From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
Genesis 2:18-25, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16
The Twenty-Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)
'Not For Angels'
We Christians have often done a bad job of listening to scripture. We have used the Bible, not to help other people fulfill God's intention for them, but to make them feel less than they really are. Take this week's old testament reading from the book of Genesis and the gospel of Mark as a case in point.
How many times have we heard jokes about this story from Genesis, and nearly always with a view to demeaning the place of women. 'Adam's Rib', we were told, was made as a divine afterthought. The man came first and, therefore, was superior. Such an interpretation, I would suggest to you, argues an intention for humankind which is about as far from God's heart as hell is from heaven.
For this is a story, not about who came first, but who is missing, not about who is superior, but who one's sexual opposite is; and if you have any imagination at all, then you cannot help hearing in the poignant cry of the man - "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" - the deep longing of one who knows that he has found the one without whom he cannot feel wholly human. It is a story of human, sexual need and recognition.
When I was in parish ministry, I used to speak candidly about my wife being my woman. People who didn't know me didn't like it. They thought I meant it in some possessive sense. They were wrong. Nobody owns anybody. They just think they do. Neither do I own my woman. She is my woman for one reason and one reason only: because she has been entrusted to me by a gracious God, a God who knows me all too well, who knows I am a dead duck without my woman.
There were times when I despaired of ever finding someone I could call my woman. My woman had similar times of despair; so that when we found each other it came as the most tremendous surprise and gift of our lives. To find in the arms of another human being that opposite missing part of oneself is what it means to find your man or your woman. It is an often fulfilling, sometimes scaring-me-senseless, speech-defying, incredible gift!
I would like to think that at some point in Israel's history some people realized the inherent truth of this most poetic of all stories.
But, by the time of Jesus, this truth had become so distorted that sexual alienation and divorce had become as significant parts of our experience as the fulfilment marriage was intended to be. Divorce was permitted under the law of Moses; and that regrettable fact is the backdrop for this week's gospel.
According to Mark and other independent sources, Jesus spoke against divorce on a number of occasions; and divorce itself became a controversial issue in the early church. All of these elements come into play when we try to decipher what is going on in this passage Mark constructs for us. The whole scene is a set-up for what Mark wants to say to his early Christian friends.
"Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"
Since this was a controversial issue at the time of Jesus, we can safely assume that it was a question that could have been put to Jesus during his ministry. Certainly, the way Mark frames the question leaves no doubt that he is assuming a situation that was common in Jesus' day. Under Jewish law, only a man could initiate divorce proceedings.
Which means we must keep this in mind when we consider Jesus' response. In saying that divorce was never God's intention in the first place, was Jesus forbidding divorce, or pointedly criticizing the callous way in which men regarded their marital commitment (v.5-9)? Most scripture scholars certainly believe the latter.
When we hear Jesus make the rather harsh statement in verses 11 and 12, we would do well to ask ourselves whether or not this was Jesus speaking or, in fact, Mark himself, given the fact that the saying presupposes a situation removed from Jesus' time under Roman law, in which both wives and husbands could initiate divorce.
Given the obvious problems with the passage, is it any wonder it has been mis-used by Christian people to rule out divorce on any grounds?
Well, we can twist Jesus' words any way we like, just as Mark did, for our own purposes; but in the final analysis, you still have to decide whether you believe Jesus was a man who came to help others find the fulfilment God intended or whether or not he was a canon lawyer. My money is on the former. Surely Jesus knew that God's intention was the ideal of one man and one woman for life, just as everyone of us knows this as well. But he also knew that human beings regularly fail in their efforts to live that ideal, and sometimes fail to the point of turning the marriage relationship into such a twisted and grotesque caricature of its original intention that it is virtually impossible for two people to put it back together again. Divorce is a reality we have to live with because of the hardness of our hearts, both male and female. That is for sure.
But would Jesus have had compassion in applying the ideal and in giving those who had failed in their attempts to be loving partners another chance with someone else? If the Jesus you know is the Jesus I know, then you know the answer to that question as well as I do; for he was compassion personified.
There is another passage, however, that is worth considering if we are serious about understanding what God intended marriage to be. It happens a little later in Mark. Once again, Jesus is being tested about the subject of marriage; and Mark poses a hypothetical question: whose wife will a woman, who has had five husbands on earth, be in heaven?
Jesus responds by saying that marriage is not an issue for people in heaven, since everyone will be like angels there, and
...they neither marry, nor are given in marriage. - Mk. 12.25
Marriage is not for angels, in other words. It is for imperfect men and women in this life who are serious about being life-long married friends.
Which reminds me of a story.
Mulla Nasrudin was sitting in a tea shop one day when a friend came excitedly to speak with him.
"I am about to get married, Mulla!" his friend said. "I am very excited! Tell me, Mulla, have you ever thought about getting married yourself?"
"When I was younger," said Nasrudin, "I used to think about it all the time. I very much wanted to get married; but I decided to wait for the perfect woman.
So I travelled to Damascus and there I met a beautiful woman who was gracious and kind and deeply spiritual; but she had no worldly knowledge. So I travelled further; and in Isphahan I met a woman who was both spiritual and worldly, beautiful in many ways, but we did not communicate very well. Finally, I went to Cairo and, there, after much searching, I found her: she was spiritually deep, graceful, beautiful in every respect, generous and at home in the world; and we got along very well!"
"And did you marry her?" asked his friend.
"Alas," said Nasrudin, shaking his head, "she was, unfortunately, looking for the perfect man."
What God had in mind and what Jesus, no doubt, would have wanted to remind us of, is that marriage is more than an indissoluble bond, but a relationship that sustains love. No matter how many cracks you get at experiencing such a love, the only people you get to do it with are flesh-and-blood creatures on earth just like yourself who, with all their faults and weaknesses, are prepared to risk opening themselves to such an incredible, miraculous gift!
Genesis 2.18-24 - The fulfilment of human sexuality is a gift of God. No other passage in scripture is as explicit as this week's text, which is not about marriage, as such, but about the physical attraction of men and women for each other. There is, inherent, in our sexuality a deep and powerful longing for our sexual opposite. The purpose of such a longing is also clear: that the two shall become one flesh.1. What were you taught about human sexuality in church?
2. What does such a text tell you about God?
3. How has the church honoured this story? How has it avoided or distorted its truth?
Hebrews 1.1-4; 2.5-12 - There have been two main, heretical threats to the Christian faith throughout history, the first being that Jesus was not divine in some essential sense, the second being that he was not completely human. The latter is the older of the two. The author of Hebrews, whoever it might have been, wants us to know that Jesus was one of us, that he shared our humanity in every sense, especially in the way that he suffered. Indeed, it is precisely because of his willingness to suffer with and for us that God honoured him above all.1. On balance, how has the church encouraged you to think about Jesus - as being more like God in human form or as someone who was fully and completely human?
2. Which way of thinking about Jesus makes you feel closer to him? Why?
Mark 10.2-16 - This week's text is one of the most hotly disputed passages in the scriptures. What Jesus actually said and why he said it have been debated for centuries. It is a passage which was written for the early church of which Mark was a member. It was in the mind of this church, as heir and successor of Jesus, that it had the right and duty to interpret the religious ideal of one man and one woman for life. It did so by permitting divorce under certain circumstances, taking into consideration the errors, mistakes and weaknesses of human beings.1. What do you find troubling about the passage? What do you find helpful about it?
2. How has the church misused such a passage?
3. How would you balance such a passage with what you know about Jesus?
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - "But there are also times when you get to see the house that God is building, when you feel so alive, so close, so at peace, so strong because of each other, times when my woman is such a sigh of thanksgiving that tears come to my eyes, times when I know just how much a gift she is. To fall in love the first time with another human being. That is, indeed, one of the greatest joys we can experience; but, ah, to fall in love again and again and again with the same person, indeed, to fall deeper and deeper in love again and again with the person you have decided to befriend throughout your life, that, my friends, is a joy comparable to few other joys we can ever experience." - from a marriage sermon, My Woman, The Builder and Me, Barry J. Robinson
HYMN 260 God Who Gives to Life Its Goodness (Voices United)
copyright - Barry Robinson 2000, 2003 page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2000, 2003 please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.
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