Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Mark 10:2-16
19 Pentecost (Proper 22), Year B
“Wag more, bark less”
I saw a fabulous bumper sticker recently—maybe you’ve seen this one, also. The sticker was in the shape of a paw and said, “Wag more, bark less.”
“Wag more, bark less.”
This bumper sticker was spot on because our pets teach us about, show us, unconditional love. And today, as we follow the example of St. Francis of Assisi, today is the day that we honor and bless our pets for the joy they bring to our lives.
I have to tell you, though, that as a preacher, this day is a great challenge to me. Our lessons are all focused on Jesus’ teaching about divorce, which is something completely other than the unconditional love our pets model for us.
But I’m not one to duck a challenge. So let’s talk about divorce. The gospel message today seems very clear: if you divorce and remarry you commit adultery. It is certainly good that no one here is divorced or, for that matter, divorced and remarried.
All of the commentaries on Mark’s gospel explain that there was a rabbinical argument going on in Jesus’ time about how strictly to interpret the Mosaic Law about marriage and divorce. Both interpretations were based on Deuteronomy 24, which allowed a Jewish man to divorce his wife and put her out of his house. The permissive interpretation was that a man could divorce his wife if there was anything objectionable about her behavior. The stricter opinion was that the man could only divorce his wife if she had committed adultery.
Mark tells us that, when the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they were “testing him.” Even in our time we know that no good lawyer—such as the Pharisees—no good lawyer would ever ask a question to which he didn’t know the answer. So we can presume that the Pharisees already knew Jesus’ opinion on this subject, already knew that Jesus was more conservative than the most-strict rabbinical opinion. Therefore we can envision how the Pharisees had hoped to get Jesus “on record,” so to speak, against divorce so that public opinion might turn against him.
Jesus’ answer was that Moses wrote the divorce law because of humankind’s hardness of heart. He said that the Mosaic Law which allowed divorce is necessary because we have not learned from God or each other. Our hard hearts close us off from one another and we separate ourselves. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus calls us to a different reality: reconciliation through unconditional love and the goodness of God in creation.
We will pick up in a minute on the goodness of God in creation that Jesus is calling us to live. For the moment, though, I want to pause here long enough to see exactly what Jesus did with his answer. Jesus revealed that what is written in scripture is not a “closed book,” so to speak. That there are judgements and accommodations made by God underlying what is in scripture. These judgements are about human ability to live up to the ideal. And there are accommodations made by God written into the rules. Jesus showed us right here that scripture is never the end of God’s revelation. God is always free, being God, to reveal more. Jesus reset the bar about scripture, and in the process made Pharisaical lawyers obsolete.
On the subject of divorce and remarriage, though, Jesus’ answer is very strict: “If you abandon your wife and marry another you are committing adultery.”
This was radical thought. When Jesus said those words, committing adultery against a woman was a legal impossibility. Women were possessions, first of their fathers and then of their husbands. Jesus’ answer diverged from the prevailing Jewish culture by not buying into the idea of women as men’s property. Jesus understood women as fully human, created in God’s image, with their own integrity, value, and personhood. We intuit therefore that Jesus’ view on the inviolability of marriage had as much to do with his respecting women as with God’s moral imperative.
The image of God as compassionate and gracious moves us away from a life of scriptural laws to a life where we continually seek and live God’s Spirit. In this context, marriage becomes, as one of my colleagues who often led Marriage Encounter weekends so eloquently described it, “the place where two people work out together their relationship with God. This is where we risk being loved and loving another. This is where we share the scary secrets that keep us from being all that God would have us be. This is where our wounds are healed and our joys are exalted. Loving your spouse is like loving God because, like God, your spouse knows you better than any other. Loving your spouse is like loving God because, like God, one’s spouse loves at a depth beyond position or status. Like God, a spouse loves you simply because you are.”
Even today, couples do not always achieve this purpose of marriage. When the relationship deteriorates to the point of mental, emotional, or physical harm, we allow people to get divorced, and even to remarry, believing that the God of love always lets us amend our ways, seek and obtain forgiveness, and begin anew.
Not everyone, though, is blessed with such a marriage. And here is where pets come in. I do not want to suggest that our relationship with our pets is like marriage. However, I do want to say that the goodness of God in creation, as shown by the unconditional love our pets give us, teaches us how to share our own love unconditionally.
So today, rather than upbraiding those among us who are divorced, or who are perhaps divorced and remarried, I commend God’s mercy to you and all the examples of love that God gives us by which we are stretched and grow in the knowledge and love of God.
And remember, “Wag more, bark less.”