M. Scott Peck begins his best selling book, The Road Less Traveled with three simple words. Three words that when put together feel like a punch to the gut. They take your breath away because in that moment you know they are true. What are the three words? Life…is…difficult. 1
The first time I picked up Peck’s book and saw those words, it was almost enough to make me set the book down again. I didn’t want to hear those words. Rather, I wanted to continue in my ignorant bliss. I wanted to naively trust that life was only and mostly joy, fun, adventure, and love. But...we all know the truth don’t we? With the joy of life - and there is most certainly joy - but, with that joy comes our share of trip-ups, poor choices, misjudgments, regrets, conflicts, pain, suffering, broken relationships, illness, injury, and death.
Some people believe the church, maybe most especially the sermon should only deal with the former, with the joy and happiness of life. “Give me a feel good sermon, pastor.” some people are want to say. But, to do so would mean we were not dealing with life. Life IS difficult. And what better place to be honest about that truth than here in the church. What better place to deal with the difficulties and complexities of life, than here. What better place to be honest about our brokenness and suffering, than here.
Jesus, after all, spent a great deal of time dealing head on with the reality of our difficult and broken lives. In today’s Gospel text for instance, he does so in relation to the complex reality of divorce.
Undoubtedly everyone here has either direct or indirect experience with divorce. Maybe you’ve been through your own divorce...Or, you are a child of divorce. Or, you are the family or friend of someone who has been through divorce. Whatever the case may be, you most likely understand how complex divorce can be, how it can be painful and potentially devastating. Or,....how in some cases it is absolutely the necessary thing to do. Some marriages end painfully...Some need to end...Either way it is messy. It is a sign of our brokenness. It is difficult. It is complex.
I wonder then if that is in part what Jesus is getting at? I wonder if he’s not so much getting at marriage and divorce - although clearly he does care about marriage - but I wonder if he cares more about the value and vulnerability of the other? Stay with me a moment.
What I am trying to say is, it seems like the Pharisees are somewhat nonchalant about divorce. It’s like they don’t quite get how messy and complex and potentially devastating it can be. To start they are using it as a debate question with Jesus. Maybe they are expecting him to give them a nice sound bite, something to use against him. It’s like it is just an “issue” for the Pharisees, as opposed to a painful reality that impacts real people and real lives. So, Jesus turns their question back on them. "What did Moses command you?" And they answer,"Moses allowed...a man...to write a certificate of...dismissal...and to divorce...her." (v. 3-4) Wow, there is a lot there in that short sentence. The one with the power is the man. The vulnerable one is the woman. And with the simple stroke of a pen, he may dismiss her. We can argue whether that kind of power dynamic continues today or not. And even though the power dynamic is very much an important point both in Jesus’ day and ours, I think Jesus is taking the Pharisees on to something more....
I think for Jesus the key word is dismiss. I think we begin to hear it when he says, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” (v. 5) And later when he levels the power playing field and says..."Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." (v. 11-12) I think Jesus is seeking to move beyond divorce and re-marriage, to the intent behind it. He’s wanting us to examine the accepted practice of a person nonchalantly dismissing their spouse, that is initiating a divorce for the express purpose of marrying another person. Instead I think Jesus is asking for us to value the other so much, that we wouldn’t so easily dismiss them. In Jesus’ day, men, who were the possessors of power could simply dismiss the woman - the one more vulnerable because of the culture’s mores - thus likely sentencing her to a life of poverty and struggle. But Jesus will not treat the other so lightly. You cannot discard another, especially a vulnerable one, like you are discarding a piece of property.
Are there times when divorce will be necessary, maybe even the right thing to do? Yes. Jesus simply counsels that we dare not approach that decision lightly, but rather approach that decision with love. In his encounter with the Pharisees, it seems to me, Jesus trumps the Law with Love, This love expresses itself by not treating others lightly, no matter who they are; be they spouse or enemy, stranger or neighbor, widow or orphan, the elderly or the child. It’s on that point, I believe where where Jesus pushes us further, takes this lesson which on the surface is about marriage and divorce, and moves us on to that something more.
For Jesus, and thus for us, the vulnerable person, the person on the edges of humanity - really any outsider marginalized by ritual, tradition, ethnicity, race, religion, or gender - are for Jesus to be valued and welcomed and included. That is, it seems, where Jesus ultimately takes us in today’s gospel, beyond the complexity of marriage and divorce to God’s compassion for the vulnerable people, and to God’s radical welcome of all.
So often divorce and adultery have been used by the church as THE excuse to exclude one from the community of faith. And yet Jesus finishes his gospel teaching today, not with a story of exclusion, not with the image of casting someone out because of their brokenness, but rather with an image of radical welcome. Jesus ends today’s gospel; with the example of the most vulnerable in his day, the children. Of them, Jesus says: "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (v. 14)
Maybe that is the real question of this debate with the Pharisees. To whom does the Kingdom of God belong? And Jesus’ answer, it seems to me is...everyone. Even the ones who have been dismissed, the vulnerable ones discarded to the edges of humanity, the lonely ones forgotten. Even the ones who have experienced divorce. Even the ones who have initiated it. Even the ones who have committed adultery. Even the ones who have felt its sting. This is where Jesus takes us, right into the heart of life’s complexity, right into the reality of life’s difficulty.
Life IS difficult. It is no light thing. And people, no matter who they are should not be dismissed so easily, even if, and most especially when, the complexity of life has broken them. Of course, how that works, what that inclusion looks like, issues of safety and care for others, all of that too is very complex. I think Jesus knew this. He’s not seeking to make of his disciples, a bunch of doormats. But, he is concerned that we, his disciples act out of love and compassion, doing that which is necessary and right for the sake of the good of the other, and not dismissing the other so easily.
Why? Because Jesus the Christ has chosen not to dismiss us so easily. Out of love and compassion, God in Christ has done and is doing that which is necessary and right for our sake and for the sake of all God’s children and the world. In Christ, God has become one flesh with us. And what God has joined together, no one can separate. In Christ, God chose to go to the cross and tomb, through death for us, so that to us the kingdom of God belongs. In Christ God has shown and continues to show his radical welcome of us marginalized ones, his compassion for us vulnerable ones.
In response then,...in response then,...we are to do the same for the other, no matter who they are...It’s as simple...ha...no....It’s as difficult as that...
1 M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled (Touchstone, New York, 1978) p. 15