Mark 10.2-16 ©Suzanne Grimmett
If fish were to tell the story of life they would find it impossible to describe outside the experience of water. If birds were to try to explain the world, they could not help but draw on the perspective from the skies. If an echidna were to ask the questions of meaning and purpose, they would be naturally earthy and grounded questions.
How we narrate our stories and frame our questions is determined by where we focus our attention and what we have known.
Jesus today is confronted by Pharisees who seek to test him. Thanks to this insider knowledge granted to us by the Gospel writer, we immediately know that this is no innocent question, but that there is a power game going on. We also see in this interchange, the vastly different understanding of Jesus and his interrogators.
Jesus’ teachings are concerned with community life, relationships of justice and covenantal love. This question about divorce comes from a vastly different paradigm of legal argument. Attention was given to developing applications of the law of Moses and in some schools there were detailed lists of reasons why a man could divorce his wife, which included such provocation as a spoiled meal or simply finding another woman more attractive. Small wonder Jesus rebukes them for hardness of heart, particularly when a woman in that culture would be left destitute without property, family or any way of living beyond begging or prostitution. It seems the religious leaders could assert the dynamics of power within the legalities of religious law but failed utterly to be able to imagine relationships in the just and peaceable kingdom Jesus is envisioning.
I wonder if we are doing any better at imagining, describing and aligning our lives with such a kingdom, or if we, too, are like the fish- unable to see beyond the water in which we swim? Some social dynamics- particularly those of power and domination- have become so much a part of our public narrative and media images that we don’t even notice they are being perpetuated. We all know what violence looks like, but can we describe love and choose to live it in all our relationships?
It is all too easy to hear Jesus words about marriage in strict legal terms as a contract that can never be broken regardless of the situation. But to read this passage in those terms is to miss what Jesus is saying in recalling his followers to the passage from Genesis that describes the intention not of a contract, but of something far deeper and wider and stronger- covenantal love. Jesus’ words bring the attention away from the lowest demands of the law to the higher ideal and intention of God’s dream for humankind. The creation narrative casts the vision of equality where men and women, both made in God’s image, enter into a common human life as companions. The kind of divorce criteria being described by the Pharisees makes a mockery of the committed covenantal relationship intended in marriage. It is a sign of a patriarchal culture that served the needs of men and discarded women legally on almost any account, with the bonus of religious blessing.
Too often in our time this higher calling of committed, covenanting love is missed and the church has held a rigid approach to divorce, thus keeping many silent on abuse, or, when they do decide to speak out, are told that God requires them to honour the sanctity of marriage. This is not an appropriate or valid interpretation of Jesus’ words. Aside from the differences down two millennia of the context of marriage, in the case of intimate partner abuse the sanctity and companionship of the marriage union has already been breached and betrayed. Too often the church’s counsel has been to preserve a marriage at all costs, when the healthy, loving and life-giving response to cruelty or even casual meanness is to put yourself out of harm’s way. This has made the church complicit in legitimating violence, particularly violence against women. It has silenced the vital conversations about what love really looks like, how we might discern divine intention for a companionate marriage and how we might offer nurturing support when the most Godly and loving decision is to separate.
Our culture and indeed our church so often misguidedly believe that love can be present where one group or individual dominates another. This comes down to a distorted image of the nature of God as the supreme being at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of dominion. It is as if the love of God is a kind of “add on softening agent” to the divine power which ultimately controls our lives. But Scripture never says “God is power”, but rather “God is love”. Love does not balance out the dominating power of God, but rather love is the power of God. In fact, in order to be capable of love, we must repudiate the will to dominate, and that means in all of our communities- from the home to the parish to the workplace. Being a Christian means allowing all of our ways of being together to be transformed by the kind of justice that honours the least amongst us.
For I do not believe this passage we read today is only relevant in the context of marriage. Notice how it is placed in the Gospel of Mark. First there is the argument of greatness between the disciples where Jesus brings a child to the centre of the circle and tells us that whoever would be first must be last and the servant of all. Then after his teaching on divorce, Jesus gathers and blesses the little children. Jesus is offering a counter-narrative to the dominant story of empire and hierarchical control and pointing us to the God of abundance who brings life and generativity through relationships of mutuality and service one to another.
So if we could lift our sights beyond our usual terrain, what is the new kingdom vision the Spirit is calling us to imagine for ourselves and our communities? I think the first is to recognise that at the heart of our faith is the promise of a God who has entered an unbreakable covenant with us- a covenant of love that is not dependent on anything we do or don’t do or made fragile by our failures. This is the love that is given to us freely, and in the grace of this gift is our freedom to choose a different and better way.
We know our relationships are fragile and vulnerable to wounding in our humanness. This should not lead us to despair or to believe any less in the beauty of committed relationships, whether in intimate partnerships or community. Jesus recalls us to the goodness of all the relationships for which we were created. In marriage it is a goodness that is never just for the couple alone but always opening out for the flourishing of others. This generativity may be seen most obviously when children are born, but there are many, many other ways that healthy couple relationships create life around them. Our privatisation of the family in the Western world has led to an unhealthy inward focus on marriage as if two people can be all things to one another, neglecting the power of that relationship of love when it is placed in the context of the wider community and extended family.
We all know people who have been harmed by divorce, or maybe we are divorced ourselves and have walked or are walking the road of healing and renewal. We probably know people who are in marriages which seem to cause only harm and distress to both parties. And hopefully we know marriages where through all the ups and downs, committed love has led to a generativity and fullness of life that is more than could have been ever possible were the couple apart.
In lifting his audience beyond a legalistic vision of human relationships, full of taboos and embedded in hierarchical patterns of control, Jesus is calling us to a higher ethic of love and the challenge to imagine something better. This something better is not just for couples but must be for everyone… or it is for no one. The creation story gives to us the dignity of being made in God’s own image, regardless of our gender or sexuality, and it is to this goodness of mutuality and loving solidarity with one another that we are called. Rather than the simplistic idea of rules and legal contracts, we are invited to discern what committed, steadfast love really looks like and live into it, telling a new story with our lives. We are called by the Spirit to take up the work of a love that is not subdued by narratives of dominance but embedded in justice, and this is a power capable of liberating us so we might all, with joy, know what it is to love and be loved.
 bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions, William Morrow, NY: 2001, 41