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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 10/07/2012

Today’s gospel is another example of what I talked about last week.  If you were here last week, remember the target?  What I talked about was picturing the Bible as a target and how the theme of hope out of hopelessness, God’s ability to do something new when it doesn’t seem possible, is the center of the target, the bulls eye, or another word we use to talk about this bulls eye is “grace;” especially in Lutheran circles we talk about grace. 

From the Old Testament I mentioned how stories like Abraham and Sarah having a child when it didn’t seem possible and Moses leading the people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land were examples of this grace, this hope out of hopelessness.  In the New Testament, Jesus’ birth as well as some of the things he did like healing people and feeding large numbers of people with small amounts of food are also examples of hope out of hopelessness, and of course for us as Christians, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the ultimate example of this.  Hope out of hopelessness is our center, our bulls eye as we think about the Bible.

But then there are those other rings of the target that take you further and further from the center.  As you read the Bible there are parts that don’t appear to have much to do with the theme of grace or hope out of hopelessness in fact some parts can stray pretty far from it.  Because of that, as we approach the Bible, we give those parts less weight.  The story of Esther that we talked about last week is an example of this, a lot of the legal stuff in books like Leviticus and Numbers are also examples of things that don’t hit the bulls eye but instead wind up in an outer ring. 

We don’t ignore those stories and those parts of the Bible; they’re still there, they have their place, but the further they seem to be from the central message, the less weight they have.  In some cases you can go so far as to ask, “Why are those parts even included, why do we bother with them at all?” and that can be a difficult question to answer other than to say that some of the things that seem to be on the fringe call us to think and ask questions, sometimes they challenge our assumptions not allowing us to get too comfortable.  Ecclesiastes is a good example of that with it’s basic message that life is pretty much meaningless.  That doesn’t fit very well with what you find in most of the rest of the Bible, but it does make you think. 

The bottom line though is that the Bible is a collection of voices that talk about God and different experiences of God, some of them are voices we might wish weren’t there, but part of faith is the challenge of sorting it all out.  It’s kind of like in a courtroom where you have a variety of witnesses making testimony and what the judge and jury have to do is determine which witnesses and which testimony comes closest to the truth.  All the testimony may have value, but it doesn’t all have the same value.  That’s true of the testimony that makes up the Bible too; some parts have more value than others.

So the bulls eye analogy can be useful in trying to understand which parts of the Bible are the most important, but there’s also another way it can be used.  The bulls eye of grace or hope out of hopelessness can also be useful in figuring out how to best interpret difficult texts, difficult texts like today’s gospel.  We can’t place the gospels in one of those outer rings of the target; we can’t put them out there with Leviticus and Esther and Ecclesiastes.  As confessions of faith in Jesus and as stories and sayings about him, the gospels are pretty central especially as the most prominent part of all of them is the Passion account which, as I said, is our ultimate story of hope out of hopelessness.  But within each of the gospels there are parts or verses that we struggle with and today’s verses about divorce fit that category.

In Mark there are a series of instances in which the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus, trying to get him to say something that they can use against him and this question about divorce is one of those instances.  Divorce was a pretty simple matter in those days…for a man.  If his wife displeased him for any reason a man could announce that they were divorced and send her packing.  In that culture this would make the woman extremely vulnerable.  Women were second class citizens anyways but divorce would leave a woman not only without status but in many cases with no means of support.

In his response to the Pharisees, it would seem that Jesus was reacting against this treatment of women, this treatment of them as property easily disposed of.  He highlights the sanctity of marriage with the quote from Genesis and then, with that as the context, the line about “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery” further emphasizes the fact that marriage ought not be taken lightly.  I think that’s what Jesus meant with that line.  It was meant to nail the Pharisees for not recognizing God’s intentions concerning marriage and also for their lack of compassion towards women affected by divorce.  Unfortunately though, it’s a line that has caused a guilt trip to be laid on many people, women and men, who have experienced divorce which is bad enough, but in addition to that it’s a verse that has caused some to remain in marriages that should end because they aren’t good for anyone.

An interpretation of what Jesus said that does nothing but leave people convicted of adultery, shunned by society and shunned by the church, is pretty far from the bulls eye of grace and hope out of hopelessness.  Because of that, such an interpretation should be questioned.  It’s not that there aren’t parts of the Bible that remind us of sin; there are and we need those reminders and that may be part of what is going on with this verse.  But the interpretation can’t end there.  There has to be room for grace and I fear that this verse has sometimes been interpreted so literally that it hasn’t left such room. 

In some ways divorce in our time isn’t all that different from what it was in Jesus’ time; it’s easily attainable and it’s accepted as just being part of the way things are.  I think it would be hard to find any family that hasn’t been impacted in some way by divorce.  On one level then, Jesus’ words to the Pharisees can still apply when the ease of divorce causes people not to take marriage seriously or to end it for frivolous reasons, just for convenience.  On the other hand, I know people and you know people for whom a second marriage or even a third marriage represents the greatest example of hope out of hopelessness that they will ever know.  Such people experience happiness and fulfillment that they wouldn’t have thought was possible.  Maybe you are one of those people and if you’re not you know someone who is.

Any interpretation of these verses has to leave room for that.  I don’t think Jesus intent was to label such people as adulterers and just leave it there.  In a faith that is about hope out of hopelessness and new life and possibilities out of brokenness just calling people adulterers moves things pretty far from the bulls eye.  Such interpretations have to be questioned and brought to line up more closely with the life and message of Jesus.

We live in a broken world.  People make mistakes and sometimes marriage is one of those mistakes.  Mistakes have consequences and that is certainly true of a failed marriage.  Even when divorce is the right thing to do I don’t think it’s ever anyone’s idea of a good time; there are consequences, there’s pain and there’s hurt.  But in Christ, while there are consequences, there is always hope.  Sin and brokenness don’t have the last word.  Guilt doesn’t have the last word.

This gospel lesson today is a good reminder that texts do have to be interpreted.  The testimony of the witnesses does have to be weighed.  It’s also a reminder that there is more than one possible interpretation.  So it’s never an easy process, but I think the bulls eye helps.  Especially with the words of Jesus, if an interpretation strays too far from grace and hope out of hopelessness particularly hope out of hopelessness for the most vulnerable, then I don’t think it’s what Jesus intended.  We proclaim hope because Jesus not only proclaimed hope, he was hope and he is our most reliable witness.                

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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