Scripture: MARK 10:2-16
Rules, rules, rules. In so many ways, we live our lives by rules. Did the sprinter false start? Was the striker offside? Was the base-runner out? Did the cornerback commit pass interference?
Or think about other venues. Did the teenager break curfew? Was the homework handed in on time? What should be the consequence of flouting the school’s dress code?
Or what about at work? Did the salesperson reach the quota? Has the staff member taken too much vacation time? How many minutes are you allowed to spend with each patient? What are you allowed to teach, or not teach?
Or what about in society at large? Was he breaking and entering? Was she speeding? Did the plumber honor the terms of their contract with you? Does the new paint color violate HOA regulations?
While we may sometimes chafe at rules, underneath we may also be glad for them. Rules give us a sense of order. They organize our lives. They give us categories for determining whether something is right or wrong. Rules convey that there’s a structure to things. We all know that children do better when they have structure than when there are no boundaries or expectations. Rules matter.
So it’s really no surprise when the Pharisees go to this upstart Jesus and ask whether it’s OK to divorce someone. This isn’t really a guileless question. These theological adversaries are issuing a challenge to Jesus to see what he really thinks, whose side he will take in a long-running dispute. Underneath it all, though, these Pharisees want to know what the rule is, and mostly they want to know that the rules matter.
Jesus, though, throws the question right back at them. “What does Moses say?” And these rule-followers don’t even need to go look it up. They know that Moses allowed divorce. Whereupon Jesus turns the question on its head. Instead of answering their question about whether divorce is acceptable, Jesus talks to them about marriage. He switches the ground from divorce to marriage. And this may not seem like much. But it is. Because Jesus is no longer talking about the rule. He’s talking about the ideal. He’s not talking about the law. He’s talking about the way things were intended to be. The Pharisees say: ‘Divorce is legal.’ Jesus turns the tables and says: ‘What do we hope for here? What are we aiming for?’ It’s an entirely different way of framing the whole matter.
The Pharisees want a rule: is divorce right or wrong? Jesus, though, wants us to look at it from a distinctly different angle: when we get married, what are we hoping for; what is God’s role in it; where’s the grace? So he quotes from the first and second chapters of the Bible: “From the beginning of creation, God made them . . . ‘and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Mark 10:6, 8). There’s God’s dream. There’s the ideal: the two become one.
Not a rule, but a goal: that’s how Jesus reframes the issue for the Pharisees and then the disciples. It really should go without saying that we do indeed need rules. We need to stop at red lights and stop signs. We need not to be stealing or hurting each other. The Hebrew Bible has 613 laws in it, highlighted by the Ten Commandments. The Bible knows and respects laws.
It’s worth remembering, though, that all those laws begin and end in God’s loving home. The Ten Commandments, in Hebrew and Greek, are actually the Ten “Words.” Yes, we’re expected to honor our parents, and not kill or steal or covet what belongs to someone else—all rules, in a sense. These are part of the structure of a responsible life.
The foundation, though, isn’t those rules. The heart of the matter is the startling prologue to those Ten Words: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). The rules, or really the words, that follow are set in the context of unrelenting mercy. Those rules exist not primarily to wag a finger or to set down punishments. What we may think of as laws are, in truth, a way of life set up by God to frame how you and I might act out holy grace. Those laws, those rules, suggest some guidelines for how we might provide a human response to the affection God has shown to us.
So when we look again at the dispute Jesus has with the Pharisees about marriage and divorce, we acknowledge first that this is not an easy passage for many who are worshiping today. A number of you here, as well as many of our friends and family, have likely agonized about what may appear, at first glance, to be Jesus’ stringent prohibition of divorce. Maybe you have ached under the weight of your perception of these words. Or maybe you have just dismissed them as ridiculously pie-in-the-sky and out-of-touch with the reality of married life. Who could blame anyone for rejecting this story as appearing to set up an unattainable standard in a modern world in which human life is incalculably longer, in which human love is so endlessly fraught and complicated, and in which divorce is so prevalent?
What we see in today’s passage is that Jesus actually acknowledges that there will be divorces (10:10-12). At the same time, though, he says there’s something about marriage that is good and true and beautiful, and that’s worth hanging onto and fighting for. Because marriage is a reflection, and a living out, of God’s bottomless commitment to us, there’s something dear about marriage that invites our engagement and commitment. Not to obey rules, but to embody grace.
This is not at all to say that everyone should always stay married. In no way can the Bible be construed as insisting on marriage when there’s abuse or violence or unremitting disregard and cruelty. That’s not marriage. It is to say, though, that every marriage is going to have its share of challenges, that there may be extremely difficult things to work through, and that there may be trials that ask of us everything we have. And I suspect Jesus here is urging us to the kind of patience and forgiveness and mercy that may, over time, redeem those challenges—the same sort of patience and forgiveness and mercy that God showers upon us. And when we are able to do that, when the two are able to become one, there’s an unrivaled richness that can offer extraordinary blessings.
What Jesus is getting at here is that it’s always grace that’s at the root of God’s relationship with us, and that we can be part of embodying that grace in these lives of ours. A high divine bar may be set before us, one that may sometimes be impossible to meet. But nothing is asked of us that God does not also ask of the divine self. And bottom line: it’s inevitable that we are often going to fail; and at the same time, every failure of ours is ultimately forgiven by God.
It’s this forgiveness that may be difficult for all of us, and maybe especially for married or divorced couples, to accept. In this world so oriented to rules and consequences and punishment, it may be difficult to accept that, no matter what we have done, God’s love sets us free and invites us to begin again. In God’s world, there’s something beautiful and good about lifelong fidelity and partnership. And while we may have failed to live up to that ideal in our marriages, the goal continues to call us forward, and God again and again forgives us if we fail to achieve it. That’s just who God is.
It’s this grace that’s at the heart of every communion meal. You let your child down? You’re forgiven. You disappointed your parent? You’re forgiven. You neglected to do something crucial? You’re forgiven. You failed to live up to your marital covenant? You’re forgiven. No sin is too great, no failing too all-encompassing, no betrayal too vast that we can’t be enveloped in the forgiving arms of God. It’s this that God reminds us of when we share in the bread and the cup. No wrong-headed neighbor, no aggravating relative, no annoying person from a culture we may have dismissed is left out of the realm of God’s grace and favor. We’re all citizens of the dominion of God. And our role is to be ambassadors of Christ in conveying that all-embracing love to everyone. To everyone. To everyone.
Jesus reminds us today that that grace is vital in marriage. As Terry Pluto suggests in his Plain Dealer column today, we’re beckoned to look at each other and to listen to each other and to take an interest in what animates our partner (Oct. 3, p. B1, 3).
The grace Jesus calls to here is vital, not just in marriage, though, but in every facet of our lives. Our younger son Taylor told me the other day that he had been listening to a podcast of the leadership coach Simon Sinek. Sinek said that if you have an employee who is not meeting standards, you have several possibilities. In this performance- and metric-driven world of ours, you can blast them and demand that they improve: “Here are your performance goals. Now meet them.” If you want to get far better results, though, says Sinek, what if you went to them and said, “I’ve noticed that you’re not meeting the goals we had talked about.” Followed by this: “How are you doing? Is everything OK?” By phrasing it that way, you convey that you’re aware that they’re not performing as you, or maybe both of you, had hoped. But you also convey that you care about the person, and that you’re looking out for them. Paradoxically, that sort of approach is much more likely to produce the desired results because you’ve shown that you care. Both rules and grace.
Or this: when one of Mary’s and my two granddaughters acts out and screams or cries or insists on candy for dinner, our son Alex and his spouse Cynthia have learned to convey that, no, the candy will wait until later and, at the same time, to acknowledge the feelings that the child is exhibiting. When there’s an emotional outburst, one of Cynthia’s favorite phrases is “Big feelings.” It lets their daughters know that she has seen their upset, and honors it, while at the same time making it clear that there are guidelines for their behavior. The limits are set, but they are set with presence and love. Along with appropriate expectations, they’re saying to their daughters: we hear your big feelings; they’re normal; we get them. Both rules and grace.
And finally this: in our biblical story today, Jesus finishes his exchange with the disciples by welcoming children into his midst. The disciples have tried to keep the children away—because, unlike in our day, the children of Jesus’ time were thought of as non-entities. Jesus, though, knows that there is abundant grace and wonder in these children. And so he embraces them and blesses them.
This is the final answer to any who think that people have to earn their way by keeping the rules. When children—who were thought of as having little worth—are welcomed into Jesus’ presence, then we are reminded that grace has nothing, nada, nil to do with anything you and I do or make happen or achieve. God’s love is offered free of charge, and no one—not anyone—is excluded from it.
And sometimes we see that grace through children in particularly luminous ways. A few weeks ago, our son and daughter-in-law, Cynthia and Alex, moved to a new home in Bexley, a suburb of Columbus. As any of you who have moved know, moving takes every ounce of your energy, especially if you have a three- and a one-year-old. And Alex and Cynthia have been absolutely out straight, and completely exhausted. So a few days ago, the three-year-old, Allie walked up to her father and she said with great seriousness and earnestness: “Daddy, I need you to take a nap for me. Because you have been a very busy boy and I know you are tired. And when I take naps and Riley takes naps and you take naps, we all feel better.” And pointing her finger at him, she said, “So I need you to take a nap. Do you understand?”
A week or two before that, Alex and Cynthia received a note from Allie’s teacher. Allie had begun preschool that week, and the teacher had asked each student to bring in some photos that would let the class know something about them. Allie had just returned from Maine, where she had been a flower girl at my niece’s wedding. And she was showing the class pictures of the wedding and of her family. This is what the teacher’s note to Cynthia and Alex said: “Allie was just so sweet sharing with the class her wonderful pictures. She told us about each one. Here’s the cutest: the family picture. She told the class who everyone was and then said, ‘My daddy—he’s so handsome.’
“She was so sincere and sweet. Then all the other friends in the class agreed that their dads were handsome, too. I wish,” said the teacher that, “I had this on video, because it may have been the most adorable conversation ever.”
Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom and grace enough to slay us with its simple beauty. In our marriages, in our families, in our communities, in this world that is so indivisibly tied together, may we live out of that wisdom, bestowing on each other the love that never lets us go. For we have been adored. Not rules, rules, rules, but grace, grace, grace. And as we are blessed, we more and more become God’s agents of life-changing love.