Pay Attention to Context

Session Date: 
Sunday, October 7, 2018
Bible Text: 
Mark 10:2-16


World Communion 2018

I think a lot of confusion could be avoided by paying attention to the context of our theological and ethical statements. For example, since the 70’s many Christians are filling themselves with anxiety about the imminent return of Jesus. They’re reading books and watching movies with frightening scenarios about the end of history and the great judgment of God on everyone. The producers of all this scary material are getting rich playing on the misplaced fears of their uncritical New Testament readers.

It is distressing that these books and movies take bits of scripture and turn them into bizarre plots. In addition, those caught up in these fantasies are distracted from any serious discipleship in the world.

In the first chapter of Acts, the disciples of Jesus are left looking upward after their Lord ascended to his heavenly destiny. The text suggests God was upset when they stood with their necks bending skyward, searching for Jesus. Two angels appear: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

Then and now, God is not pleased when our focus is on a heavenly escape from the pains of the responsibilities of this world. Getting scared silly over a future godly intervention into human history comfortably avoids the claim of Jesus to devote ourselves to caring for human need in the here and now, especially the least and the lost.

If we take the New Testament statements about the near end of the world into context, we find that such notions were common in the biblical world. Quite likely, some of these notions were voiced by Jesus. Later, Paul wrote about his expectations of the imminent return of Jesus to inaugurate the day of judgment. However, these ideas soon moved from a living hope for early Christians, to become an embarrassment and a faith crisis.

Jesus didn’t return, so his followers decided to prepare for the long run. That’s an indication that the context of life always has a way of qualifying and nuancing our theology. Today, these early Christian hopes have been translated into a conviction that what God began in Jesus ultimately will be completed in him. Those who are caught up in this “left behind” frenzy would improve their mental health if they would consider the context in their handling of the New Testament.

Which brings me to our context of this text in Mark. I’ve got weddings on the brain right now, that’s a good thing. There is an exciting wedding coming up this week, I’m involved in counseling for one in December, and did I tell you, Stuart’s engaged, so we get to talk groom planning all the time. Stuart humors us that way!

So with that exciting stuff on the brain, it hits hard to come upon this text in the lectionary for today. Divorce! It seems out of context. In fact, the way this text has been used, is out of context.

So what are we getting into here? First, divorce is a modern embarrassment. It’s rising frequency troubles conservatives and liberals alike. Despite the joy we have for weddings, there seems to be a growing sense that marriage is not a lasting commitment for many today. That sense comes from “paying attention” to the context of our culture, but also is backed by statistics and our own family lives. Divorce was pretty uncommon for folks before the 1950’s. Now most of us have been touched by it.

Our family was touched by it when my parents divorced when we were still in grade school. Our cultural adaption of its frequency and how it destabilizes families came glaring home thirty years later when my father sought to join the Roman Catholic church by seeking an annulment from my mother. Talk about dysfunction and not being able to move on!

Even before then, growing up, we experienced what many divorce families encounter; fussing over custody arrangements, continuing emotional entanglements and in the most tragic, violence against a former spouse. Bottom line, even in the “best” divorce arrangements there is initial, and possibly lasting emotional scars heaped upon children.

Frankly the context for the surge in divorce is pretty easy to spot. First is the secularization of our society where a decreasing number of parents and children are involved in a synagogue, church or mosque. Despite the church growth movement or the presence of so-called Mega churches dotting the landscape, little impact has been made in the declining percentage of people involved in any religious tradition.

Just as the missionary slogan prompted by the John R. Mott in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: “The Evangelism of the World in our Time,” failed, so too have our church growth efforts. Faith commitments are not won by catchy mottos, slick easy-listening music, the latest electronic gadgets, an avoidance of the social ills of our time and a careless use of scriptural passages. Detachment from religious communities and traditions lessens the consideration of divorce as a serious issue. This is an undeniable context.

The second contextual reality about divorce is economic: the increase of women in the workplace has given them a freedom from marriage where previously they may have been kept in bondage to an abusive marriage relationship. The downside of this allows marriage to be held more casually than before, not because religious communities have become soft on divorce, but because women may now more easily leave undesirable marriages and still survive economically.

This is not meant to be an arch-conservative comment, but rather an honest observation.  Now a-days, the marriage-divorce-marriage approach to life, once known only in “Hollywood” is all over the place. Rabbis, Imams, and Pastors see more time spent planning the choreography for the You Tube video of the flash mobs dance down the aisle, than pre-marital counseling and marriage preparation.

Regardless, there is a positive outcome, women are no longer caught in marriages where they and the children must live under abuse and neglect. Even if the initial marriage decision was questionable, it offers a way out of such distress through divorce.

In some urgent situations, we now have systems in place for women fearing violence getting them to a safe harbor, as they are known. Still, economic support for many divorced situations is meager in many cases. Federal and state assistance has been cut drastically in recent years, even as the wealthy live in financially –secure cocoons. Available jobs are often inadequate to support a single parent and children. So there remain great societal drawbacks to divorced women. Still on the whole, it is a better environment than generations ago.

All this is context for this lection today in Mark. Whether or not this teaching goes all the way back to Jesus or not, it has often been taken out of context and used by the church as an important teaching: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Historically, most churches use this to underscore their negative view on divorce. Taking a cue from this lection, the churches said that any remarriage after divorce involves people in adultery.

There are still churches today that stick to this hardline approach. For their members it makes it very difficult to seek divorce. Some go as far as banning divorced people from receiving the sacraments. Other church traditions have softened their understanding of divorce or reconciliation. As I learned, in 1968 there were 400 marriage annulments in the Catholic Church in America. In 1992 there were 40,000! Divorce was still anathema, but the avenue back to church had opened up. It had become a membership issue.

We have also seen another advance in the church’s thinking about divorce. Not only has much of the church begun to sanction divorce under proper circumstances, but it has also faced up to the context of the New Testament teaching about it. In this text in Mark, and the parallel in Matthew it has become clear that Jesus is not speaking about divorce in general.

Rather, Jesus is setting himself against the injustices of the divorce system of his day. In that day it was quite easy for a husband to divorce his wife, for any reason, even a trivial one. All he needed to do was write out an intention of divorcing his wife, give it to her, and presto-chango, divorce was in effect.

What Jesus was upset about was the abusive power this system gave to the husband over against his wife. The wife had little or no such rights. She was at the mercy of her husband’s moods and whims. Think on that ladies!

There was no obligation upon the husband to remain in the relationship “for better or worse.” No doubt Jesus could understand a marriage reaching the point where love and respect had departed long before. There is no word in scripture of Jesus teaching on this point, yet we can imagine him refusing to insist on keeping a destructive marriage together. Such relationships run counter to his teaching on disciples living life in God’s abundant mercy. So there is no doubt of his standing against a system that put the wife into financial poverty and cultural alienation. So it is, Jesus, in this context, and this context alone, said divorce was not an option.

This is the real context of Jesus’ teaching on divorce. It is not a blanket teaching as the church as sometimes in the past used it.

Rather, it is a marriage ethic insisting that a husband and wife enter into a marriage with the same rights and protections. To condone divorce or to refuse it, is not the point of Jesus’ teaching here. Instead it is holding out a higher understanding of the husband/wife relationship, one consistent with the gospel. It is about a relationship grounded in mutual justice, care and love.

The role of the church today calls for holding this view of marriage within the social, cultural, and justice systems of our time. Paying attention to this context moves us from a tight and unjust legalism, like the Pharisees, inflexibly condoning the misery of decaying marriages, to a concern that both husbands and wives are affirmed and give equal rights before God and humanity.

So this is one more instance when dealing with the context of scripture, rather than simplistic and plain meaning, puts us in touch with the real meaning behind the Word of God.