By Simon ManchesterSunday 5 Nov 2017Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 17 minutes
We continue in Mark’s Gospel (today in chapter 10 verses 1-16) we see Jesus is aggressively ambushed by some of the Pharisees and they put a fairly explosive question in his face. And he gives a very wonderful answer and a very powerful answer, and I hope that this morning this will cause you to trust and obey him even more. People have always loved the great reply.
When I was a boy, Robert Menzies was the Prime Minister, and he loved being out in the open with crowds of people, and he would often take their questions and respond brilliantly, and you will remember if you are old enough, some of these – the man who called out to him one day;
“What will you do about ‘ousing?” And Bob Menzies called back quick as a flash, “We’ll put an ‘H’ on it!”
And the man who called out to Bob Menzies, “Tell us everything you know in five minutes Bob and sit down”
And he called back, “I’ll tell you everything we both know; it won’t take a second longer!” And this tremendous sort-of witty reply is something that we love and admire in a way.
Now Jesus replies to a very tough question, not in a witty way but in a magisterial way. So look with me in Mark chapter 10, and we see that Jesus is in very Jewish territory. He is, of course, teaching the crowds which he does again and again and again because he wants people to know the crucial information about God to believe and belong.
And you see that some Pharisees come to him, they interrupt him (verse 2) with a question to test him. Now the word “TEST” which is also the word to TEMPT is used four times in Mark’s Gospel, one in chapter 1 where the devil tests or tempts, and then three times it is used of the Pharisees – and this is one of them. And they are very testing or tempting question which has to do with “DIVORCE”.
I must say knowing that Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, I was asking myself the question – ‘why would this come up now?’ and ‘why would Mark who has put the Gospel together, include this particular piece of communication?’ It could because as we saw last week Jesus has been talking about relationships and who we should care for and who we should take seriously. Or it could be these Pharisees are wanting to find out if Jesus is hardline or soft on divorce.
But it is essential to see that he is in Herod’s territory. And Herod, as you know, had left his wife for Herodias and Herodias had left her husband for Herod. And I think therefore it’s fairly clear that the Pharisees are trying to increase the trouble for Jesus to sort of speed it up and get him to say something which will be dangerous, politically dangerous, religiously divisive – in other words, they want to shorten the road to the cross – that’s what they are working on.
Now Jesus is quite masterful. His answer is loving, wise, powerful and it causes me as I read it to rise in admiration for him and appreciation for him. He puts the boundaries in place very quickly for the security of people. And then in the next little section where they are bringing children to him – he indicates a vast openness to welcome people. The boundaries and the doors and if I were to turn this 16 verse section into two points this morning – they are these – and they are quite long these headings. The first one is, Is there room to make a few qualifications? Especially on the subject of marriage. The second section which is only going to get 2 minutes of our time (so don’t despair if we spend more time on the first point) is in verses 13-16 – Is there room for those with no qualifications?
Is there room to make a few qualifications?
This is a fairly meaty section; there are no funny little stories for you this morning as we are dealing with a fairly serious issue and I am asking you to think and work with me. The question which the Pharisees asked is about marriage and divorce.
I realise as I begin this is a challenging subject for many people. Some have been through a very, very painful time. You may feel sad enough, you may feel guilty enough, and I can only say I think you will find this section this morning comforting and not hurtful. There are others here who will think this subject is not relevant because you are single, you are separated, you are widowed, and you will feel as though this is a talk for someone else. And I hope you will see that it is for you because we are going to see today the Lord Jesus (I trust you believe in) and why he is so good and great.
So here is this loaded question in chapter 10 verse 2 – Is it lawful for a man to divorce (literally set loose) his wife? Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?
Now if you go back a little bit in the Old Testament to Deuteronomy the answer is – well there is a permission. Moses taught that there is permission. But if you read Deuteronomy 24 you will see two things – one is that a man must have a good reason for divorcing a wife. This law in Deuteronomy 24 was not to make divorce easier, but it was to make divorce reasonable and authentic. The key word in Deuteronomy 24 (if you look at the text sometimes) is that the man may find something and I quote “indecent” in his wife or “improper”. And some people interpret this very strictly, and some people interpret this very loosely.
The second principle in Deuteronomy 24 is that if a woman does divorce from her husband or is loosed or divorced from her husband and she remarries, she is not to return to her first husband. I always find this passage quite puzzling. If she is put away from the husband and she remarries, and then there is another divorce, she is not to return to the first husband – why?
The Bible says it’s displeasing to God, but it may well be because she is being protected from being returned or thrown back on a man who is quite cruel and unpredictable. In other words, as one Commentator says “she is being prevented from becoming a kind of a marital football”.
Now of course sin being what it is and sin as you know in your heart and mind is always looking for the most opportunities that we can have – because sin is what it is Jewish practice ran with this teaching as far as it could. There were still some strict people in the Jewish world known as the Shammai – Shammai ‘S’ and strict ‘S’, and they said that the indecent men she had been with had been unfaithful and that’s the only clause.
There was another group in the Jewish world that were the kind of happy-go-lucky experts called Hillel – happy-go-lucky ‘H’ Hillel ‘H’ and they said that the husband could put the wife away for many things and if you can believe it this included that she spoiled the cooking or that he saw somebody that was more attractive.
Now we need to remember that in a very patriarchal society and the Jewish society was very patriarchal – and God had made it a society where there would be good leadership, much care, much security and much protection, this is easily abused, especially by men. And because of sin this patriarchal society easily ran into power and selfishness and abuse, and so it ended up like this. Believe it or not in the Jewish community running with this permission that a wife could be said to commit adultery by going with another man but a man could not be said to commit adultery because he would just merely quote Deuteronomy 24 – that’s how bad things had got.
And what I am saying to you that sinfulness and I know this in my heart and I hope you do in your own heart often sets the trajectory for self-interest for many people but not for all. Many people in marriages that are difficult will go in difficult circumstances for as long as they can. Many will go on forever. But many will not, and I think you will agree with me. And Jesus is facing a question which is basically this from the Pharisees – ‘how easy should it be to get out?’ ‘how easy should it be to get out?’
And his priority as he answers, and I think this should be every Christian’s priority, and in fact, it should be every married person’s priority is – ‘how do I stay in by the grace of God in the bonds which he has created?’
Now let us just pause at this point and say I want you to know from Mark 10;
- Jesus is not attacking the wounded,
- he is not speaking to people in pain,
- he is not jumping on people who have gone through marriage breakdown,
- he does not forget to be merciful,
- he does not forget to be gracious,
- he has already told us in Mark chapter 3 that all sin is forgivable.
No. He is responding to the Pharisees and these Pharisees have not come from some difficult and sensitive and sad pastoral situation, it’s not as if they have come to Jesus and said ‘we have just been in the most terrible context – what hope is there?’
They have come with an utterly cynical question, and their only plan is that Jesus will either widen the gates completely for divorce and make it easy or that he will put his finger on some single permission and probably get into more trouble.
So if Jesus was running marriage preparation classes – (we work out from Mark chapter 10) – he is interested and committed to absolutely putting in place the best boundaries possible. Jesus would not be interested in the question that comes up in the marriage class that goes like this;
- Jesus, if it doesn’t go so well, what is the best way out?
- Jesus, what do you think of this pre-nuptial agreement?
- Jesus, what if the marriage isn’t meeting all my needs?
He is not interested in all those questions. His reply in verse 3 is “What did Moses command you?” And they reply (verse 4) “Moses permitted divorce”.
Now, are you still with me? Is anyone still with me? One or two!
In Jesus’ mind, he is thinking of Genesis. He is thinking of what God laid down as a foundation in Genesis chapter 2 and 3. In their mind, they are thinking Deuteronomy. He is thinking – fence – protection but they are thinking – exit – easy escape.
As James Edwards says in his commentary on Mark and I think this is brilliant and if you only remember one thing from this morning, you might remember this;
“They want to talk about crash landings
Jesus wants to talk about great marital flying.”
Does that make sense? They want to talk about the emergency and the escape. Jesus wants to talk about the blessing and the plan of God.
So he says in verse 6 “Go back to the plan of Genesis where God made them male and female”. He made the family, a brand new family. And the man, says Jesus, will leave his parents for his wife and the two will become one flesh – this is the plan of God. And notice in passing as far as God is concerned, only those two – male and female – become one flesh. And as far as God is concerned there is no other marriage! Only what God joins is a marriage. And Jesus teaches of course here that the male and female are equal and both of them are responsible, and it’s God who decides that the two are one and it’s God who decides that these two are one.
So they want to talk divorce, but he wants to talk marriage. And every sensible Pastor who gets a phone call from somebody who says ‘can I come and talk to you about divorce?’ will say ‘no’ but we will talk marriage first – or ‘yes’ but we will talk marriage first. That’s what Jesus is doing.
I don’t need to tell you how complicated this is. I don’t need to tell you that today there are questions about who is male and who is female. There is a whole conversation going on about marriage re-definition. There are force marriages. There are child brides. There are divorce issues. There are re-marriage questions. Think of the people who are trying at the very present to work out what to do in a dysfunctional marriage where mistakes have been made; feelings are absolutely in the pits; friends are telling them to get out, the world is saying ‘who cares what you do?’ and life is very, very complicated.
But I just want you to know that in Mark chapter 10 Jesus is not dealing with all of that but he is dealing with some Pharisees who want some information on the exit doors and he wants to give some information on the entry doors – that’s what is happening here.
So you cannot take these verses and make them say what they are not saying. I try to teach this to the other Pastors on the staff here – not that they need to be taught but at least I try to say it again and again, and the point is this – that we are not meant to be taking a text and saying what we want. We are not even meant to be taking a text what other people want. We are not meant to be taking a text and saying everything that has ever been said on the subject. We are meant to be taking the text, and without sticking our personal lens over it or our own grid or framework over it, we are meant to be hearing in this case what John Mark is telling us.
And I sometimes like to think, and I think I have said this to the staff – we should speak and you should lead Bible Studies and you should share the Gospel as if the Author is sitting behind you and that John Mark might come up to me at the end of the sermon and he might say to me ‘you said what I was on about’. I don’t want him coming up at the end of the sermon and saying ‘where did all that come from? That had nothing to do with what was in the text.’
Well, this is especially relevant because as we come to the next verses (10-12), we see what Jesus says and doesn’t say indoors with the disciples on the subject of divorce and re-marriage. And this is what he says, and this is a shock. He says ‘anyone (a male) who divorces his wife and marries another – commits adultery’. In other words, says Jesus, I want you to know that the men are not off the hook with Deuteronomy 24. And he says ‘and if she (a female) divorces and remarries, she commits adultery as well’. Nobody was teaching this.
And we know from other parts of Scripture if we did want to go more widely into the New Testament that there is a lot of stuff which needs to be wrestled with pastorally. For example, in Matthew 19 there is a situation according to Jesus where divorce is permitted, and we also know from 1 Corinthians 7 that there is a situation according to the Apostle Paul where it may be irretrievable to save a relationship because your spouse is leaving and will not be talked into returning. But that’s not Jesus’ issue here. What Jesus is dealing with here is the person who wants out for trivial reasons.
Now I have to say in my pastoral time at North Sydney I don’t know that I am aware of people who have been through divorce where they have initiated trivial reasons. And therefore we are not meant to read Mark 10 as a stick to beat us.
I think Bishop Riley is right when he says;
“If the reason is trivial and the divorce should not have taken place, then remarriage is adultery.
If the reason is trivial and the divorce should not have taken place, then remarriage is adultery”.
So do you see Jesus is putting the man and the woman on equal footing? Jesus is saying he may be as guilty as she and she is as responsible as him. So this is the foundation which he lays down.
Does he do this because he is hard-hearted? No
- He does it because he is big-hearted
- He wants good for people
- He wants good for children
- He wants good for society
- He wants what honours God
- He wants what glorifies God
- It’s his world.
We don’t get to re-define marriage despite the discussion any more than we get to re-define oxygen. We get to recognise it and observe it and thank God for it.
I don’t know if you have heard of Dolce & Gabbana and so apparently they are fashion designers who happen to be gay and they made Elton John very angry by saying ‘you are born to a mother and father, the family is not a fad’.
I don’t know if I have also mentioned to you and I will just say this in case I haven’t but if you know the historian Niall Ferguson who is the Professor of Modern History at Harvard University – and he has written a book called “Civilization – The West and the Rest” which became a television series where he looks at a number of factors which have contributed to the strength of Western democracy for the last 500 years. And I think there are eight chapters in the book – the last one which in many ways is the climax of the book is the key to Protestant Christianity. And Ferguson (who I don’t think is a Christian) says – “the Chinese are recognising that Protestant Christianity has been foundational to the strength and success of the West and so the Chinese are in tension as to whether welcoming this Protestant Christianity with open arms or being as cautious as before”.
Niall Ferguson says this at the end of the book – “If the West which is now crumbling is to learn the lesson which China seems to be learning which is the value of Protestant Christianity, we will need a foundational text for our community and for our society”.
I would have thought the foundational text is pretty obvious. I would have thought it was here in Mark chapter 10 where Jesus says “Have you seen what God says?” In other words, have you read your Bibles? Have you seen the written word?
There is Jesus dealing in Mark 10 with some fairly cynical, ambushing aggressors who come up to him to say ‘is it possible that we can find some easy qualifications for marriage?’ and he says ‘No’.
Is there Room for those with no qualifications?
Now very briefly in the second point Is there Room for those with no qualifications? And this is the famous section with children – just our last couple of minutes this morning where we read that famous phrase “Let the Little Children Come Unto Me”.
And a couple of surprises in this passage (verse 13) says ‘some people keep bringing children to Jesus’ – literally some men keep bringing children to Jesus. Possibly the dads keep bringing their children to Jesus – how wonderful!
And then in verse 13 says the disciples keep rebuking them, so the problem in this section of Mark 10 is not the Pharisees, but it is now the disciples. And the dads or the men who are bringing the children to Jesus want Jesus to touch them which mean lay hands on them or bless them, but the disciples don’t want Jesus to be bothered by the children, and as we saw last week, they don’t want Jesus to be bothered by the children.
Why do they not want Jesus to be bothered by the children? Because they don’t think the children are significant – they think they are insignificant? And in Jesus’ day children were not considered very important or cute or innocent or humble – they were considered insignificant. But Jesus considers them significant.
Not only is he indignant with the disciples – a very strong word which is only used here in Mark’s Gospel – angry with his disciples but he takes the opportunity in verse 15 to teach all the adults (which is us here this morning). Do you not realise Jesus says if adults would see themselves as insignificant, helpless, disqualified with no qualifications – if they came to be like that, they would get this – and he wraps his arms around the children.
Do you understand? Says Jesus. If adults came like that, they would get this because this is the way to come into the Kingdom – to come to the King with the attitude that says ‘I have no qualifications’.
I want to say to you this morning in case there is anybody here and you still think that one day when you come face to face with Jesus Christ, you will try and show him that you have some qualifications for entry – I want to say to you again this morning, that’s impossible. None of our qualifications will amount to anything in the face of the perfect King.
For those of you who think I don’t have anything to boast of, but I will come up with something – just give me a little bit more time – I want to say to you-you will never come up with any qualifications for impressing Jesus. Don’t despair but go to him as somebody with no qualifications and say to him ‘O Lord Jesus, I have nothing to bring, just my sin and self’. And Jesus says when you come like that his arms go around you-you have become a person in the Kingdom.
Sally Swan who is one of our returned missionaries e-mailed me some months ago to say that she had farewelled her dear 98-year-old step father and when they had bent over him in the hospital and whispered to him that they were sorry that he might not get to 100 and he might not get a telegram from the Queen – he replied in a whisper “Better to know the King”. And that’s exactly right, isn’t it? Better to know the King.
Here is the King, the Lord Jesus in Mark chapter 10 and he is putting the best boundaries in place and then he is putting the best door in place.
He is putting the boundaries to protect his people, and he is putting the door to welcome the non-people. Do you think this is the sign of somebody who is very loving and powerful? Well, of course, it’s somebody very loving and powerful. This is Jesus on the road to the crucifixion and the resurrection because it is at the crucifixion and the resurrection that he is going to bring in the foundations for his people – the fences of protection and the door for everybody who believes.
Let’s thank Him – let’s bow our heads. Father, we thank you for your character which we see displayed so beautifully in this section – wise, wonderful, strong and loving. We thank you for this compassion which is seen as Jesus welcomes the children. We pray that you would give us your grace to respond with humility and gratitude and confidence and faithfulness.
We ask it in Jesus’ Name.