It’s About Relationship

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.

In the beginning, when God had created the heavens and the earth, God looked at all that was created, and saw that it was good. The birds in the air flocked together as they flew, the fishes in the sea swam in great schools through the clear waters, the four-legged creatures of the land roamed together in great herds, and God saw it all, and it was good.

But when God saw the human that God had created out of the mud, with its arms and legs and fingers and toes, God saw that it sat there on the muddy banks alone. God saw that it was alone, and it was not good.

So, God set out to find the human a companion. First, God brought forward a turtle, and the human said, “no, this is not the one.” God brought a camel, then a cow, a parakeet, and a snake, and each time the human turned it away, for none of them were the one. So it went that God brought forth every creature under the sun, presenting them one by one to the human, from the smallest mouse to the greatest sea monster, but each time the human declared, “no, this is not the one either.” And both God and the human began to grow sad, for it was not good that the human was alone.

Then, God had an idea, and grabbing the human with both hands, God began to pull. The human was surprised and a little confused by this turn of events, but God kept pulling. Suddenly, with a loud ‘pop,’ where there had been one, there were now two. The two looked at God, and then the two looked at each other, and with big smiles they said, “yes, this is good, this is the one.”

I tell you this story this morning for the same reason that Jesus quotes it as he answer’s the Pharisees’ question: it’s all about relationship. The Pharisees had come that morning to try and test Jesus, to trip him up, and so they asked him about divorce. As is so often the case with Jesus, though, his response is not an answer to their question, but points to a deeper truth—that we need one another, that God created us to be in relationship with one another.

It is all about relationship. Remember that because this is a difficult passage with a difficult history.

It was in the 1960’s that my grandmother divorced my grandfather. The details are not important, suffice it to say that it was not a happy marriage. So, in a time when divorce was still very much a taboo subject, my grandfather moved to Australia and my grandmother became a single parent for their four children.

I was only ten when she died, so I never got to ask her the questions that I now understand as an adult. I do not imagine that it was an easy experience for her. I can’t know for sure, but she was a devout Methodist, so I assume that she would have heard this passage, and others like it, and that they would have weighed heavily on her. I can only speculate as to the pressure that she would have felt from her family and her friends and her church.

So, when my grandfather was transferred back to the United States, my grandmother re-married him. They stayed married for the rest of their lives.

It is a difficult text that has led many to believe that they should, that they must, stay in unhappy marriages, in marriages marked by alcohol, by drugs, by abuse. It is a difficult text that is at least partly behind the stigma that people who have been divorced have faced in the past and continue to face. All of that sits with us each time we hear this teaching read anew, a presence as real as the words on the page themselves, with which we must grapple.

I don’t know what Jesus would have to say about divorce in our modern world. I do know that he would have a lot to say about residential schools.

If it is any consolation, this was also a difficult teaching back when Jesus first spoke the words, though for different reasons. For just as marriage today is not the same as marriage back then, neither is divorce today the same as divorce back then. In a time before child support payments, before legal proceedings that entitled both partners to a share of property and wealth, before women had many rights or social standing on their own, divorce was a sentence to poverty for the wife and any children. An unmarried woman, separated from her family of origin, had little standing in society and no safety net.

The man simply produced the certificate and that was it. He was off to whatever new life he wanted, but he left brokenness and destitution in his wake. I think this is what Jesus is speaking to when he responds to the Pharisees’ question about divorce—the lack of concern for the wellbeing of others, for the brokenness it caused, for the injustice that was inherent to it. I don’t believe Jesus was advocating for the primacy of the nuclear family—it simply didn’t exist in his day; their concept of family was broader and more fluid than ours is today.

More to the point, I think Jesus was responding to the callousness and casualness of the question that was posed to him. As though a marriage could be tossed aside as easily as a piece of paper, as though any relationship could be treated as disposable. That the husband, or anyone else for that matter, could persist in the belief that they did not need anyone else, that they could exist independent of any relationship.

Jesus reminds us that once we were alone, once we were singular, and God saw that it was not good. So God made the singular plural so that we might come together, that we might be in relationship, and in relationship, discover wholeness.

That can look like marriage, yes. I have also seen it in lifelong friendships, I’ve seen it between parent and child, I’ve seen it among siblings, and I’ve seen it between neighbours and church members alike who care for one another like family, carrying one another through times of joy and times of great illness. In none of these cases would we expect one party to simply dismiss the other, as if they were unnecessary, as if they were unneeded, as if the relationship had no value. To do so would be cruel. To do so would be to deny that God created us to need one another, God created us to be in community.

It is all about relationship.

Somebody asked at Bible study this week what Jesus would say about divorce if he were here today. The question stuck with me, because I don’t know the answer. Like I said, divorce in Jesus’ day bears little resemblance to divorce today. I certainly don’t believe that Jesus would advocate for anyone staying in a marriage marked by abuse or neglect or any situation that causes suffering to one or more of the parties involved, or that he would condemn anyone seeking to leave such a relationship.

Then, on Thursday, as I attended a gathering in Grandview Park for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, it hit me. As I listened to stories of children being separated from their parents as an intentional effort to break the relationships that tied families and communities together, I knew the answer.

I don’t know what Jesus would have to say about divorce in our modern world. I do know that he would have a lot to say about residential schools. That he would have a lot to say about children taken from their families and put up for adoption, their indigenous heritage erased from their record so that they would grow up without ever knowing who they were and where they came from. That he would have a lot to say about the fact that even to this day the government provides more money for Indigenous children to be placed in foster home with white people than it will for those same children to stay in the homes of grandparents or aunts and uncles.

I do know that Jesus would have a lot to say about my own country’s practice of separating children from their parents as they crossed the border, placing them in cages in the dessert with mylar blankets to provide them comfort at night. That this was done for political posturing and to frighten others from trying to make the same journey.

Because it is all about relationship. When we act as though we don’t need one another, when we act as though the other is disposable, worthless, detestable, then we are acting against the created order. We are acting contrary to the way God made us to be. For we need one another, spouses and siblings, grandparents and grandchildren, neighbours and friends, the people next to us in the pews and the people who sit in other corners of the globe. We need one another. We are not complete without one another.

Jesus calls us back to relationship and back to community. He calls us back to that place where we can at last look at each other as for the first time and say, “Yes, this is good, this is the one.”