Judea Beyond the Jordan
Speaker: The Rev'd Jim Quigley
In a liturgy planning session this week – a time when Emily, Geoffrey, Jeremy and I try to choose music that supports the themes in the readings form Holy Scriptures for our common worship – a comment was made that in regard to the texts assigned for today, the elephant in the room had to be acknowledged, at least in some way. Which one, I wondered?
In the reading from Job we get the question of theodicy – theodicy being the unexplainable suffering of the innocent, or the problem of the existence of evil in a world created by a loving God. From Hebrews we get the notion that somehow it was an act of God’s grace that Jesus tasted death for everyone and that Christ’s suffering is the gateway to our freedom from sin. Good for us bad for him. In Mark we have the thorny topic about the reality of the disfunction in human relationships and the fact that if Jesus means what he says, Robert Plant was right: “Way down inside…” There’s a whole lotta love going on, and much of it is adulterous. So which elephant? Theodicy, suffering, Satan, cheap versus costly grace, sin? Next! Even the Collect of the Day today is challenging, imploring us to recall that which our conscience is afraid and reminding us that God is so much readier to hear than we are to turn and pray.
But you know, I think, that we’d find a way to the good news – it’s always in there. We might have to dig a little deeper today, but I can’t think of anything more compelling for us to hear this morning than the implication so blatantly inherent in the Gospel passage from Mark and in the other scriptures – that Jesus sets a really high bar for human behavior; that integrity is a virtue to strive for in our lives; that the Holy Scriptures don’t try to explain away the reality of suffering of the innocent or the reality of evil in the word, and, in the shadow evil casts, our call to radical discipleship and our call to bring light into a world shrouded in darkness.
Momentarily getting back to the elephant in the room, in the gospel reading Mark locates Jesus’ teaching about divorce as taking place “in Judea beyond the Jordan.” It may seem irrelevant to the story, but Judea beyond the Jordan is pace that holds special significance in Mark’s Gospel. Judea beyond the Jordan is where Jesus was baptized by John and subsequently “driven” out into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. Jesus is back in that same region and now his faith is being tested again (10.2; 1.13; 8.11; 12.15), this time not by Satan but by the religious authorities. The Pharisees ask Jesus about his position regarding divorce and as important as that may be, it’s not actually what they are testing him on. What they really want to know is how the good teacher regards the authority of Mosaic law, their own version of cheap grace. But Jesus is way ahead of them. “What does Moses say?” he asks. What ensues is the Pharisees quoting the law about divorce as it was laid out in Deuteronomy (24.1-4) and in response Jesus, quoting Genesis, asks them a question in return: But what do you think God wants? What did God intend when conjuring us up, way back when? It’s a brilliant hermeneutical move. Later, when he’s with his disciples and they ask him about his conversation with the Pharisees – this is a paraphrase – Jesus tells them, “These days a woman can divorce a man too, but either way that’s not, you know, what God hopes for.”
We don’t need to say much more than that regarding the elephants in the room today. Pastorally, or personally, my own life history includes a separation that led to a divorce after struggling for a decade or more with a failing relationship. Oddly enough, it was the wise council of a fellow priest and former Rector of St. Alban’s who, in the midst of my battling with my own conscience, told me that when people make their marriage vows the one with a promise about not separating until death refers to the death of the marriage, not the person. Hearing those words gave my ex-wife and I the courage to admit to one another that our marriage was dead and trying to keep it alive was killing both of us. And I’d be shirking my calling as one of your priests if I didn’t, following Jesus’s lead, say that as painful and unintended by God as divorce after marriage may be, if adultery is an issue in your life, know this: There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea…. There is welcome for the sinner and more graces for the good… There is mercy with our Savior, there IS healing in his blood…
One more word on the elephant, then back to Mark for a minute and then let’s end with some good news about what God intends for our lives as we simultaneously acknowledge those things of which our collective conscience should be afraid.
The literal translation of the word divorce in the Mosaic Law is “put away.” “Suppose a man,” Deuteronomy reads, “enters into marriage with a woman who does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, so he puts her away and sends her out of his house…” etcetera, etcetera. Reading it makes one cringe; it’s pretty despicable and describes something that sounds more like abandonment than divorce. But in Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees he stops short of lecturing them about their morality because he knows that would be of no use and reminds them why the law is even there in the first place – because of the way people are. That was a later addition, Jesus says. As ethicist and theologian Robert Hammerton-Kelly has written, “The question of adhering to Mosaic law is not one of observance but of intention. If the heart is hard, then no legal observance will justify it, and no amount of observance will turn it to God.”
But before turning to teach his disciples Jesus does pause long enough to give the Pharisees a fighting chance for redemption with a few verses from that oldy but goody from way back in the day. It’s such a remarkably beautiful story about life together, about the way our God wants things to be. “Remember when God made people, Jesus asks them? God made Adam first.” You might know that Adam is a name that in biblical usage is most often interpreted as “man” but can simply mean “person.” So God made a person then God put the person in a garden world that needed tilling and keeping. And then, seeing that that person was alone, made them a partner. Adam was thrilled. Love at first sight. “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” I love you! And then Adam gives the partner a name because that’s what lovers often do, give their partners a special name. Hers, Eve, means life, or living, or ‘life-source.” LGBTQ – married or single – it doesn’t matter – we are put on this planet by God to be in loving relationship with each other and with garden around us – the source of our life.
There’s a wideness to God’s mercy that is like the wideness of the sea. There’s welcome for the sinner and more graces for the good. That is in fact the good news of God today but there’s tilling and keeping that needs to be done, putting it mildly. The political circus we’ve all witnessed these past weeks. Outside the political realm, or not, Mother nature, as they used to call her, is coming at us with a vengeance. The world we are leaving for our children to inherit is a frightening one – we gotta to wake up to that. We are killing Eve, our life-source. She’s threatening to divorce us – to put us out of her house. We have to change the way we are living. And we have to do that right away, in whatever way we can. We’ve got to get back to the garden and into responsible covenant with one another and with God, renouncing the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, as we have promised, time and time again.
We are in Judea beyond the Jordan. We’re being tested. In our customary time of silence in response to the Scriptures this morning we might consider the web of relationships that are the sources of our lives. We might give thanks for all that makes us alive or brings us to life; our loved ones, our friends and family, our co-workers and our work as the covenanted people of God. We might hope – which means act – for a better future and remember all those who suffer now and will in the future from the effects of global climate change. And we might pray: Lord, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, through Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.