Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity (7 October 2018) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean
The Dean reflects on how we can understand the Bible when we are confronted with uncomfortable and difficult passages.
I wonder how many of you felt uncomfortable when you heard the Gospel reading we’ve just had (Mark 10:2-16). You may be well aware that there are
many including some of you here who’ve been divorced and remarried, contrary to the words of Jesus, and who may have been told that they are living
in a state of sin.
And when the Gospel speaks about the disciples shouting at little children, and Jesus laying his hands on them to bless them, there will be those who have unhappy memories of what it’s like to be a child helpless before the power of adults.
There are times when we wish the Bible didn’t speak to us as uncomfortably as it does.
And what’s a preacher to do? Explain it all away and make us feel better? Well, to some extent – there are things to understand about the context of this passage of the Gospel of Mark which affect our view of its message.
But it’s also important to hear the truth of what Jesus speaks, and know how we should respond to it – for Jesus does often make us uncomfortable, but only in order to lead us closer to God and one another in truth and love.
So here’s where the story begins. The King Herod who tried to kill Jesus in Bethlehem had several sons. One of them, called Herod Antipas, fancied Herodias, who was already married to his brother Philip. Philip and Antipas were both the uncles of Herodias because her father was a half-brother of theirs. Herodias and Philip had a daughter called Salome. So Antipas divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias, who was his niece, when she was already married to his brother Philip, but Herodias wrote to Philip saying the marriage was over, because she wasn’t allowed as a woman to divorce him legally, and then Herodias and Antipas got married, so Antipas then had his niece Herodias for a wife and her daughter Salome as both his niece and his stepdaughter. I suspect by now you may be a bit lost, and I’m struggling too. But think of it like the most outlandish television soap opera you can think of and then some.
If you know a bit more of the Bible, you might know that Herodias hated John the Baptist, who said it was against the Law for Antipas to marry his brother’s wife, let alone her being improperly divorced and him divorced too, and her his niece and all that – and so Herodias got Salome to do a naughty dance of the seven veils and get Antipas to promise her John the Baptist’s head on a plate.
Well! That’s the difficult bit. If you’re still with me, (and you may not be!) you will be wondering why I tell you this story. It’s in order to explain why Jesus was asked the question about divorce by the Pharisees, right at the beginning of our Gospel reading. The Pharisees weren’t asking a genuine question – they knew the answer already as to what the Jewish law said about divorce. But the Pharisees were trying to get Jesus killed by Antipas, like John the Baptist had been. They wanted Jesus to publicly denounce the local strongman and his wife for their immorality, and suffer the same consequences as John.
So Jesus’s public response was simply to direct the Pharisees to the heart of what the scripture meant. Yes, men were allowed by law to divorce their wives, but they had to do it properly and give a bill of divorce to protect the women’s reputation – because a woman without the protection of a man in a patriarchal society was very vulnerable, and God didn’t want that. Of course things went wrong and men divorced their wives – but they shouldn’t – God wanted them to be faithful. And because Jesus expounds scripture, the Pharisees or Antipas have no case against him.
But afterwards, in private, Jesus spells out what he really thinks – that’s what it means when in the gospel reading it says that he tells the disciples in the house, away from the crowds, what this is about. There are two important things in what Jesus says. Jewish Law had said that men could sleep with other women, as in a polygamous society, without committing adultery against a wife – men could only commit adultery against another man by sleeping with the other’s wife. But Jesus treats women as equal to men, so that they are the victims of a husband’s adultery and can sue for divorce. And Jesus applies this to Herodias too.
An ancient version of this verse doesn’t say that a woman divorces her husband for another, but simply that the woman leaves her husband and marries another – which is what Herodias did, and what many Jewish women would have done because they couldn’t initiate divorce proceedings against their unfaithful husbands.
And Jesus also recognises that motivation for divorce is a moral factor in understanding it. If you divorce a wife or husband in order to marry another, that is giving legal cover to adultery. It might be legal, but it’s immoral. So Herodias and Antipas were adulterers in the eyes of God, and Jesus was prepared to say so in private – but not in public, not wanting to give the Pharisees the chance to get him executed before his time had come.
So where does all this leave us with regard to feeling uncomfortable about what Jesus says? One of the tasks of the Dean here is to decide whether people who have been married before can apply to be married at St Paul’s. It’s not easy. There are churches and people who say that marriage is indissoluble, that you can’t ever get divorced. But that’s not the position of the Church of England, which recognises that we are flawed human beings and that marriages do fail, even though they shouldn’t.
And in my experience, nearly everyone who comes to church and wants to get married again has suffered through the breakdown of their relationship, and has learned to be different with someone else, to be more loving, more realistic, more open to see marriage bringing happiness through fulfilling the lives of others; more willing to forgive and be forgiven.
But although the Church of England can marry in church those who have been divorced, it won’t marry in church those who seek, in the words of church lawyers, to consecrate an infidelity, those who have divorced in order to marry someone else. We will stand alongside those of you in that situation, we will pray with you and help you grow into forgiveness and new life; but out of respect for former spouses and those around them, we hear the words of Jesus telling us to be honest about our sins and failures, and to seek to put them right.
These things are hard. Which is why in our Gospel reading we don’t end with divorce and adultery, but with touching and blessing.
Why did parents bring their children to Jesus to be touched? Because they wanted them to be blessed, to be safe, to grow up whole. Because they recognised the vulnerability of children, and the power of God at work in Jesus to bless them with God’s love. Jesus has been touching and healing sick and vulnerable adults: and children are by nature vulnerable and need God’s love and blessing too.
The disciples see the parents and children as unimportant, as a nuisance, and want them to go away. But Jesus sees them as they are: vulnerable, open, seeking God’s love; and he tells us in no uncertain terms that these are the ones to whom the kingdom of God belongs.
All of us can come to the table of Jesus today to be touched and blessed, with our sins and vulnerability and weaknesses. Whether or not we’re divorced or remarried, none of us stand on moral high ground. Zealous disciples may shout at those they think don’t deserve our Lord’s attention: they shout at those who have transgressed, those on the edges, those who don’t fit in, the abused and the broken, the proud and all of us who have hurt those around us and failed to love as we should, all of us with sorrows and disappointments and regrets – but here, in front of the table of Jesus Christ, let no one dare to shout, or cast the first stone.
Being a Christian is not for good people – who dares to make that claim about themselves? It’s for vulnerable people – for those of us who open our lives to Jesus, to hear the uncomfortable truth about ourselves and respond by stretching out our hands or coming for a blessing, to offer ourselves to God that we might be filled and changed and blessed by God’s love in Jesus Christ, died and risen for us and for all.
Come to the table of Jesus if you want to find the forgiveness and love and blessing of God. For truly, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.