“And he took them up in his arms, laid his hand on them, and blessed them.” I speak to you in the name of one God: Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
Hearing these statements said by Jesus, give me the same sense of discomfort and bewilderment that I experience when I hear passages talking about “being thrown into the fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” or “sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.”
But fear not. Before I delve into the meat of the sermon, I want to be quite clear, just as with Jesus’ mention of fire and the impossible task of selling all your possessions, Jesus’ message means something different in today’s world as opposed to Jesus’. Jesus is not saying all divorced people are adulterers. He’s not saying there is no place in the kingdom of God for people who have been divorced. On the contrary, I’m going to argue that this lesson has far less to do with divorce and more to do with Jesus protecting the most vulnerable in society and transforming our hardened hearts into soft hearts.
This lesson begins with the Pharisees asking Jesus a question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” In case you were wondering, this is a trap. Similar to when the Pharisees ask Jesus “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” or “Should we stone this woman caught in adultery?” Jesus is being tested. And similar to the previous traps, Jesus doesn’t answer them directly. Instead, he asks them a question, “What did Moses command you?” And the Pharisees replied with a law that is supported by Deuteronomy 24, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” It is in Jesus’ next statement where we find the central issue of this passage, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made male and female…to become one flesh…joined together…let no one separate.”
This answer is slightly ambiguous, and understandably so, once they were in the privacy of a home, away from the crowds and the Pharisees, the disciples wanted some clarification. Jesus then makes himself very clear, divorce is a no-no! “Whoever divorces and marries another commits adultery.”
What isn’t stated explicitly in the passage is that if Jesus had said it was okay to divorce, he would have basically been saying that he supports a societal institution that is increasingly being used to abuse the most vulnerable among them. In first-century Palestine, women and children had little to no rights. They were considered property and completely controlled in this patriarchal society. In this society, women were not protected financially in the case of divorce. For women, if divorced, it meant living in abject poverty, losing all possessions, including their children in many cases. And it didn’t take much to get a divorce. According the commandment that the Pharisees quoted from Deuteronomy, a husband could divorce his wife if “she did not please him because he finds something objectionable about her.”
At first, it seems like Jesus is embodying a Bible literalist and fundamentalist, “Divorce is wrong! It is always wrong! Marriage is forever!” But instead, based on societal norms and the context of this community, Jesus opposes divorce on the basis of protecting the weak and marginalized. He also gives a vision of marriage that supersedes all others—the one we heard from Genesis this morning and find in creation—the one that speaks of women as partners. Within the bond of this type of marriage, God’s purest form of marriage, all of humanity is equal.
I don’t think this strictly applies to just marriage. In our creation, we humans are formed to be in relationship and to be partners with each other in whatever we do. Unfortunately, Genesis chapter 2 is myth, and this myth of equal partnership among all humanity is not our reality.
Similar to first century Palestine, humanity in our present day has fallen short on many things. Embedded societal structures continue to harm the vulnerable, people in positions of power do not always stand up for those who have been wronged, and we are often left with the sense that nothing can be done—that we live in an impossible situation. The root cause of this thinking, which Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees, is the hardness of heart. We, all of us, like the Pharisees, will have, have had, or currently have hardened hearts.
During Biblical times, the heart was considered the core of human existence, and makes us who we really are. We are God’s creation—God is pleased with our creation—God said it was good. But in order to live into that creation, our hearts need to be soft and tender. But throughout Scripture, we heard of those with hardened hearts—those who didn’t complete God’s vision for God’s created world…it was Pharaoh’s hardened heart—which stemmed from fear and lack of power—that would not let God’s people out of slavery…it was the Israelite people—so injured and brought down by lack of hope—who had hardened hearts in the wilderness and while in exile.
And unfortunately, there are many forces in this world today that contribute to hearts becoming hard. Just like Pharaoh, the Israelites, the Pharisees, and all others in Scripture who have been accused of having hard hearts, we are just as susceptible. In a world where people continue to break their vows, refuse to be faithful to themselves and each other, where trust is being broken around every turn, and where blame and judgment, instead of grace and forgiveness, are the default emotions of the day, it is difficult to cultivate a soft heart.
So where can we turn for guidance? Who among us models soft hearts? One commentator stated that hardness of heart is what distinguishes us from those whom Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs—children. In the Gospel, we heard of Jesus demanding the disciples to let the children (another marginalized group with no rights) come to him, and at that time he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. Children don’t naturally put up walls and isolate themselves from receiving love and care—instead of a hard heart, their soft hearts are free and unencumbered to seek out the arms that are outstretched, and they are open and willing to receive God’s blessing—a blessing that God desperately wants for all of us. A hard heart is a lost opportunity, because God most readily works in the world through hearts that are truly alive—hearts that are soft and malleable effort to receive God’s grace and love.
God is calling each of us to be like those who have already been granted the kingdom of God, and are helping others to enter it, as well. Like children, we need to have soft hearts. Those with soft hearts are tender, loving, compassionate, and forgiving. The more soft hearts there are in the world, the more God’s kingdom is imagined on earth. Soft hearts continue and help actualize what began in creation. Soft hearts make the impossible possible—make myth into reality.
Just like hardened hearts, soft hearts don’t happen overnight. They need to be cultivated. By virtue of being in this room, you are in the process of the softening your heart. Being surrounded by those in this community in whom we trust, with whom we love, we are becoming the hands and feet of Christ in the world. It is like the Church, imagine it, like you and I are the arms that lifts us up, imagine our hands are the hands that are laid each other, and imagine it we are the ones who bless each other just as Jesus blessed those whom he was with. And if you’re not ready to be the one with outstretched arms, what would it look like to be those who are being swept up and held and blessed and know they are loved—both require a softening of our hearts.
This space, this meal, this community, all at once gives us a glimpse of the kingdom that God want for us in this world—a glimpse of creation—a glimpse of the impossible being made possible. With these glimpses and softened hearts, my prayer is that you share this heart with others, beginning a chain reaction of events that will ultimately change this world for the better. What I say is not myth and it is not merely idealistic—it is truth and it is possible but only with God’s help and with a willingness to transform the hardened hearts produced by this broken and difficult world, and cultivate the soft hearts that are produced by God, by love, by community, by us. What happens here is not just a social club…what happens here is transformative—through the modeling of what our world can and should look like, through extending outstretched arms of love and through partaking in a meal that is also transformed—this place will also transform our hearts.
One of my favorite parts of the Eucharist service is the post communion prayer, because in it, we recap all of what has just happened and why, and for whom have we done it for. As stated in the words of one of our most frequently used post communion prayers, “send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you, with gladness and singleness (and I would add softness) of heart.” Amen.