Rules Are Rules


The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On November 4, we took some time to think about one of the most difficult teachings of Jesus, the one regarding divorce and remarriage. Our gospel reading was Mark 10:1-12.  

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below: 

As we begin the sermon this morning, I’d like to test your baseball knowledge.  Let’s say that I’m the starting centerfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates (yes, I’m still dreaming…). I’m up to bat, and Jon Lester of the Cubs throws two fastballs right past me.  I’m in the hole.  But somehow, I manage to stay alive and have an at-bat for the ages.  He throws me 17 more pitches, and I foul off 14 of them while three are for balls. Now, it’s full count, and I’m on the verge of breaking the MLB record for the longest at-bat ever.  On the 20thpitch to me, I swing awkwardly, and I manage to foul off yet another pitch, but in so doing I wrench my back horribly. After laying in the dirt a few moments, it’s obvious I can’t play any further. Clint Hurdle comes out and helps me off the field and you come in to replace me.  Lester eyes you up and throws a change-up – a grapefruit – right down the middle of the plate.  You watch it go by for strike 3.

When the records of this game are finalized, who has to carry that strikeout on his record? Me.  According to Rule #10.17(b), “ When the batter leaves the game with two strikes against him, and the substitute batter completes a strikeout, charge the strikeout and the time at bat to the first batter.”

But let’s say that you DON’T do that.  Let’s say that you come in and you take a pitch that is so, so close – but you let it go by for ball 4, and you head down to first base.  In this instance, even though I’ve endured the first 20 pitches of the at-bat, youget credit for the base on balls.  The same rule that makes me liable for the negative result gives you credit for the positive one – even though our actions are unchanged.  It doesn’t seem right.

Rules are rules. Most of the time, we want them. We need them to guide us.  We rely on them to help us keep things straight.

Sometimes, we ignore them.  Sometimes, we twist them to get what we want.  Oftentimes, we wish they were different.

Rules are rules.

The Pharisees and Saduccees Come to Tempt Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Our reading from Mark invites us to overhear a conversation between Jesus and some members of the Pharisees.  Although they have a bit of a bad reputation nowadays, I suspect that most of the Pharisees were good people, and I further suspect that Jesus had more respect for most Pharisees than he did for other religious groups in his day.  He argued a lot with them, but I think that’s because he thought that they were on to something – they were almost there – but they couldn’t quite see where Jesus was going.

More than anyone else, the Pharisees sought to codify what it meant to be faithful to God. Do this.  Don’t do that.

So these very religious folks come to Jesus and they have a question about the rules.  It seems like a pretty easy yes/no question: is a man allowed to divorce his wife?  That seems like a pretty cut and dried question.

However, a closer reading of the text would indicate that they were not interested in merely acquiring knowledge.  Mark says that they asked him this question in order to test him.  I suspect that they are looking for a way to put Jesus in a bad spot.  He has come through the Galilee into Judea as he is walking toward his death in Jerusalem, and they interrupt this pilgrimage by asking about divorce.  In King Herod’s back yard.  You may recall that the last time we read about divorce in Mark, it was when John the Baptist was beheaded for being critical of the fact that the ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas, had divorced his first wife in order to marry his brother’s wife.  I suspect that in asking this question at this time, the Pharisees are hoping that Jesus might say something that would attract Herod’s attention in such a way as to induce the monarch to attempt to silence the Rabbi.

Moreover, at that time there was a significant disagreement within the community about the ethics of divorce.  As the Pharisees rightly pointed out, the rules (aka the commandments of God) allowed for divorce, but only a) if it is initiated by the man and b) if “she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her” (Deuteronomy 24:1)

Hillel and Shammai, Artist Unknown

Most of the faithful in that time agreed that divorce was possible. There was conflict, though, as folks disagreed about what “uncleanness” meant.  A very influential teacher named Shammai said that when the Law allowed for divorce, the only acceptable form of “uncleanness” was infidelity.  Adultery was the only permissible reason for a man to send his wife away.

Not long after that, another teacher by the name of Hillel said that “uncleanness” could cover a multitude of offenses, such as if the wife spilled food on her husband, or if she spoke ill of his family, or even if he saw someone who was more attractive to him than wife #1.  Any of these reasons, and a hundred more, were sufficient cause, according to Hillel, to dissolve a marriage.

I’ll give you one guess whose views were more popular amongst the men in that region at that time.  Hillel’s teaching was carrying the day, and divorce was rampant.

“Hey, Jesus? Can we get a divorce? Moses said we could!  Rules are rules, right?”

And I can hear Jesus sigh and say, “Yeah, Moses said that because he knew that you were a bunch of knuckleheads.”  He then offers a teaching that takes the discussion to a whole new level.

Jesus’ teaching about divorce makes the most sense in, and speaks most plainly to, a culture in which divorce is an issue of justice for the marginalized, rather than a straightforward legal procedure between two equals.  When a man sought to “send his wife away”, he was often condemning her to poverty, to shame, and to alienation.  Divorce in Jesus’ day was overwhelmingly an injustice to the woman, who was most frequently thought of as a “thing”, one who was subject to the whims of the male head of her family.

Christ and the Pharisees, Ernst Zimmerman (1870 – 1944)

In this context, the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce, and he talks to them about marriage. They were looking at problems.  He was looking at the plan, and reminds them of the creational intent for human relationships as found not in Deuteronomy, but further back, in Genesis.

Then, Jesus takes the disciples aside and elaborates.  “If a man divorces his wife,” says Jesus, “he commits adultery. And if a woman divorces her husband”, which was virtually impossible in that day and age, “she commits adultery.” Rules are rules.

But people are people.  I think that what Jesus was saying to the people in the room is that if a man attempts to discredit, disempower, or disenfranchise his wife (or injure his family) based on his own whims, then he becomes the one who is unclean or impure. Humans matter.  Relationships of intimacy are important – important for those who share them as well as for those who bear witness to them and who find their lives shaped by them.

So how do we read this in 21stCentury America?  What about divorce now?

Before I say anything, I want to recognize and claim the fact that I am speaking from a certain position.  I enjoy a number of privileges: I am white.  I am male. I am heterosexual, and have participated in one marriage.  Compared to many in this room, and many in the room with Jesus two thousand years ago, my life has been easy and uncomplicated.  I have to admit that if I had not committed to preaching my way through the Gospel of Mark, I’d probably have skipped this passage.

But here we are, listening to a first-century Rabbi try to encounter this difficult question in his day and age, and not only that, but seeking to draw some ultimate meaning and truth from it.

Here’s what I think: in answering a question about Moses with a scripture about creation, Jesus is indicating that relationships are a part of our creational identity, and therefore an invitation to practice godliness in everyday life.  In pointing to the way things were at the beginning, he is affirming that the ways that we treat each other (and ourselves) matter.  And he is pointing out that breaking troth with each other – practicing faithlessness – has consequences.

However, I would further suggest that Jesus does not allow any of us to be in a position to be sanctimonious or judgmental.  In some traditions, participation in a divorce, no matter what the cause, excludes people from full participation in the life of the community.

I had a friend who felt this way.  She was married at a young age to a man who seemed so much more sophisticated than she. They had a quick courtship and they were married.  He betrayed their vows on their wedding night!  She was heartbroken, and eventually he filed for a divorce (which she did not contest).

Not only did she never marry or seek a meaningful intimate relationship again, she spent the rest of her life feeling guilty at having divorced.  She was a hard-liner, and she was a hard-liner on herself as well as anyone else.  She saw her divorce as a great stain on her life, a sin that prevented her from full participation in the life for which God made her.

And there are those who might say, “Of course! How could she do otherwise?  Look at the scripture! Jesus says that those who are involved in divorce are equivalent to adulterers.”

Maybe.  But if you’re going to say that, you’ve got to be ready to take a look at how Jesus treated adulterers. The most well-known of the stories involving Jesus and one accused of adultery ended with Jesus speaking words of compassion, grace, and encouragement to the woman who lay before him.

My hunch is that most of my friends who are younger than me have a hard time understanding the perspective of my friend who felt stained by divorce.  For many in our culture, divorce is not a deal-breaker. It happens, they say.

These people, if they claim faith in Christ, are able to see Jesus in this passage as pointing toward the Divine intent of using our relationships to honor the other, and to set up truth and beauty and integrity and faithfulness as hallmarks with which we are to treat each other.

I am certain that Jesus is nottrying to beat up anyone in this teaching, and I would caution that anyone who would use this passage for that reason does so at their own peril.

What is the take-away that we can glean from this conversation?  That life and relationships are given as a gift.  We ought to seek to honor other people every chance we get.  We are called to treasure and esteem and value others in ways that reflect the creational norms.  We must resist every temptation to use, abuse, or commodify the other.

We are not free – in fact we are called to avoid – the use of the rulebook in order to beat someone else up.

This includes the one who has wronged you.

This includes the one who is different from you.

This includes the one whom you have judged to be “unclean”.

When it comes to the rules, I think that Jesus is saying, look first at yourself, and then at Jesus, and only through the eyes of Jesus at everyone else.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Because there were a number of visitors to the congregation, I felt obliged to explain why I chose to have the congregation sing “Good, Good Father” after the sermon.  If you are unfamiliar with that tune, you can access it by clicking the video link below. You might also be interested in hearing my two-minute commentary linking the song and the sermon.  In fact, if you and I have not met, or if there is any chance that you feel “beaten up” by my use of the rulebook in the sermon above, I’d ask you to please listen to the comments by clicking on the audio player below.

Lastly, in a surprise move, the Worship Team at our congregation commemorated this observance of All Saints Day by covering “Stormy Monday” by the Allman Brothers in celebration of the life of our dear friend Ed Schrenker.  You can hear that by using the media player below.  As you listen, please remember that we are recording in a sanctuary, not a studio.  It was just beautiful, and I wish you’d have been here!

No Deposit, No Return

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On November 1 we considered the words of the sermon pertaining to divorce as found in Matthew 5:31-32, while also reading Malachi’s words to his community in Malachi 2:15-16.  

plasticislandStretched across the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a clump of material known as the Giant Ocean Trash Vortex. This is a collection of litter that has been brought together by the currents and concentrated in an area that is by some estimates twice as large as the state of Texas. About 80% of the material in that vortex comes from land-based activities in either North America or Asia, and the number one component is plastic. Some researchers suggest that as much as 26 tons of plastic is added to the ocean each year.

Why is there that much plastic in the ocean? Well, for starters, because there’s 260 tons of new plastic created every year. And why do we make so much plastic? For lots of reasons, but one stands out this morning: plastic bottles. Forget the detergent bottles and the salad dressing bottles – Americans throw away 35 billion water bottles every year.

Family-size-red-crate-whiteIt wasn’t always like that, of course. Fifty years ago, when you bought a drink, the drink came in a thick glass bottle, and the price you paid for it included a deposit on the container. You drank the beverage and then returned the bottle and got your deposit back; the container was washed and re-used. Around 1965, someone had the bright idea to sell beverages in bottles that didn’t need to be re-used, and the “No Deposit, No Return” industry was born. Manufacturers began selling pop and beer and juice and water in thin glass or plastic bottles that didn’t need to be returned. It was a little cheaper for the consumer and a lot easier for the manufacturers.

Despite Push From Environmentalists, Bottled Water Consumption Remains UbiquitousThere was, however, a side effect: there was an astounding increase in the amount of litter. Once the bottles had no value, people cared less about where they ended up. Within a very short period of time, the notion of what constituted an acceptable means of selling drinks changed, and empty beverage containers came to be regarded merely as “waste — unwanted and unvalued, simply delivery mechanisms that become a problem as soon as we have consumed the beverage they once contained.” Almost immediately there was a plan to mandate the collection of deposits on all beverage containers, but the retail food industry fought those changes tooth and nail. One New York grocer said that his business was “selling goods, not collecting trash.”[1] And so we have an island in the Pacific Ocean, larger than the state of Texas, comprised of garbage.

PhariseesIn Jesus’ day there was a spirited disagreement regarding sex and religion. One group of faithful Jews, led by a Rabbi named Shammai, taught that Deuteronomy 24  was a command to be taken literally, and that divorce was only an option following a gross indecency on the part of one’s wife. Another group, led by a Rabbi named Hillel, argued for a very broad interpretation of that passage, and so taught that divorce was an option for a man who was offended not only by his wife’s infidelity, but by the fact that she was a lousy cook, or she ‘dishonored’ him, or if she had the nerve to be less attractive than his new neighbor or co-worker.

I’ll let you take one guess as to who was a more popular Rabbi in those days – at least among men.

The teaching of Hillel reflected the presupposition that a marriage was not really about a relationship of trust and intimacy with another person – it was really about what I was liable to get out of it. I get married to the girl next door, and everything is well and good. And then someone else comes along – someone who is a better cook, or who lets me clean my fish on the kitchen table without arguing, or who never loses my socks in the dryer, and I am free to get rid of #1 and move on to #2, where I’ll be deliriously happy until #3 comes into the picture…

In other words, some of the most religious people in Jesus’ day were treating the wives of their friends the way that we treat empty Snapple bottles today: as waste – unwanted and unvalued, simply delivery mechanisms that become a problem as soon as we have consumed the usefulness they once contained.

BlessedNot surprisingly, Jesus has something to say about this.

The Pharisaical culture that surrounded Jesus was concerned with possible grounds for divorce. They heard some of the Old Testament words, such as Deuteronomy 24, that allow for divorce in the case of “indecency” as commands to be followed. Divorce, while not a good thing in and of itself, was not a big deal, spiritually speaking. It was a messiness through which one went and then came out, most often with a younger, prettier, wealthier, better-cooking wife.

Jesus, on the other hand, was concerned with the goodness of marriage. He looked at the words of Moses and said that they were a “concession” because of the ways that people’s hearts are hardened. And then he put divorce in the same category as adultery.

And again, it’s hard to imagine anyone who actually knew Jesus would be surprised by this. Do you remember the so-called “ground rules” for Christian living as illustrated in the Beatitudes? Disciples are called to be poor in spirit, and meek, and humble. As St. John Chrysostom preached in the fourth century, “For he that is meek, and a peacemaker, and poor in spirit, and merciful, how shall he cast out his wife? He that is used to reconcile others, how shall he be at variance with her that is his own?”[2]

Last time, we talked about the fact that Jesus branded lust a violation of the other person because it is selfish and manipulative. How much more is this casual dismissal of the marriage vows out of line with God’s intention?

Jesus condemns the ease with which his contemporaries sought to dispose of marriages because such behavior is counter to God’s intentions for the ways that we are supposed to treat each other. In doing so, he is very much in line with the prophet Malachi, who used the language of violence to describe the ways that his contemporaries were using divorce as a means to justify their own selfish behavior. In Malachi’s voice, God is even sarcastic as he compares the way that some of Malachi’s contemporaries changed their marriages the way that they changed their clothing.

So what are the implications for us? I mean, it’s good to hear that Jesus has little patience with those who treat covenantal relationships as though they are disposable, but what do these words mean to us, today?

More specifically, how do we hear these words right now? I mean, look around the room: there are a lot of people here who have gone through the trauma of a divorce. For many, this is an open, festering wound. What does Jesus say to us? How are we supposed to react when Jesus brings up this topic?

It’s times like these when I return to that astounding theologian of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Rocky Balboa. There’s a wonderful scene in the first Rocky movie where the aspiring boxer has received a chance to fight the champ. At first, he’s excited, but as the event draws closer, he is unsure. The night before the match, he leaves his apartment and wanders the streets, filled with self-doubt. Rocky visits his girlfriend, Adrian, who responds to his situation in a very Christ-like way:

Rocky: I can’t do it.Rocky

Adrian: What?

Rocky: I can’t beat him.

Adrian: Apollo?

Rocky: Yeah. I been out there walkin’ around, thinkin’. I mean, who am I kiddin’? I ain’t even in the guy’s league.

Adrian: What are we gonna do?

Isn’t that amazing? She doesn’t try to talk him out of his fear; she doesn’t yell at him to train harder; she doesn’t give him a ‘dope slap’ and say, “Of course you can’t beat him – and you’re an idiot for even thinking you could!” She sits with him in the place where he is and says, “What are we gonna do?”

That, beloved, is the question that faces us this morning. I don’t care if you’ve been married for 60 years or you’ve never been on a date – when we consider the words of Jesus when it comes to covenant love, our best response has got to be, “What are we gonna do?”

peasants marryingMost of you have sat through at least one or two weddings for which I’ve been privileged to be the officiant. For the few in the room who’ve not been at one of those gatherings, let me tell you something that happens every time I stand up here, usually as the less-attractive person wearing a white dress: We talk about the ways that the community is invested in the relationship that we’ve come to bless, and about the ways that the community will be blessed by the marriage that is occurring.

I really mean that. When two people are in love, and they have their own little relationship, well, that’s great. I’m happy for them, and they generally appear to be pretty darn happy themselves. But when they announce that love and seek to walk with that love into the estate or covenant of marriage, then that love moves from being their own private possession to being a means by which they and the community together tell the story of God’s investment in the creation. Marriage is deeply personal, but it is not private – marriage belongs to the whole people, even though only two individuals are directly engaged.

With that in mind, then it seems as though the first thing that we do is to affirm that divorce is not God’s intent. The tearing apart of a marriage is painful and difficult and messy – it’s a place that nobody wants to be. Divorce is antithetical to a covenantal view of the other. That kind of breach in relationship is not a gift.

Having said that, of course, we do well to point out what I hope is the obvious truth: that sometimes divorce is the option that is least bad. Sometimes the marriage has been so eviscerated by abuse or neglect or violence that the only way forward is through the bitterness of separation and divorce. That’s just how it is, and many of you in the room know more about that than I do. Nobody ever gets married hoping for the joy of a divorce; but there are times when it’s the best way to move forward in the life to which we’ve been called.

In response to that, then, it would behoove us to commit ourselves to building a community where people are seen as beings of worth and value in and of themselves, rather than as objects for my own personal use or abuse. We need to create a climate where trust, not manipulation, is the cornerstone of relationships; a community where forgiveness is practiced. The church needs to be a place where our mistakes, our pain, or the abuse of our past does not define us and where models of faithful living and reconciliation are shared.

There was an instant during a recent wedding when I almost burst into tears in the middle of the sermon. It wasn’t because I was so happy for the couple preparing to enter into that covenant, and it wasn’t because I was so embarrassed by my preaching. No, what brought your pastor to the brink of tears that day was the sight of so many of you in the congregation at whose weddings I’ve been privileged to officiate. I was struck and humbled by the ways that you have lived your lives in the months, years, or decades since that day; the joys that you’ve shared and the pain you’ve endured; the hard places – including divorce – that many have been… and yet there you were, again, doing your best to live into the kind of community where people are free to make outlandish promises to one another in front of the rest of us, knowing that they are not alone in that.

What are we gonna do?

We have noted at several points in this exploration of the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus does not intend either to point people to an impossibly high ideal or to heap shame and guilt on those who have somehow failed to live up to the standard that he appears to be setting. As we consider the brokenness of divorce and the pain that we can cause each other in relationship, let us remember that our calling is to rise up from our seats around the teacher after the Sermon on the Mount and create a community of disciples where all are valued and all are called to celebrate and honor covenants.

If the Pacific Ocean is full of the debris from billions of discarded beverage bottles, how much more are our lives swamped by the pain of broken promises, unfulfilled potential, and eroded trust? We gather here this morning and listen to Jesus, not because we claim to be less-broken than those who are around us, but because we know that if there is any hope for healing at all, it will come first from Him, and then from our willingness to treat each other not as objects of fleeting desire but as those who bear the image of the One who calls us into his body – the place of restoration and growth for generations yet to come. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Both quotes from this paragraph are from “A Pocket History of Bottle Recycling”, Atlantic Monthly, February 2013

[2] “Homily 17 on Matthew”,