WHOLEHEARTED // Sara Wolbrecht // Oct. 4, 2015 // Mark 10:1-16
Friends, by any chance, do you know anyone who has been divorced? Anyone know anybody? And the answer is: yes! Of course we do.
For the next few weeks, as we continue our way through Mark’s gospel, Jesus will lead us into some personal, real, up in our grill kinds of issues. Divorce, money. Hot button stuff, that, especially if we were to pull these verses out of context, they are words that are so often heard as harsh, judgmental words. Which means – this is going to be an awesome few weeks as we dive into this stuff, because this stuff that was raising questions 2000 years ago, is the stuff we still ask about today. So this is going to be good.
If you were here last week, Pastor Katy McCallum-Sachse was with us, with a powerful look at one of these hot topics (literally): hell (a part of Mark’s gospel I was glad to not preach). And today’s text picks up right from there. And as we hear these words, we remember together what is always true about reading the Bible, there is always – as the Transformers remind us: more than meets the eye. That’s the powerful reality about Scripture – so many layers of meaning. Remember that as we read today about divorce, then as we look at the context, I promise you this will very quickly take us to beautiful places about the character of God and the kind of life Jesus makes possible for us. And this will be good whether we’re married or not. Ok? Are you open to that?
Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
“What did Moses command you?” he replied.
They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away."
“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
Ok. So – yes, Jesus’ words about divorce at first listen sound harsh and unbending – we’re going, but Jesus, marriage is hard and we and people we know get divorced, and is there no grace in that? That’s how it feels at first when we take it out of context. But there are a few key pieces of language and context going on here – and in many ways this isn’t just a conversation about divorce. I’m going to invite you to geek out with me a little bit about geography and noticing key words – are you up for some that? Ok. Engage your brain as we unpack some details of what’s happening here, then we’ll put it all together to make some conclusions about what Jesus is actually saying, and how this informs our lives in some beautiful, powerful ways.
Let’s see what’s happening here… First, there is a key word here in what the Pharisees are trying to do. Remember, the Pharisees are stern, self-appointed religious lawyers who take it upon themselves to make the rules, follow the rule, enforce the rules. Always looking for ways to box people in and keep people out. Who is in? Who is out? Right? Wrong? Always drawing lines to divide people …We stop and ask: what is it they are trying to do? (as they approach Jesus because they always have an agenda). It says: Some Pharisees came and tested Jesus by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” What were the Pharisees doing? Testing Jesus. This is not just friendly Pharisaical banter. It is a test.
Because: where they are standing, the region of Judea, across the Jordan. Jesus has been by the Jordan River before. This is where John the Baptist had been baptizing. This is also where John denounced Herod Antipas AN-tih-puhs for divorcing his wife and then marrying his brother’s wife. This is where John was then arrested and eventually beheaded for treason, because of his criticism of Herod’s divorce.
And so when this group of Pharisees ask this question about divorce in this place – it is a test. To ask this question, was to invite Jesus to incriminate himself, to say something that might lead Herod to behead Jesus, too. This question about divorce is powerfully loaded.
And so Jesus, is going to respond in a way mindful of all these dynamics – to these Pharisees, asking THIS loaded question about divorce, right? Jesus says, well, Pharisees, since you love rules so much…Let’s talk about the rules… He says: “Well, what did Moses command you?”
The Pharisees name how Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce (we read it in Deut 24). Then Jesus says this key response: “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Mark 10:5.
Because your hearts were hard. Hold on to that, we’ll come back to that juicy detail in a moment, so put that in your back pocket. Jesus names this hard-heartedness and then goes back to reference Genesis 1-2, to how God designed life to be lived in faithful, devoted, unending partnership one person with another, in such a way that they become one flesh, like a whole new person or entity. This beautiful vision of marriage. …Jesus says this, then… Jesus and his disciples leave. And then away from the crowd, the disciples ask more about divorce, and Jesus gives us this final one-two punch to say that anyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery against them.
…As we hear these words from Jesus, let’s zoom up to the 30,000 foot view of Mark’s gospel and consider: What has Jesus been doing in Mark’s gospel? What’s his mission? All of what he’s doing is framed by his first words on the scene in Mark 1: The Kingdom of God has come near, he says. Jesus has been healing bodies, helping people to walk, see, speak, feeding the hungry, reaching out to children, to lepers, to the odd and the outcast, overriding the “religious rules,” raising the dead, gathering the outsiders around tables for food and dignity and to experience what God is like – and showing us what the Kingdom of God is like. Jesus lives, breathes, demonstrates the Kingdom of God. That’s his mission. And so here, in this passage, he is again using words to paint a picture of what the kingdom of God is like. And yes, for Jesus, he gets into the specific topic that the Pharisees have brought up. So, yes, the kingdom of God is a place where marriages don’t end, where two people become one, and to consider anything less than that – man, that’s like adultery. …This is a vision of the Kingdom of God.
And yet, this vision is no doubt as much of a challenge today as it was to Jesus’ first hearers. The final key for understanding what to do with this big, seemingly unbending and near-impossible vision, is in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees when they ask why, if God intended lifelong marriage, why Moses gave permission for divorce. “It was because of your hard hearts,” replies Jesus. Now is the moment to take back out of your pocket that phrase hard hearted - this is the final key to this passage.
Do you remember, we have already heard about hard-heartedness in Mark’s gospel? When the disciples, in Mark 6, watched as Jesus fed 10,000 people (amazing!), then they witnessed Jesus walking on the water, and they still asked, “Who is this?” because they still were not getting it, they couldn’t take the vulnerable risk of admitting Jesus was the Messiah – and Mark explains it is because their hearts were hard. Do you remember this?
The Pharisees come looking for the rules to follow, and Jesus won’t play their games. But Jesus says: you guys, the rules don’t matter – you can follow every one of the rules and make up more, but if your heart is hard, nothing is going to change. And the Kingdom of God – including this vision of unbreakable marriage – will continue to be far-off and out of reach if you keep it only about doing the right things and following the rules. And we’ve seen this theme surface numerous times in Mark’s gospel. It is a theme that echoes throughout the Old Testament, too. Like the familiar words of Ezekiel 36:26, God says - “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Jesus is tapping into one of the great long-anticipated promises of Israel. That when the Messiah comes, when God comes to earth to be with and save God’s people, that it will look and feel a certain way. And one of those major themes is the promise that when God becomes king, hearts will be transformed. I will give you a heart of flesh. The real deal. A whole heart made of the real stuff.
By dropping this reference into his conversation with the Pharisees – while also pointing to God’s vision of what it is like in God’s Kingdom – Jesus is saying the big deal thing that: this is happening now. And yes, there is a beautiful vision of what the Kingdom of God looks like, but no rule following will ever get you there. Jesus sneaks in this commentary to communicate that God is breaking into this world, and what draws someone into this vision becoming a reality is their willingness to let God break open their heart.
So, friends, after hearing all of this, how does God speak through this to us, together, today?
Well, this has something to do with our hearts, too. As you know, we live on the other side of this conversation Jesus had with the Pharisees, and even on the other side of the cross and empty tomb. So we know that what Jesus has described, this transformation of hearts is happening! But notice my choice of words – it is happening, it has not completely happened. It began in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, that God is breaking into our world and into our hearts if we let him. But that process is not complete. We believe the kingdom of God is here, but not yet fully here. Right? It is now, and it is not yet, this tension we live in. This beautiful, mysterious gray area, where the kingdom of God surprises us. That means we live every day in-between this place of hard-heartedness and – what I like to call – wholeheartedness. That heart of soft, squishy vulnerable flesh that Ezekiel spoke of. We are always somewhere in the middle of those two places.
And Jesus is saying here again that God is not interested in us following the rules, but God is absolutely passionate about the state of our hearts. Jesus’ wild invitation is for us to let the Spirit of God draw us into the life of Jesus, where yes, our hearts can be transformed. Which is a life-long, gradual, we’re always a work in progress, process.
And I don’t about you, but I sure know what it is like to be and feel hard hearted. All the ways that we put up walls between ourselves and the radical love and presence of God, and the radical love and presence of others. Moments when the defenses are up. When we are unbending, unforgiving, causing harm to ourselves, to others. When we are hurting. When we are stuck in cycles of depression, addiction, self-criticism, anxiety, fear. And the stone goes up around us. And how easy it is at those times to be like the Pharisees, to look to the rules to pull us out. To see how hard we can work, how liked we can be, how we can draw lines that make us right and others wrong. We give the Pharisees a hard time, but I also am well aware of my inner Pharisee.
Because having a heart of stone – man, in many ways – that’s easy. Just put on a show, put up the walls, you don’t have to risk anything. Because when it comes to living the wholehearted, heart of flesh reality that Jesus invites us into, man, look out. That is risky business. You’ll have to face your fears, you’ll have to be the real you, you’ll have to accept that you are the beloved of God, that God delights in you just as you are. And that is risky. And we’ve named it before, how the real risk of stepping into the life of Jesus, is that we have to be vulnerable. We have to be the real, broken yet gifted, imperfect yet lovely, messy yet authentic selves we really are. And it is only through the risk of being vulnerable.
But if we don’t? If we keep the walls up, holding fast to hard heartedness, really, though it seems safer, it is but a shadow of what life could be. That’s what’s behind this commentary on marriage and divorce – oh, the difference when two people are willing to do the work to become wholehearted. Jesus is not speaking a condemning word about those who divorce, but speaking a life-giving invitation for all people to live wholeheartedly, risky, vulnerably in the life of Jesus. And oh, the difference in us and our relationships when we open ourselves to that wholehearted life.
The entire bible paints this picture of what that wholehearted life is like, and how we live into it – we’ve seen much of it in Mark’s gospel. And even the end of this passage today, I think Jesus points us towards it. As children come to see him – children, who in that culture are some of the most vulnerable of society – they have no rights of their own, they are weak, they are seen as property of their parents. And Jesus says – here’s the key: be like these ones. That yes, somehow in the seeking of Jesus with the wholeheartedness, the vulnerability of a Child, that there, there, we are enfolded, we are blessed, in the life of God.
My friends, how is your heart? As you look back on your week, I don’t want you to make a list of things you have or have not done. But I invite you to close your eyes, and to prayerfully ask this question: Is there a place in your life where you have a heart of stone, the walls are up, you’re in self-protection mode, or self-righteous mode? And is God inviting you to let down the walls, maybe that means being the first to apologize, to make the phone call to get counseling, to ask for the mentoring you need, to let down your walls in response to the on-going racism, and violence, and oppression we see in our world? To let go of the grudge you’re holding on to, because forgiving them and letting it go, will actually free you? Maybe it is in your marriage or another relationship, that you realize your heart is hard, and it’s time to sort out why. Where is God inviting you to receive a new heart, a fresh perspective, a child-like curiosity in facing something?
I invite you to sit in this question, as I pray for us.