for Jesus particularly as most of the time they will come armed with one of “those” questions. The question they hope will trip Jesus up. The question they think are unanswerable, containing as they do the most divisive of issues. All this, in the hope of showing Jesus in the worst possible light no matter how he responds.
In the encounter we heard about today they probably think that they have just such a question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Now, they are not hoping for guidance on a pastoral dilemma rather, they want Jesus to respond in a way that either condemns him in the eyes of the people or in the eyes of the authorities. Either is good – both would be better. As Mark makes clear this is a test and this time the Pharisees have good reason to believe that their cunning plan is going to work.
Only one answer?
Their first reason for confidence is that they have a question which, according to the law, could have only one answer. That answer was ‘yes’, despite the fact that this ‘yes’ brings misery to many. Secondly, Jesus has just arrived at the banks of the Jordan. This was the place where he was baptised and the place where John the Baptist found himself in a fatal argument about the rights and wrongs (mainly wrongs) of the king’s marriage to his brother’s wife following her divorce.
Well, divorce is and always has been a sensitive topic. It certainly was for King Herod and his queen. So, if Jesus gives an answer that does not support the legitimacy of the new royal marriage there may well be another head on a platter. We can imagine the growing excitement of the Pharisees as they contemplate that ‘right question in the right place at the right time’.
Means to an end
So, let’s be clear, this question is about the furtherance of power and the removal of Jesus; the actual issue of divorce is merely a means to an end. However, even though divorce is not really the issue I think we need to understand a little about marriage and divorce 2000 years ago. This was a time when women were basically regarded as no more than property. A father would give his daughter to a man in exchange for money or property. Because that woman was merely property it was only the man who had the right to initiate a divorce. Men could divorce their wife for the most trivial of reasons. For him it would be simply ridding himself of an inconvenience; for her it was public disgrace, poverty and social isolation for herself and her children (if she was allowed to keep them of course).
In most of today’s world (and it is most not all) divorce is not as devastatingly unequal as this but it remains a difficult issue. It is still something where there is seldom a right answer for all involved. Those most closely involved in any divorce will most likely have their own very clear view about the rights and the wrongs of the situation which will give family and friends a near impossible task of trying to be supportive without taking sides. Stand up for the sanctity of marriage and you may appear judgmental and hard-hearted towards those who have been through the ordeal of a marriage falling apart. Suggest that divorce should be a first resort and you look as though you’re playing around with family life not to mention ignoring God’s law.
Divorce, then and now, is so often a no-win situation and in the Pharisees’ question Jesus can also recognise what is intended as a no-win situation as well. Well, he begins his defence as he often does in such situations by answering a question with a question. When the Pharisees ask him is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife Jesus asks them what Moses said about it. When Jesus then goes on to quote Genesis (which most people back then believed was written by Moses) he neatly avoids having to give a personal opinion. Despite seeming to leave it to Moses, Jesus is absolutely clear: when a man and woman marry, they become one. God joins them together and that which God has joined together no-one should separate.
Then, however he does add something of his own, something aimed not just at the King and his new bride but at each of us. Jesus neither accepts nor rejects the law of Moses, rather he gives it a new and wider interpretation and in doing this he calls people to recognise that marriage and divorce are not about property deals they are about our relationships. They are about the relationships we have with other people. They are about the relationships we have with God. Jesus is telling us two things: Firstly, that God recognises the reality of divorce and understands that marriage is sometimes just too difficult to be continued. And secondly that the real problem is our hardness of heart.
State of heart
By now you may well be thinking that we are talking an awful lot about divorce considering that I said this question was not really about divorce at all. But the thing is although for the Pharisees the key thing is to show absolute adherence to the law, for Jesus the real issue is the state of our hearts. So, that divorce is not just the breakdown of a marriage, divorce can be the breakdown of any relationships.
Divorce is about the divisions that can happen in just about every aspect of life. Hardness of heart can divide: husbands and wives; children and parents; brothers and sisters; families and friends. Hardness of heart can divide communities and countries. The effects of our hardness of heart will create many divisions, many divorces. We may well have been through these divorces. The fights and the pains. The arguments. The disappointments. The failures and the fears. Some of us will have had our hearts hardened. Some of us will have had our hearts broken.
A soft heart
The problem is that we tend to remember all the things that have gone wrong in our relationships. We hang onto all the ways in which our experience of divorce, whether marital, family, friendship, affected us. We remember them so well that they prevent us moving on. They stop our healing and recovery. We may be surviving but we are not living. God, however, will give us healing. He will soften our hearts if we allow him. Sometimes, though we don’t. We may be reluctant to accept because we see that a soft heart can leave us vulnerable, a soft heart can be a risk. But a soft heart is needed to live as Christ would have us live with an open heart and open mind. So, here is Jesus’ question to us, will we risk a soft heart?
Ready to receive love and joy
Jesus responded to the Pharisees and left them disappointed once again and they no doubt went away planning their next unanswerable question. They failed to see that Jesus’ response was not about marriage or divorce, it was about our willingness to examine our own hearts. Our willingness to let ourselves be vulnerable. Our willingness to change and be changed.
I think that is the reason that Mark adds that seemingly random incident at the end of our reading today, when we see the disciples trying to turn away children. Jesus stops them, saying: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; 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.” These are the words I use at every baptism, telling or reminding all of us that Jesus wants us to be childlike (not childish that, we unfortunately do, very easily). He wants us to be childlike because children have open hearts and open minds. They have soft hearts ready to receive love and joy.
Pray God that we are not the ones to harden those little hearts. Amen
‘A soft heart’ was proclaimed by Elizabeth Binns on Sunday 3rd October 2021 at St John with St Mark. It was based on Mark 10:2-16. Beryl Cook’s picture of Madonna and Child is Elizabeth’s favourite picture and is shown here with grateful thanks. Copyright © John Cook 2021. www.ourberylcook.com.