Summary: A sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Series B, proper 22

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18th Sunday after Pentecost [Pr. 22] October 4, 2009 “Series B”

Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen

Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, from the beginning of your creation, you established marriage and intended that we should be a people living in community with one another. Yet because of sin, the harmony of the home is often burdened, and the social fabric of our community is often disrupted by senseless violence. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, increase our faith, that we might learn from our Lord the true meaning of forgiveness and the power of love to restore us to live in peace and fellowship with one another. This we ask in Christ’s holy name. Amen.

When we think of Jesus, we seemed to be conditioned in our day to think of him as loving – by which we mean Jesus is open, warm and accepting, particularly toward us, his modern disciples. As Harold Bloom claims in his book The American Religion, “We Americans have one predominant faith and that is that God really, really likes us; that God is thrilled to be with us on any occasion; and that God couldn’t be happier with our moral progress. We’ve come a long way from Jonathan Edward’s sermon, ‘Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God.’ We are basically good people in the embrace of a completely permissive God.” End quote.

William H. Willimon comments on Bloom’s book with these words. “In this view, Jesus is the friend rather than the savior, the one who comes to encourage us, to support us, to stand beside us, but never to chide us. And there is good reason for us to see Jesus in this way. As the novelist Reynolds Price has said, ‘Jesus never turned anyone away.’ There were those who turned away from Jesus, but he did not turn away from them. Jesus got into all sorts of trouble for befriending sinners and reprobates.’

Willimon goes on to state that in numerous places in the Gospels, Jesus appears to be the foe of legalistic, literal interpretation of the Jewish tradition. He gets into trouble for breaking Sabbath laws, saying to his critics, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’ He appears to be shockingly nonchalant when it comes to observing the strict laws of ritual purity. ‘This man eats and drinks with sinners!’ his critics charge.

So it is a bit surprising to hear Jesus’ hard-line response to his critics who ask him one of the hot questions of the day: ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’” End quote.

Did you pick up on that language? It is very telling of the male dominant society of that day. In today’s society, we might think that Jesus’ first response might have been something like, “Well, first answer me this. Is it OK for a woman to divorce her husband?” Although Jesus does respond that way later in our text, he didn’t push the envelope of the male dominant society to be more open to the equality of the sexes. Rather, he asked the Pharisees what Moses said.

And Jesus has some rather harsh words to say, almost reversing his seemingly lax interpretation of the Torah. When the Pharisees responded that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce his wife, Jesus referred to God’s original intent for Marriage from the very beginning of creation. He quoted the passage from Genesis, stating that “From the beginning, God created us male and female. And that when a man leaves his father and mother to be joined to his wife, they become one flesh. What God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Jesus’ response must have bothered his disciples, for as soon as they entered the house where they were staying they again asked Jesus about this issue. And as our text reads, Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Here we encounter a teaching of Jesus, spoken to his disciples, that must rattle the serenity of a lot of Christians who are sitting in the pews in a lot of congregations this week. In fact, it used to rattle my serenity, as one who has experienced the pain of divorce, each time I had to step into the pulpit and preach on this lesson. But through my study of Scripture and pouring over many commentaries on this text, I have come to understand this passage in a different light.

First, according to many Biblical scholars, the words that are recorded in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which is the version you have in your lesson sheets, my not be the most accurate translation. The Greek language in which the Gospels are written is a complex language and this text in question could just as easily be interpreted, “Whoever divorces their spouse in order to remarry, commits adultery. In other words, Jesus may well be saying that even though it is lawful to obtain a divorce, if you do so because someone else has caught your eye and you want to trade in your former spouse to pursue a new relationship with another person, you are committing adultery.

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