Hebrews 1:1-4 and 2:5-12
Concentrating on Jesus on divorce as second part of Gospel overlaps with Jan’s amazing sermon of two weeks ago, beautifully illustrated with Baby Dave!
In our Gospel reading this morning, Mark’s discipleship catechism turns to the tricky passages that show the less heroic yet perhaps more difficult practice of the Way in daily life. Jan pointed out a couple of weeks ago that the theme running through a lot of Mark 7-9 was about littleness, not trying to be the greatest, and last week Alison talked about healing and God working through miracles, but also through the wonders of medical care.
We now move into a powerful explanation of what the cross is about, where the cross is more than non-violent resistance to the powers, but the struggle against patterns of domination in interpersonal and social occasions and relationships as well. Today’s passage relates specifically to the marriage relationship when there is divorce, and it is part of Mark’s cycles of teaching. In this cycle he goes from greatest to least, outsiders and insiders, aggressors and victims, and comes next to male and female.
Mark is in teaching mode- it exhibits certain similarities to catechetical traditions found elsewhere in the NT that concern questions of power in family and community life- like the house-tables in Col 3:12, but also shows alternative readings of community.
The underlying refrain in the whole of this section (CH7-10) is that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. This is not one of these mystical paradoxes, but a concrete ethic that begins, following Jesus’ Jubilary logic, with the situation of the least in these social situations. Jesus teaches that society can be transformed only from the bottom up, and that we are called to be part of that transformation. How do we live out those Jubilee promises and turn the Pharisaical ethic on its head as well?
Jesus’ journey continues south into Judea, progressing slowly but surely towards Jerusalem, the culmination of his ministry. Mark turns now to a setting where issues of power and justice are more often overlooked: marriage and divorce.
The Pharisees try to engage Jesus in an argument not about the morality of divorce, but about what constitutes the legal grounds for a man to dismiss his wife (10:20)
This subject was vigorously debated between the two great rabbinical schools of the period, Hillel and Shammai. Jesus refuses to get involved in legalistic debate. The Pharisees are accusing the disciples of disloyalty to the tradition, meaning the tradition that they themselves governed- Jesus takes case law to refuse to recognise the authority of this oral law, portraying it as human tradition in contrast to the commandment of God. He contends that the purity code needs overturning. He isn’t going to be trapped by the Pharisees, but takes the debate into a place of liberation for both men and women.
Here he addresses the system of male power and privilege in which a woman who has been dismissed by her husband became a social outcast with little means of supporting herself. A situation where women were often forced into prostitution or destitution- Samaritan woman good example.
Jesus argues that the original vision of Genesis stipulated equality between men and women. The marriage covenant, far from delivering the woman into the power of the man instructed the man to break with the patriarchal house in order to become one flesh with his wife. Jesus’ conclusion in 10:9 refers to the way in which patriarchy, not divorce drives a wedge that tears this equality asunder.
As in Jesus’ previous conflict with the Pharisees, a private explanation is given to the disciples, which seems contradictory, but in fact is saying the Jewish law puts you in a situation of adultery if your marriage failed and you married again- Jesus came to turn the law on its head. It recognises the fact of divorce, yet maintains the principle of equality.
Jesus goes way beyond Jewish laws of the period. At this time a man could commit adultery against another man but not against his wife. He directly contravenes the teaching of the rabbis by allowing a woman to initiate divorce proceedings- under Jewish law this right is the right for men. Bearing in mind that the lifespan in first century Palestine was 35 for women, 30 for men, we can imagine children not yet in their teens being forced into marriage by parents wanting their daughters to leave the parental home and produce grandchildren, These women would be left destitute if their husband abandoned them.
Jesus is not trying to minimise the pain of divorce or the tragedy of the one flesh of marriage being torn apart. Yet even here Jesus refuses to overlook the actual relations of power. The woman must no longer be treated as an object. She is a fully equal subject.
This is an example of just how radical Jesus’ thinking about human relationships was. In so many relationships where power in unequal, someone comes off worst. We are in a society where divorce is legal and acceptable, but still leads to tragedy and grief, but following Jesus’ pattern does offer the possibility of ending a relationship as two adults- rather than infantilising the woman in ways that automatically cast one partner as the “have” and the other as the have not. Even in a situation where we have a welfare state, the provision for both partners and children after divorce is so vital.
We can translate this into the many areas of human relationships today- partnerships built on equality and on a foundation which does not automatically imply culpability when something goes wrong. As many of us engage with the public and ecclesiastical debate over the redefinition of marriage, and encourage a definition that demands inclusion of Civil Partnerships for those who wish, this passage reminds me that in so many contexts there is no sitting on the fence- we cannot be impartial.
There has been so much in the news recently on sexual mores where one party comes off worse, that as Christians we have to engage somewhere in the difficult and messy debate- whether this is encouraging the redefinition of marriage to include gay and lesbian people and allow straight people to enter into civil partnerships, or standing against those who ignored the grooming of innocent teenage girls by Asian men because they were seen to be from financially poor communities and therefore made morally questionable decisions. Probably many of us are concerned that our government has appointed an “equalities” minister who seems to have a very selective definition of equality.
Our Hebrews reading reminds us why we have not only an obligation to care for a brother or sister who is at risk of harm, but also the support for speaking out when someone’s rights are threatened or taken away. We can model ourselves on the person of Jesus- made a little lower than the angels, but also sustaining us by the power of his word. Jesus is the one who calls us to that ministry of non-violence and to resistance. We all have, as Revd Sr Una Kroll, one of the first Anglican women priests in Wales said, a vocation to resistance wherever equality is threatened.
Jesus providing purification for sins was a huge paradigm shift away from the Pharisees’ culture where some sort of sacrifice had to be made for wrongdoing- Jesus says- what I have done is enough- I have laid down my life in a non-violent way to redeem all whose life is governed by violence, for all who are put down by others. Later on in Chapter two of Hebrews is the reminder that we are brothers and sisters together and we are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper.
I was reminded at Greenbelt this year very eloquently by the singer Grace Petrie that injustice wins every time I say that someone else’s suffering is not my concern, and she adapted a song from the Resistance in the Spanish Civil War for the concerns of our day, and I thought it might be helpful in our reflection.