A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Divorce, Marriage and the Interpretation of Scripture

I decided to post my sermon from last Sunday after being reminded some people hear things better reading them than listening.  Which made me ponder again how church can better reach out to those who are visually oriented or those who need to move or experience things tactilely. 

Anyway, here is the sermon based on Mark 10:2-16 where Jesus talks about divorce and Genesis 2:18-24 which talks about marriage:  

Divorce is a difficult topic.  One the church too often ignores.  My life has not been directly affected by divorce.  Yet, when I was grieving the loss of my first husband I discovered some of the people who understood best what I was going through were friends who had experienced divorce.  They understood so well because divorce, too, involves heart rending pain and grief.  

Between the divorce related scripture in the Gospel and the marriage related scripture from Genesis, one thing we cannot say about these scriptures is that they are irrelevant.    Divorce rates continue to be high in our country and the issue of homosexual marriage is in the forefront of our political scene, such debates often referencing these scriptures.   

Speaking to these topics in the contexts of today’s scripture, I believe one needs to address something a bit more basic: how we understand scripture itself.  There are some pretty big interpretive bombs I could drop in relation to these scriptures.  My personal favorite is that the word in Genesis translated as “helper”  is often used to describe God (more about this here).  Kind of blows to smithereens any idea we may have of “helper” describing a submissive and lower status of women in relation to men.  Or does it?  That’s the thing, I drop a bomb on one particular scripture and if you are inclined to disagree with me you will seek out another scripture to support your view point.  Scripture ends up being used as a weapon rather than good news.  One of my seminary friends used to say in regards to these types of brutal discussions and the judgmental attitude which often accompanies them, “the cross should not be just another stick to beat you with.”  I think it is important then to be aware of how we interpret scripture.  Whether we like it or not the bible says things which are contradictory.  When faced with such things what criteria do we use to determine what we will believe?  
Martin Luther emphasized scripture being interpreted through the gospel of Jesus.  One might also talk about interpreting a particular scripture in light of the character of Jesus as revealed by scripture as a whole.  Others might emphasize things Jesus said over other scriptures.  Another might focus on the contrast between believers and non-believers which might be found in scripture.  Many agree historical context plays a role in how we understand a particular passage but how great a role?  Does historical context sometimes make a passage irrelevant for today?  Does it clarify what message we are to receive?  Is it only interesting?  Does it clarify the message the original hearers were supposed to receive but have no bearing on what we hear today?  How do we determine what laws are meant to be for all time and what are meant for a particular context?  So think, for a moment, about how you understand scripture.

Now let’s consider some of the contextual factors which may or may not have a bearing on our understanding of the Gospel of Mark.  Marriage was thought of much differently in Jesus’ day.  At WorkingPreacher.org, Associate Professor of New Testament, Matt Skinner writes, “Marriage in the ancient world, at least among the vast majority of social strata, was primarily a means of ensuring families' economic stability and social privileges (by creating both offspring and inter-family alliances). A woman's sexuality was essentially the property of her father, then of her husband.”

Professor Skinner goes on to write, “..., Jesus gives women a place of greater equality in the marriage relationship, hardly seeing them as passive objects. ... by speaking of a man committing adultery against a woman (and not against her father or her past or present husband), Jesus implies that adultery involves more than violating the property rights of another man. It concerns accountability to a partner, just as marriage does.”  I hope, we would never dream, these days, of implying a husband committing adultery is primarily offending the woman’s father.  The context in which these words were written is indeed very different from today.  What that means for interpreting this scripture depends upon your view of scripture.  
It might also be helpful to consider the Pharisees were testing Jesus.  Professor Skinner describes a debate, in Jesus’ day, between two ideas of when divorce was permissible: for any reason or only in the case of adultery.  Perhaps the Pharisees were trying to make Jesus choose sides.  As is often the case, Jesus chooses neither side but a new way.  In so doing Jesus emphasizes the importance and mutuality of our relationships with each other.  
Christianity does not have a great history of addressing issues regarding marriage and sexuality.  We tend to hold up some glorified ideal as being the one good way, leaving in the dark those whose lives take them in a different path whether from mistakes made, trauma suffered, or simply by feeling called in a different direction such as remaining single.  
We avoid the topic of divorce because it is complex and difficult but in so doing we leave many suffering from shame and hurt.  We bandy about words in the debate about homosexuality as though we are not talking about real people.  We sometimes lack clarity when clarity is needed such as regarding abuse, when we should be standing up to make sure people are set free of bonds that would keep them in an abusive relationship.  We need to talk about these things with openness and understanding, realizing there are many different points of view regarding scripture and while we may disagree with each other we can do so with respect and love, holding always forefront in our minds the possible wounds and needs of others. 
Last week, we (my home congregation) sang the hymn “There is a Balm in Gilead.”  I can’t ever hear this song without thinking about how much "balm" sounds like "bomb."  So, let me be clear here.  We have been gifted with the Good News of Jesus Christ, the clearest revelation of God’s love for us.  This is not a collection of bombs, b-o-m-b-s, for us to launch at each other but rather is a balm, b-a-l-m to soothe souls aching from broken relationships, aching from loneliness, aching to be understood and loved.  Whether we are married, divorced, widowed, single, homosexual, heterosexual, whatever our circumstance in life God loves us and gave us God’s son so that we are set free of mistakes, free of the judgment of others, set free to be a balm for all who are in need.   Thanks be to God.  Amen.
So, how do you interpret scripture?  And related to my intro: How can we better reach those who are visually or tactilely oriented?

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