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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Divorce and Dish Dogs

Scripture: Mark 10:2-16

Preached 10/04/2015

Matt[1] worked at a restaurant that a famous television actor loved. Every time the actor made a reservation the cooks picked out the day’s best steak. The bartender pulled a second bottle of his- the actor’s favorite Scotch. Table number one was set aside. And then, two hundred diners, waiters, drinkers all leaning in, eager to be seen by a TV star.

The last time Matt saw the actor, he devoured attention as he pretended to ignore it. He ate and told crude jokes and drank enough liquor to float a small boat. It was a hot night. He was blurry eyed. He looked sad and red and heavy. Everyone in the dining room and crowded around the bar did. A sweaty, drunken congregation, star-struck, depressed, each member hungry for some glory, all of them looking in the wrong direction.

The moment was broken by sounds from the kitchen. The Prince song "U Got the Look" blaring out of a tinny boom-box and unhinged, outrageous laughter. The dish dogs! How dare they intrude on the star’s meal! The manager glared. The dish room is for chronic alcoholics, kids with no work experience- not the important likes of TV stars. Matt burst in to quiet them.  

It was a trap! Not the dish room. Our scripture reading this morning. Jesus is in the middle of a trap that the Pharisees have tried to lay for him. The Pharisees are scholars of the law, nitpicky and legalistic lawyers who are more than a little bit self-righteous. They believe they have all the right answers, and they can prove it, and anyone else with a different opinion is clearly just not educated enough. And this Jesus guy who has come along, and who had been teaching differently than they are, and he’s eroded some of their celebrity status. Fewer people are coming to them for answers, and fewer are respecting the high authority they claim.

They don’t like Jesus, and they don’t like what he has to say. So they lay a trap for him with their best trick question. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” They ask. They’re attempting to get Jesus to take sides here. Because in their eye’s there’s a pretty straightforward answer in scripture, in Deuteronomy, and it’s yes. A man is permitted in Deuteronomy 24 to give his wife a bill of divorce if he finds something “objectionable” about her. But the two main schools of interpretation- Shammai and Hillel, if you’re interested- had been disputing exactly what this meant for years.  

Jesus acknowledges the scriptural allowance for divorce, but then goes on to give a counterpoint, citing the Genesis text about the joining of two into one, and “let no one separate”.

Now, before we go any further, I want to say that I know this passage has been used as a clobber passage against many people, and probably against a good number of you. First and foremost, I am sorry that anyone has done that in the name of God or the Church. It is wrong, and they were wrong. What Jesus is saying here is not that divorce and remarriage go against the will of God and are awful and make you an adulterer. Let’s delve deeper to see what he is actually saying.

Divorce in the first century was very different from divorce as we know it today. In the first century- that’s Jesus time- marriage was a property arrangement, in which a woman ceased to be the property of her father and instead became property of her husband. Marriages were arranged, and a woman had next to no say on who her husband would be.

In these marriages, a man was the only one who could initiate a divorce. And, using that Deuteronomy passage, at least the Hillel interpretation, he could pretty well divorce his wife for any reason. Rabinically accepted reasons for divorce included childlessness, failure to complete household tasks, even burning bread.

As a divorced woman, her future was bleak. She had almost no chance at remarriage. Economic opportunities for divorced women did not exist, and her two options for survival were prostitution or begging. There were very few childless marriages in those days, and the children the marriage had produced would go with the woman. She was not only supporting herself, but attempting to put food on the table and a roof over the head of her now husbandless family.

Meanwhile, the former husband’s life continued as normal, he kept the money and the property, he had fewer mouths to feed, and there was not a stigma about his remarriage should he feel the urge to do so.

This ancient divorce created two classes of people- those who mattered: that would be the men, who could end the marriage at will, who were financially stable, and whose life went on quite easily after a divorce. TV celebrities. And then there was the second class of people: the women. They could not leave an abusive marriage, nor some we would consider adulterous today. They could be dismissed at will for burning the toast, and if dismissed, were left destitute and with a very bleak future. Dish dogs, at best.

It’s pretty clear that Jesus, while using the word divorce, is condemning a practice that is much different that the divorce we know today. To be fair, I believe that Jesus would object to the fact that men still tend to have improved financial statuses after divorce while women have diminished financial statuses. I believe his heart would hurts for the pain that unhealthy relationships cause, and that the ending, even if a good ending, an amicable one cause because God wants us all to be in healthy, life affirming, just and loving relationships, marriages and other relationships.

So to say, based on this statement of Jesus that he does not permit divorce and remarriage, is just awful biblical scholarship, and also wrong. What Jesus objects to is any action that reinforces the idea that there are different classes of people- those who matter and those who do not. What Jesus objects to is the discarding of certain people as if their lives don’t matter. What he objects to- as he makes the point by bringing a child, the one with the least status among them- is any of God’s beloved children being left to starve, to fend for themselves, to have to beg or sell themselves just to be able to survive. The divorce Jesus objects to is not the one that ends an unhealthy marriage. The divorce he objects to is any time we attempt to divorce ourselves from our responsibility to make sure that all of our brothers and sisters are being treated with loving justice, and that we treat them that way as well.

Matt burst into the dish room to tell them to be quiet, he burst out of a trap. He burst out of the trap of the dining room that said the TV star was the one who mattered, and everyone else ranked lower. What Matt found in that trap-bursting dish room was a college student named Roy cracking up as a developmentally disabled teenager named Mike drenched him with a spray gun. Next to them, the occasionally homeless dishwasher named Art was doubled over with laughter. And Prince sang along. It was pure glee.  

Jesus would much rather be much rather hang out with the dish dogs, the outcasts, the downtrodden. His heart is with those most vulnerable members of society, and on this world communion Sunday we remember our responsibility to them, no matter how far they may be away from us. The homeless in our city, the refugees fleeing Syria. The hungry in our neighborhoods, and the starving in Guatemala. Those affected by violence and brutality here, and those whose lives are torn apart by violence in Sudan. And where Jesus’ heart is, there our hearts are to be also. Not just our hearts, but our prayers, our words, our actions, and yes, even our money, for to such belong the kingdom of heaven so if we want to experience it we’d better go where it is on display.

So I encourage you this week, and in the rest of your weeks to come, to break free from the traps you are in. To discard the notion that there are people who matter more than others since Jesus has reminded us we are all in this together. To work on your relationships, as wonderful as they may be, to see if you can move them a little closer to just, a little more loving, a little more like the Genesis text Jesus cites in which equal partners work together for the common good. And to take those same principles out into the world so that you may be and see his presence in a world that’s been looking in the wrong direction.

There was joy in the dish room and false merriment outside it. There was unforced laughter in the dish room and the thin reassurance of too much booze out on the floor. In the dish room, joy mattered. Love mattered. Friendship mattered. Worldly status did not. There was Jesus in the dish room and nothing but his absence at the seat of “honor” the TV star occupied.  Who knew? Jesus did. You do. Show the world. Amen.

[1] “Dish Dogs” Matt Fitzgerald, UCC Daily Devotional

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