To Test or not to Test

(From Morning Prayer Service, August 10, 2021)

The First Lesson                                                                          

A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Acts 21: 1-14

When we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. When we found a ship bound for Phoenicia, we went on board and set sail. We came in sight of Cyprus; and leaving it on our left, we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. We looked up the disciples and stayed there for seven days.

Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.

 When our days there were ended, we left and proceeded on our journey; and all of them, with wives and children, escorted us outside the city. There we knelt down on the beach and prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home. When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais; and we greeted the believers and stayed with them for one day.

The next day we left and came to Caesarea; and we went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.

While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.” When we heard this, we and the people there urged Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.

 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Since he would not be persuaded, we remained silent except to say, “The Lord’s will be done.”

Second Lesson                                                                                                                                     

A Reading from the Gospel According to Mark. Mark 10: 1-16

Jesus left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”

But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.’ For this reason,a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “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.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

To Test or not to Test

In my first exposure to Homiletics (Sermon Writing), the instructor explained how to pick a sermon topic in a Bible-centered church like ours with an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a New Testament reading, and a Gospel reading at every service.  He said, “Find the thread that ties together your readings and build your message around that thread.” I like that.  It is always exciting to discover those threads and come up with something.  The instructor went on to add that if you can’t find a thread or if you find one scripture to be particularly relevant or intriguing, then focus on that one scripture.

Looking at our scriptures for today, I noticed right off the bat that finding a unifying thread between these two would be a true task in creativity.  So, I was left with the decision to pick one on which to focus.  Being a pretty good swimmer, I decided to jump into the deep end of the pool and picked Mark.  Heaven, help me.

Let’s look at this controversial reading, breaking it down into four sections.  First, however, I want you to understand that the words of Jesus in our scripture were as disturbing and counter cultural to its audience back then as they are today.  With that disclosure out of the way, let us proceed.

The Four Sections.

The Setting

The Question

The Response

The Blessing

The Setting:  This conversation is not a private conversation.  It is a conversation with an audience, crowds of people witnessing, listening, waiting to hear the interchange between these religious giants.

The Question:  Or should we call it a Test?  Mark called it a test.  What is the difference then between a true question seeking an answer versus a test?  Our first clue is that the Pharisees ask their question in front of a large audience, drawing attention to themselves, not in a quiet setting seeking knowledge, seeking understanding. The second clue is that the Pharisees ask a question to which they already know the answer.  You and I know that when a question is posed to one of us, and the asker already knows the answer, we are getting set up.  That makes it a test.

Which is what the Pharisees were trying to do to Jesus.  They knew that divorce was lawful.  Divorce, no-fault- uncontested was lawful all the way back to Moses, who even had a legal protocol to follow.  If a man is not satisfied with his wife for any reason, he can write a letter of dismissal and the marriage is over.  Done.   Simple, quick, cheap!  Divorce.

Understand, that no one likes divorce.  Church leaders back then and now are none too happy with the frequency of divorce amongst their flock.  They know that the carnage left over from divorce are deep and far-flung. 

I recall years ago reading a financial essay blaming divorce for poverty amongst the elderly.  The inordinate expense of a divorce decimating the value of their properties and raiding their retirement savings left them unprepared for the years when they could no longer earn a living.  Economic insecurity is a specter amongst the divorced, especially for women with children they support, whose income and benefits are significantly less than that of her male counterparts.

No one likes divorce.

The Response.  Jesus as we know is an astute individual.  He knows this is a test, and he responds as was his habit by ignoring the question, because it is obviously not a question.  It is a test.  So, he starts off by asking the Pharisees a question, . . . or was it a test?  Hmm, maybe so. He asks, What did Moses say?  They answer.  Their answer is correct.  At which point, Jesus relates the inside story, the creation story of love and marriage.  God’s vision of love was a relationship in which two individuals come together to form a bond to which they are dedicated and devoted.  So devoted, that they are bonded as though one flesh.

Think about that visual.  One flesh.  Not one mind.  Not one person.  One flesh.  Imagine a relationship in which you are treated as carefully as you treat your own skin.  Would you on purpose neglect it?  Ridicule it? Abuse it?  Damage it?  Break it?   Destroy it?  Of course not.  NO!  You would treat your flesh tenderly, carefully, paying attention to it, nourishing it.  That is how you treat a loved one, with whom you share one flesh.

Jesus himself saw the difference between God’s vision at Creation – this one flesh concept, – and the human capacity to do harm. Jesus knew that divorce was legal because of a hardness of heart that obstructs the bonding God intended when he created love and marriage.  When hardness of heart happens in a relationship, the bond God envisioned as marriage no longer exists and divorce feels inevitable.

Ask anyone who has gone through a divorce. The only thing worse than the trauma, loss, and cost of a divorce is the heartbreak, misery, neglect, betrayal, stinginess, emotional, verbal, financial and/or physical abuse of a relationship destroyed by hardness of heart.

Jesus described two kinds of marriage.  The one God created and wants for all of us.  A marriage bond where each person is treated and valued as their own flesh.  An intimacy that should never be betrayed, violated, or exchanged for another person. That would be adultery.

And then there is the marriage ruined by hardness of heart, and that is why we have divorce.

Is Jesus happy about that?  Obviously not.  No one is.  Not the grieving spouses who see their hopes and dreams go up in flames.  Not the women who will be cast into a socially desolate and dangerous place, physically and financially.

And not the children whose lives are turned upside down, the silent victims of conflict between the two parents whom they trusted with their lives.  Which brings us to the fourth section of our Lesson for today. 

The Blessing of the Children. 

Children were considered property at the time of our Lesson, an expense.  Which is why Jesus had to speak up for them, indignant and stern.  He referred to them as the role model for what it takes to get into the Kingdom of God:  an open receptive mind, an eagerness to learn, an ability to love without reservation, without hardness of heart.

“And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

Which is what Jesus does with us, when we are so blessed to be in a marriage filled with love and mutual regard, where we experience the sense of what “one flesh” is all about, and for which we give thanks every day.

“And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

Which is what Jesus does with us, when hardness of heart has created isolation and loneliness in our own home.  He comforts us with his own experiences with hardness of heart:  listening to the crowd chant Crucify him; seeing, hearing Peter’s denial of their relationship as the cock crowed, and in the darkness of Gethsemane watching Judas approach him, to betray him with a kiss.  Jesus knows the pain caused by hardness of heart.

“And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

Which is what Jesus does if we feel condemned by today’s scripture.  Whether because we could no longer tolerate a relationship broken by our loved ones’ hardness of heart and we left it.  Or when we were the ones with hardness of heart destroying the relationship and driving away the very person we once loved.  Or when we are honest with ourselves.  

As far as I know, I have never met a person who has not, at one time or another, hardened their heart, and said things they could never take back, done things unforgivable.  Jesus’ words do not condemn us.  They never condemn.  They are filled with compassion as he takes us in his arms, forgives us, and blesses us with his love and assurance that he will never leave us.  There is no sin worse than any other sin.  And there is no sin that goes unforgiven by God.  With God, there is no hardness of heart, no abandonment, only love.  Only forgiveness.

“And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”