By Paul Koch –
I recall many years ago I was doing a Sunday morning Bible study at my previous congregation in Georgia. We were working our way through St. Matthew’s Gospel that happened to be the text that corresponds to our reading today of Mark 10:2-16. So, we began by talking about the harsh realities of divorce. Divorce seems to be a plague of sorts in our land, it’s no longer rare or shocking. All of us have come in contact with the realities of divorce. Either you have been divorced or your parents have, or you know someone who has gone through the hurt and struggle of divorce. And it is easy if you haven’t been divorced to speak with a certain self-righteousness about the whole thing. Then again, it is also easy to justify divorce to the point that it can seem a noble or necessary thing. During that Bible study in Georgia, I was no doubt more on the self-righteous side of things when a member brought to my attention the simple fact that most of the people sitting there had been through divorce. In Bible Study on a Sunday morning a small southern town, those who had not been divorced were certainly the minority.
Divorce is so commonplace that asking the question of whether or not it is lawful seems to be a discussion that no one would dare to even have anymore. It is an out-of-date question, so why bother? Yet the question is an important one, just as important today as it was in our Lord’s day. See everyone knew that divorce was wrong. No one gets married expecting to be divorced. When a couple stands before each other, they publicly speak vows of honor and commitment and love, they do so with the intention that this is it. This is for life, until death do us part. When the Pharisees ask Jesus about the legality of divorce, they aren’t asking about whether divorce is good or not. They are really asking about how one understands and applies the law of God. Do you follow the commands of Moses who allowed for certificates of divorce, or not?
Now, Jesus doesn’t allow for any sort of shallow discussion on this matter. He speaks forcefully and unwavering on the issue. He starts out by saying the only reason Moses allowed for divorce is because of the hardness of men’s hearts. In other words, there is no righteousness in a divorce. Whether it is legal or not does not change that this whole matter falls in the realm of sin. There is not a righteous path of divorce. None of this was the plan of God. This is not the relationship he created for man and wife; what God has joined together let man not separate. And so, Jesus follows this through. Divorce doesn’t remove the marriage that was. If you divorce your wife and marry another, you commit adultery against her. Anything outside the institution and decree of the Creator is sinful.
Though you may comb through the law for the loophole that makes your desires legal, it doesn’t make them righteous. And here we see, perhaps a little more clearly, that in the end this isn’t really about divorce. It is about your desire to justify your own actions, to use the law as a means to make your own stand before God. This desire is found in the gossip you spread when you speak about your brothers and sisters in Christ behind their backs, or when you judge them and find them falling short. But you will say that it is only because you love them, right? You’re concerned about them, that’s why you gossip. Certainly, God wants you to be your brother’s keeper and all that, right? It is the righteous, faithful thing to do. Never mind that you might be destroying their character and tearing down rather than building up the body of Christ. No, you are justified in your sin by pitting one law against another. Or at least this is what you like to tell yourself.
You try to justify yourself through the law when your thoughts, words, and deeds are not things you are proud of. Perhaps you use the law as a distraction to place blame on others. Their actions caused your hurt feelings. They have sinned against you in some way and so you were righteous in your response. You use the law to highlight the sins of someone else, to shift the focus in hopes that God might judge on a sliding scale. At least you’re not as bad as those Pharisees, right? Or maybe you figure that you weren’t really hurting anyone else with your actions, so it’s alright. The law doesn’t speak to your situation. It doesn’t know all the details, and so you can just carry on as the righteous one. You will always try and justify your own sin and if you can find some basis for it in the law of God, why then, you are really doing well.
But all such thoughts are empty dreams. You will always lose in a game of self-righteousness through the law of God. If you cannot run from adultery through a legal claim of divorce, how can you run from pride and envy and gossip? Jesus isn’t arguing the law with these Pharisees. He’s using it to stop the argument, to hold them accountable, to declare them guilty. Guilty, just like you.
And then the text seems to take a sudden and surprising shift. From divorce to children. In fact, in the church this is the text that we use as part of our baptismal liturgy. When Jesus sees his disciples refusing the parents who are bringing their little children to him he says, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” It stands as a foundational text for why we baptize infants in the church; Christ commands his disciples to allow the children to come to him. And we wonder how this is connected to what we’ve just talked about. Perhaps it is a logical flow from the destruction caused by divorce to speak about children. But I think it is profoundly connected with the end of your ability to justify yourself.
See, when you cannot use the law a means to declare yourself righteous, when you try over and again and always come up empty handed, you are in a terrifying place. You are guilty before God of transgressing his pure and holy law. Because you are guilty you deserve his wrath and judgement. There is no longer anywhere else to turn. You are emptyhanded and exposed. You are like children who cannot care for themselves, who cannot provide or protect or defend themselves. Before the law of God, you are reduced to infants with nothing to offer, nothing to barter with. And looking at you, your Lord declares, “Let the little children come to me, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”
Those with nothing, those who confess their sins, they are the children who receive the kingdom of God. All of your tricks and schemes to make yourselves look better, all your desires to manipulate the law for your own benefit, all of it ends at the cross of Christ. There he dies for what you could not do. There his perfect love triumphs where your sin and shame have failed you.
All of this is given to you in the waters of holy baptism. His perfect love, his pure blood, his eternal righteousness, it is now yours. You have no need to justify yourself in the law for you are justified by faith alone through Christ alone! You died and rose with him in those waters and now live as a new creature. As St. Paul said, “It is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me.” This is who you are, you are bound with Christ and then set free to live a new life as a child of God. This is hope. This is your assurance. This is your eternal forgiveness. And what God has joined together let man not separate!