It’s a discipleship thing…how Jesus speaks about marriage in chapter 10 of St. Mark’s Gospel. A discipleship thing, a growing up within the grace of God. And being a discipleship thing, that means it’s a Christ thing, a Gift thing.
For the Pharisees…and for nearly everyone who says anything on the subject of marriage these days, whether in the church or out in the public square…for the Pharisees it’s a Law thing! “Is it lawful…?” That’s the question they throw at Jesus. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Is it lawful for a woman to divorce her husband? Is it lawful for a man or woman to marry again? Is it lawful for a man to marry another man, or a woman another woman? Is it lawful for a man to marry multiple wives? Is it lawful for a man and woman, man and man, woman and woman, or whatever combination you care to name…is it lawful for them to ‘co-hab’ without being husband and wife? Is it lawful…? That’s the Pharisee question.
Jesus’ reply says, in effect, “If you want Law, I’ll give you Law…but Law is not, ultimately, the answer!” It’s a discipleship thing, a Christ thing, a Gift thing.
As He did in our Reading two weeks ago, Jesus again uses children to make His point. Little children simply receive what they are given. So, He says, “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,” to such as receive and do not argue about the gift. The gift simply becomes part of them and shapes their life. And when Jesus hugged the little children, none was left out of His loving embrace!
Our Lord’s words about marriage ring with that kind of grace. When a person marries, he/she embraces the whole of other, without reservation, nothing kept back or held outside. To each other is given their whole self, bone of bones and flesh of flesh. So from that day on, nobody else can give them such happiness as each other…nor such pain. Because “from the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”—one, whole, embraced for good.
Twice in St. Mark, chapter 10, the disciples react in shock to Jesus’ words. “This is too much. It’s more than a person can handle!” And both times Jesus agrees with them. “Yes it is too much…for you! But not for God.” It’s a discipleship thing. A gift thing. A Christ thing.
And the gifts of God’s giving are always more than we can imagine or hope. The Jesus who speaks to us in this chapter today is the Jesus who is on His way up to Jerusalem, to give Himself as a gift for us on the cross, and through the cross to the resurrection and that life which not we nor sin nor death can destroy. And that, as the Apostle Paul writes so famously, is how husbands love their wives, and, likewise, wives their husbands. Not law, but gift…crucified and resurrected gift. A Christ thing!
In the vast and muddled mess called marriage these days, the Church is, by and large, losing the argument. And like the losing side in an argument, we are getting more and more and more shrill in what we say about marriage. But we are losing the argument because we have become like the Pharisees. All we ever say, with rare exception, is Law. “In the beginning God created us male and female.” That’s the Law, that’s the way it is—one man, one woman, one flesh—and any variation from that gets a big “No.” And if you didn’t hear it the first time we’ll say it again louder, “No!” We’ll pound the table and shout it, “No!!” We’ll spit and sputter and lobby and demonstrate, No! No! No! No!
Meanwhile, at the fringes of the faith we hear more and more “yes.” God may say “no” but, hey!, we’re gonna say “yes.” People like “yes.” “Yes” is popular. We’ll hoist our rainbow flags and craft new marriage liturgies, and we’ll rewrite or just plain ignore those parts of the Bible and 2000 years of Christian tradition which don’t fit. Because Yes! Yes! Yes!
It’s all Law. Whether a stern-faced defending of God’s ‘No’ or a cheeky flaunting of it, it’s still Law. And going down the path of Law leads us to only one place…dead. But what did Jesus say? “From the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female.’” God made them…us… It’s God’s doing. And that means it’s not Law, it is in the way of gift…which makes it a Christ thing, a growing-up-in-His-grace discipleship thing.
Remember the little children in this passage? St. Mark uses this episode in the same way that St. Luke uses that famous parable in his Gospel about the father with the two children, two sons. That father in St. Luke embraces both of his sons, even though the younger son has gone off to live what he thinks is life to the full, looking for love in all the wrong places, and ends up partying with the pigs. Meanwhile the older child, going nowhere, has long ago lost any sense of love. He’s consumed with the law, with power and rights, with who’s on first, and there ain’t no way that no good brother is getting back into the family! To both of them, the father says, “My son.” He takes them both in his arms and blesses them, even though they both have a lot of growing up to do within the grace of that father’s embrace!
Like that father, like Jesus with the little children, the Church which bears His name has the most incredible gifts of blessing to bestow within Christ’s embrace. That’s how we talk about marriage in the Church. Not Law, power, who’s on first, and who has to submit to whom. No! It’s a discipleship thing—how husband and wife, within the embrace of marriage, grow up together within the larger embrace of Christ and His grace. And even for those to whom God has not given the gift of marriage, there is still that embrace of grace in Christ!
Within Christ’s embrace, like the little children, there are the gifts of Christ Himself—forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation—gifts which become all the greater because they are shared. And within Christ’s embrace, within His gifts, in Him, we find ourselves being transformed…our “yes” echoing with His “yes,” our “no” shaped by His “no.” Not out of Law, but because of grace, of growing up into the length and breadth and height and depth of His embrace of us…us…with all of our sinful contradictions.
So what of the prodigals in this world, whether they name the name of Christ or not…the prodigals who live heedless to God’s yes and no? Will the Law save them? Hardly! Only Christ, only Christ and His gifts, given (and perhaps rejected) again and again and again. Why, even celebrity couples have not divorced and remarried anywhere near Jesus’ seventy-times seven!
And what of the hardened defenders of God’s Law? What about that little Pharisee which lives in each one of us Christians, in us who so love God’s Law…that we have a hard time loving those who transgress it? Ah…we are the ones who have the harder struggle with discipleship, with growing up into grace. And therefore we need that grace of God all the more! Seventy times seven more. The more we grow in the faith the easier it seems to become to get set in our ways and crotchety and self-righteous, it becomes the harder not to be cynical and angry.
But still God says, “My son…My daughter.” Whether our own lives have been as reckless as the prodigal son or have grown as hard and fossilized as the Pharisee son…it is in Christ’s embrace, God’s grace, which finally, only, can save us…again and again and again. Seventy times seven!
Like the disciples, there are going to be times when we too come to say, “This is too much!” “It’s too much!” Indeed it is…for us. But not for Christ. And when we do find ourselves broken by God’s Law…and we will…whether it’s because we are one who has rent asunder what God had joined together…whether it’s because we are one whose desires run contrary to God’s creation for male and female…whether it’s because we are one who has become hardened in our self-righteousness about the things of God…when the struggle with God’s Law is fierce and the warfare long…Christ takes us little children into His arms again…and again…and again…far beyond His own seventy times seven. “My child,” He says. “My child.” And by His Word, He places His hands on us little children, and in the Sacrament He says, “Have a cookie.” And He blesses us. And there, within His embrace of Word and Sacrament, there, oh yes!, there is love.