In our relationships, God can make us whole
Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, October 3, 2021
Proper 22, year B, Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Mark 10:2-16
Job 1:1; 2:1-10: There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”
So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
Mark 10:2-16: Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
I’m just returning from some time away, from some church conferences that I went to, as well as some vacation time—time with friends and time with my wife. And on my return, my first task is to preach today, and the opening passage is the beginning of the book of Job. God has a sense of humor, I think. What a challenge to preach on Job’s suffering! Here, Job has lost everything, except, perhaps for his wife, who shows up to criticize Job for his claims of integrity before God. This is suffering indeed.
Those who designed the lectionary (the schedule of readings for Sunday services) also have a sense of humor, for they have paired this scene in Job with Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce! We don’t know what Job thought about marriage and divorce, but it seems Job did not leave his wife, nor did he break off friendship with his friends who also came to challenge him in his suffering. We know something about the suffering of our lives and our relationships, and we also know that God has called us together. And in these relationships, God can make us whole again.
Let’s look at this passage in Mark and consider it alongside of the parallel passage in Matthew, and other teachings about marriage in the Bible and in the church. There is a lot that we can learn about Christian marriage, and about Christian friendships. Indeed, this topic is too big for a short sermon (!), but I want to at least open up a vision for God’s grace in and through these relationships.
In this Gospel reading, Pharisees come to Jesus to test him. There were different schools of thought in first century Judaism about marriage and divorce. One school of thought said that the Old Testament allowance for divorce made it a simple matter: a man could divorce his wife for nearly any reason at all. Of course, women didn’t quite have the same recourse. And in fact, a divorced woman in that culture had an enormously difficult time providing for herself. A casual divorce for a man was a sentence of poverty for his wife. So, another school of thought restricted divorce for more serious cases, especially for adultery. Where would Jesus land in this controversy of the day?
Jesus answers this question about divorce by giving an answer about marriage. He starts (in Matthew 19) by implying that the passage in the Old Testament about divorce is an allowance, not a command, and that it was because of the hardness of human hearts that this allowance was given. “But it was not so from the beginning,” Jesus says.
Jesus goes on to point to the positive vision for marriage and what God intends for us. Jesus roots his vision for marriage in the very created order of how God made us male and female. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no [human] separate.” Jesus gives this vision for what God intends for marriage, and Jesus says that marriage is not simply a contract between people, but rather, marriage is a union that God accomplishes in us. This is not what humans have joined together, this is what God has joined together, rooted in how God created us.
The Book of Common Prayer describes marriage this way: “The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.”
God created us, and God calls us together by his grace.
Of course, all this has implications on the question of divorce. In this passage, Jesus compares remarriage after divorce to adultery. This is a much higher standard than the rabbis of his day. Matthew’s account of this scene expands on Mark’s brief account. In Matthew, Jesus allows for remarriage in the case of adultery. Even then, Jesus’ disciples question him further on this issue. Matthew remembers their concern and desperation: “if this is how it is, perhaps it is better not to be married at all,” they say. Jesus responds by saying that not all can receive this teaching. Jesus goes on to comment on the celibate life, a life that also not all can receive. Paul, in First Corinthians, notes other exceptions for divorce. The church from its early days also provided some allowance for divorce. Even the Roman Catholic Church, staunchly against divorce, still allows divorce by another name in certain circumstances, only they call it annulment.
A clergy friend of mine says that the church has generally recognized allowance for divorce and remarriage in what he calls the “three A’s: Adultery, Abuse and Abandonment.” I would include a modern addition for serious cases of a fourth A: Addiction. Of course, we have seen healing and reconciliation even in these cases. But especially in cases of abuse, divorce may be an important way to set clear and just boundaries to protect victims in a dangerous situation.
Christianity generally recognizes some exceptions where divorce may be appropriate. But always Christianity has seen divorce as a tragic and painful loss. Western culture seems to celebrate how disposable people and relationships are in service of the self and its whims. But, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis a bit, Christianity has always regarded divorce not like changing a pair of pants, but like cutting off one’s leg. There are unique cases of gangrene in which such a traumatic surgery might be warranted, but in general it is far better to seek healing and renewal by other means. This is the church’s response to Jesus’ positive vision for marriage. God calls us together—God calls us broken people together so that in him we might be made whole.
We are like the disciples—we know that this is not easy. Marriage and any human relationship is not easy. Yet, God calls us together to bless us. God even uses marriage as a symbol of his relationship with us. Paul writes “husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her.” God’s grace in marriage and human relationships is a great mystery. And yet, in that mystery, we encounter the healing grace of God. Jesus’ vision is not for a couple to be stuck in an unhealthy relationship, but for couples to be healed and restored by God’s grace as they seek that wholeness in Christ.
So, what practical helps are there for those who struggle? First, we are not meant to struggle alone. In the marriage liturgy, the community makes promises of support as well. So we have the support of clergy and counselors and friends who can advise and encourage us and speak the truth in love to us. Note that the struggles of marriage are generally the same struggles we have in any relationship. We have simply become more accustomed to walking away from friendships rather than doing the hard work of reconciliation. What if we sought God’s life-changing healing in all our relationships? Imagine the power of that transformation!
This is a message of hope for those who are not married as well as for married couples. I went to two conferences in Dallas the week before last. I left feeling so encouraged and energized for the life of the church. One of the talks I heard was from a theologian named Victor Lee Austin. Austin suggested that we think of the church as school of friendship.1 He used friendship as a concrete instance of God’s calls to us to be in right relationship with him and with each other in Christ. Austin noted that not all people are called to be married. And he noted that all of us, for long stretches of our lives, are single. However, all of us are called to friendship, for nearly all of our lives. Furthermore, the exclusivity of marriage is balanced by the expansiveness of Christian friendship, and marriage relies on the support of Christian friends to thrive.
Both marriage and friendship have their boundaries. We have boundaries of different kinds of intimacy; we have expectations of different kinds of fidelity. We have expectations of honesty and compassion. We have expectations of ourselves and each other to confess and repent and forgive and to reconcile. Both marriage and friendship benefit from the advice and council of others, bringing accountability, mediation, understanding and support for the hard work of reconciliation. Friendship—and marriage as a unique and particular calling—are opportunities for God’s reconciling grace to do his life-changing work in us. God joins us together not just at an initial ceremony; God also joins us together in the crucible of living out our human relationships day by day. God joins us together through all that messy work as well.
In Christian friendships and in Christian marriage, we can learn the power of God’s grace. We can practice the vulnerability to love and be loved, we can learn reconciliation and share that life-giving gift in all our relationships. God calls us broken people together to make us whole in Christ. This is the gift and promise of marriage and friendship. In our humanity, we are broken and limited. But by God’s grace, we are not alone, and by God’s grace we can find healing and restoration.
There is an old interview on YouTube: a TV personality interviewed a Greek Orthodox bishop on the topic of suffering.2 The bishop spoke about the Christian life of sacrificial giving and God’s grace overcoming our suffering. The interviewer asked the bishop at one point: “Does God want us to suffer?” The bishop answered “God wants us to love.” And in this broken world, “suffering is inherent to love.”
Not only that, the message of Jesus Christ is that by God’s love of us that endured the suffering of the cross, we have life and new life to its fullest! By sharing in God’s self-giving love, we share in God’s live-giving love. God calls us together to make us whole. In the living out of these relationships, with all their challenges and hardships, with all their insights and all their joys, we can open up opportunities for God’s grace and healing. God’s grace and healing is for us, for those we love, and for our relationships with each other.
Jesus’ vision for us is like God’s vision for Job at the end of Job’s story. Job stands by his integrity, and even though God ultimately calls Job to humility, God also restores Job’s health and fortune and family—a blessing not only for Job but for Job’s wife and friends as well.
God bless you in all your relationships. Seek God’s restoration. Reach out for help to support you where the challenge is hard. Encourage others in their relationships. In this process, you will find God hard at work, bringing you God’s blessing, God’s healing, God’s peace and God’s joy.