Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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Covenant Faithfulness

Mark 10:2-16

 Sometimes we lament the state of our world today and long for the good ol’ days.  But the good ol’ days weren’t necessarily as good as we might think they were.  Today, we lament that marriage has fallen on hard times in our society.  Divorce rates are high, some say as high as 50%, and more and more people are simply choosing to live as if they are married without ever making it official, often with the excuse that marriage is passé.  We might be tempted to look back at a strict, conservative culture, like first century Judea and Galilee and think that marriage was held in much higher esteem back then.  But it seems that it was not really so different.  

 The key verse in question here is Deuteronomy 24:1.  Moses said, “If a man marries a woman and then finds something shameful about her, he writes her a letter of divorce and sends her away.”  That text assumes divorce as a reality.  It doesn’t endorse it, but it does assume it.  And so the question became, “What was something shameful?”  What were the legitimate grounds for divorce?  

 In Jesus’ day, there were two schools of thought, each named after a prominent rabbi.  The first school of thought was that of Rabbi Shammai.  Shammai said that something shameful only referred to adultery.  A man could only divorce his wife if she committed adultery.  The second school was that of Rabbi Hillel.  Hillel said that something shameful was basically anything that the husband did not like.  If she burned his supper, if she talked too loudly, if she said something bad about his family, even if she just failed to be attractive enough, then he had grounds for divorce.  

 In that male-dominated culture, the school of Hillel won out.  And divorce rates were actually rather high.  A man could basically divorce his wife for any reason, and she was pretty much powerless.  There was a very short list of reasons for which a woman could go to court to seek a divorce.  So Jesus says that there was plenty of adultery in his day, but it was covered up under a disguise of “serial monogamy,” marrying and divorcing and remarrying over and over again.  Not so different from today.  

 “What do you think, Jesus?” the Pharisees asked him.  Given the intense debate on the subject, they may have really wanted to know what he thought.  But they also may have been trying to trap him.  John the Baptist lost his head over his criticism of Herod Antipas’ divorce and remarriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias.  So maybe it’s a set up.

 Jesus said, “Divorce is a concession to human hard-heartedness.”  It is never a good thing, always a tragedy.  In Malachi 2:16, God says, “I hate divorce.  It is as cruel as putting on the blood-stained coat of your victim.”  Now God does not say, “I hate divorced people.”  But God hates divorce.  God hates the human ruin and heartache of a broken marriage.  

 Divorce is a human undoing of God’s intention.  Jesus adopts the tactic of interpreting a difficult passage in the light of a clear passage.  In this case, the difficult text is Deuteronomy 24:1.  The clear passage is Genesis 1 and 2.  In the story of creation, God creates male and female both in his own image and intends for them to be joined together and become one.  The idea is that both male and female, in some way, reflect the image of God.  And the image of God, which is incomplete in male and female, becomes whole again in the unity of marriage.  So marriage is first and foremost a spiritual estate, not a legal institution.  It is rooted in God’s creative love, not our laws.  

 Obviously, in just the last year, marriage as a legal institution has been redefined in our society.  By the way, it was not redefined because the people wanted it redefined, or because our duly elected representatives redefined it, but rather it was redefined by five people in black robes.  That part bothers me a little bit.  

 One of the things that I heard over and over in this marriage debate is that “There is no such thing as a biblical definition of marriage.”  And usually what they mean by that is that you can find examples of polygyny, a man having more than one wife, in Scripture.  Yes, polygyny is seen in Scripture, at least in the Old Testament.  But it is not endorsed by God as good in Scripture.  The claim that “there is no biblical definition of marriage” is based on poor biblical interpretation.  There is a biblical definition.  It’s in Genesis, and it is reaffirmed by Jesus:  “A man leaves his parents and is joined to his wife and the two become one.”  

 Another lament that I’ve heard recently is that many Christians today have no concept of Christian sexual ethics because the Church doesn’t teach them anymore.  I don’t want that to be said about me.  Scripture does teach sexual ethics.  First and foremost that marriage is the place for human sexuality.  And by the definition of marriage, and by the teaching of Scripture, there are sexual activities that are called immoral in Scripture:  Adultery, prostitution, homosexual behavior, incest, rape, bestiality, and fornication, which was basically a catch-all word meaning any sexual activity outside of the covenant of marriage.  Now, I don’t want to give you my opinions

on sexual ethics.  I want to give you what God says in his word about them.  I’ve compiled a list of relevant texts on matters of marriage and sexuality.  It’s available for you to look at and investigate personally, if you so choose.

 Why does it matter?  I mean the attitude of our society today is basically that “Whatever happens between consenting adults is fine.”  Why should we have anything to say about sexual ethics?  Why should we care?

 Well, because human sexuality is created by God.  And God intended it for a certain purpose.  In 1st Corinthians 6, we find this:  “Our bodies were not meant for sexual immorality; they were made for the Lord.  Should a man take his body and join it to a prostitute?  Never.  Because if he does, he has become one body with her.”  

 We were made for covenant faithfulness, for faithfulness in all of our relationships.  And sexual intimacy is a picture of covenant faithfulness.  Marriage, more so than any other relationship, points to our relationship with God.  Scripture over and over uses marriage to talk about our relationship with God.  Likewise, divorce is used over and over as a picture of breaking faith with God.  In a few moments, we’re going to participate in the sacrament of communion.  Communion looks forward to the wedding feast of the Lamb, the day when our unity with Christ is made complete.  And the picture of that is marriage.

 How should we respond to divorce?  Or how should we respond to those who have experienced the brokenness of sexual immorality?  Well, first of all, we need to reinforce the goodness of marriage and support those who are striving for unity.  And when divorce does happen, which we all know is an inevitability because of our human hard-heartedness, we should not legitimize it.  We should not endorse it by saying, “Perhaps it’s for the best.”  Our role is that of healing.  We should try to help bind up the brokenness of the human condition in any form.  

 And we certainly should not stand in a position of condemnation.  We are all sinners, all broken people.  We all stand in need of the healing that can only come through the grace and forgiveness of God.  

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