Proper 22B/Pentecost 19
Earlier in the gospel of Mark, Jesus has a very public falling out with his family. His brothers declare him insane and his family seeks to retrieve him so he won’t make a fool out of himself and the family anymore. In return, Jesus publicly disowns his family, a rejection that would have shocked the culture of his day.
And now, a few chapters later, Jesus seems to be speaking positively of keeping families together as part of God’s work. He forbids divorce, completely and with no exceptions, stunning his listeners and his disciples. Next he holds up dirty, discarded children as the emblem of discipleship, sternly chastising his followers for keeping their grubby hands at bay.
This dialogue of the family seems rather out of place, particularly as Jesus devotes so much of his teaching in the gospel of Mark to critiques of those in religious, political and economic power. Such an intimate, personal message about children and divorce – especially after fracturing his own family – seems out of place, even hypocritical. Jesus has spent the majority of his time in Mark’s gospel confronting systemic injustice and oppression. Isn’t this talk of marriage and kids a little off-topic?
Perhaps not. There is injustice and oppression everywhere, even in our homes. Sometimes especially in our homes. The personal is political, as the old axiom goes.
The family can become a microcosm, a twisted reflection, of the systems of oppression in our culture. Domestic violence against women and children – emotional or physical – is a ubiquitous example. Children – the little ones to which Jesus says come – are hit daily, not just in outbursts of abuse, but also to teach them ironically not to hit, all in the name of discipline. Spousal abuse spans all sections of American society and is jarringly common.
Violence, in our culture, seems to always be the answer, whether it is attempting to control a another country, a child or a spouse.
Sadly, Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Mark has been used in Christians churches against its original liberative intent. The reality of this teaching is that it is strikingly egalitarian and is intended to protect the most vulnerable from exploitation and injustice. It is a teaching intended to shield the least of these from the worst of society that allowed a woman to be discard for the slightest provocation.
Today, of course, Christian clergy have used this ban on divorce in quite the opposite fashion, to lock men, women and their children in abusive or unhealthy relationships in the name of a loving God. What began as a revolutionary teaching based in justice and equality has become a rule dogmatically rooted in oppression.
When Jesus teaches on marriage, he is actually confronting and challenging a patriarchal culture that considered women as second class at its best, less than human at its worst. In his time, women were little more than animated possessions that men could acquire through the legal contract of marriage. The teaching at the time varied, but a woman could be dismissed from her marriage for displeasing her husband. Some required marital infidelity. But whatever the case, a woman was completely powerless in the situation. Women were always the victims of divorce. A woman had no right to seek a divorce.
This powerlessness is the injustice Jesus addresses in his teaching on divorce.
Jesus upends the law and culture, by elevating women to equal partners when he suggests that a woman could actually divorce her husband. To a man, this notion would have been patently offensive. A woman could divorce a man? Such a teaching would break the law!
In this light, Jesus actually undermines the first-century marital institution. Indeed, one could easily imagine his critics rallying around the need to defend traditional marriage against Jesus’ attacks on it. That, of course, is the common response we see when oppressive traditions are confronted, and we see it today in the responses to the movement for marriage equality.
In reality, Jesus was protecting the most vulnerable in society who were caught in a legal contract in which they had no rights. It is not hard to imagine the fates of a first-century women after divorce. Had a woman found herself divorced, her economic options would evaporate. Divorce, largely, meant destitution for a woman. So when Jesus tells men that they should not separate from their wives, on a deeper, more foundational level, he is protecting women from an unjust fate that is beyond their control.
Christian churches who emphasize the sinfulness of divorce based on this text miss the heart of Jesus’ teaching. The ethical force behind the teaching isn’t that divorce is wrong, but that treating women as unequal to men, as possessions, is blasphemous as both were made in the image of God.
America is still a land of patriarchy. Though there are deep fractures in the glass ceiling, it is more difficult to be a woman than it is to be a man in this country in almost every way. To deny it is to be complicit in it. Women of equal skill and education command less compensation on the job. Women still do the majority of household tasks, even if they work, even if they are the primary wage earners. Women are still viewed through sexist lenses
And, it is still the wife who is typically affected disproportionately by divorce, particularly when children are involved. The husband becomes a single man. The wife becomes a single mom. It is still women and their children who suffer the most from domestic abuse or who become trapped in marriages through a husband’s economic control.
Jesus stood for equality and taught on marriage in ways that protected the powerless and abused person in a troubled relationship.
I believe Jesus stands there still.
I just hope the church does too.