The High Bar

A Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 22 – Year B – 07 October 2012

Eleanor Lee Wellford,  Associate Rector


Mark 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.


 Have you ever been asked a question that is just a set-up for a trap?  Until I caught on to her, my daughter used to love doing that to me, especially when she wanted me to buy something for her.  She would ask:  “Don’t you want to make me happy?” 

And of course I’m not above setting my own traps, especially for my husband.  One of my favorites involves my cooking. Thankfully, Tenny will eat just about any uncreative dish that I set in front of him.  But every now and then I try out a new recipe and I’ll ask him: “How’d you like it?”  The real trap is in how long it takes him to answer that question.  If he hesitates, then I know he didn’t like it, which will upset me.  If he answers too quickly then I know he’s just telling me what I want to hear, and that upsets me, too!

No win questions are those that are going to convict us no matter how we answer them!  They are also known as double binds and they are packed full of judgment.  And usually the balance of power is in favor of the one setting the trap. So, if you find yourself about to become trapped, the best thing to do is to take a deep breath and try not to take the bait because that’s what usually hooks into something inside of us that causes us to become angry or defensive which plays right into the hands of the trapper.

But if we know that about ourselves we can, as wise Dr. Seuss said: “Be who (we) are and say what (we) feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”  In other words, be true to ourselves.

In this morning’s reading from Mark, Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees who were looking to trap him.  It’s not the first time they tried to trap him nor was it the last.  The issue was divorce, which during the 1st century, was politically and socially sensitive.

The Pharisees knew that Jesus agreed with John the Baptist on the issue of divorce – an unpopular belief that had landed John in prison.  So, these experts of the law were hoping that Jesus would fall for their trap and give an answer that would do the same for him or at least destroy his credibility.  So they asked him: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  As much as they expected Jesus to say “No”, he turned the trap back onto them with a question of his own.  “What did Moses command you?” he asked.  And they dutifully answered that Moses had indeed made a provision for divorce, thus making it lawful for a man to divorce a woman.

 Jesus could have said: “Well, then, you have your answer” but he didn’t say that.  He made sure that they and anyone listening knew that they were all missing the whole point about marriage by just focusing on divorce.  So Jesus said: “When two people marry, they become one flesh and therefore what God has joined together no one should separate” (Mark 10:8-9). 

Jesus had successfully disarmed the Pharisees’ trap but his disciples wanted further explanation.  It was at this point that Jesus left no room for interpretation when he said:  “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). 

Whoa!  That stings because even in our day and time, divorce is still a sensitive issue. It’s a rare family who has not been affected by divorce.  In fact, statistics show that half of all marriages today end that way.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ words?  They weren’t unique to Mark’s gospel.  Matthew and Luke recorded Jesus saying something similar in their writings.  And apparently the apostle Paul discouraged divorce, urging women not to separate from their husbands, or, if separated, to remain unmarried (1Corinthians 7:10-11). 

C.S. Lewis wrote about divorce with the same conviction as Jesus had spoken about it.  In his book Mere Christianity, he argues that Christian marriage is for life and that anyone who marries a divorced person commits adultery.  He was unmarried at the time and probably believed he would remain that way.  But as fate would have it, he created a double bind for himself.  Little did Lewis know that he would meet and fall deeply in love with a divorced woman. 

This was captured in the movie called Shadowlands.  There’s a scene in that movie in which Lewis asks his close friend, who was also an Anglican priest, to officiate at their marriage.  The priest assured him that the bishop would never consent to it.  In defiance of that answer, Lewis searched and searched until he finally found someone to perform the ceremony which took place in a hospital room where Lewis and his fiancée, Joy, who was there because of cancer, responded to the same words we know so well in the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage in the Book of Common Prayer

So, how can such a reversal of a deep-seated conviction be explained?  Did Lewis simply disregard what Jesus had taught in scripture about divorce when it ran counter to what he wanted to do with his whole heart?  Some biographers write that Lewis rationalized that since Joy married a divorced man the first time she was married that the marriage had never been recognized by the church.  If she wasn’t really married, then she wasn’t really divorced. 

Whenever I am asked to officiate at a wedding in which the man or woman has been divorced, I must ask the Bishop for permission to do so since priests stand in for Bishops in solemnizing unions.  The real issue in granting permission isn’t about adultery, though, as Jesus said it should be.  It’s about practical matters such as making sure all issues surrounding the divorce have been put to rest to avoid bringing them into the new marriage.

On one hand, marriages are meant to last for better or for worse until death separates the couple.  The Prayer Book is very specific about that.  On the other hand, the Prayer Book is very specific about the fact that marriage “is intended by God for the mutual joy” of that couple.  So what happens when, as Jesus said, our hearts become hardened and abuse and anger and irreconcilable differences and unmet needs and miscommunication and things beyond our control all tear at the fabric of a marriage to the point that it becomes joyless?   What then?

I haven’t yet encountered any couples who enter into marriage with the idea that it isn’t going to work. Otherwise, that would make a mockery of the sacred institution.  And Jesus was too adamant about divorce to simply ignore what he said.  Jesus was a perfect person who knew himself well and who always set a high bar in what he said or did because he didn’t worry about whom he might offend or what other people were thinking about him.  If Jesus put divorce in the context of marriage, then I’ll risk putting marriage in the context of being human and admit that we all fall short of the high bar that Jesus sets for us.  And isn’t that when we are most in need of compassion rather than judgment?

 All we have to do is read just a little bit farther in today’s text to witness Jesus as the picture of compassion, taking small children into his arms and blessing them.  Doesn’t that compassion also extend to divorced people?  Maybe I’m no better than the Pharisees in posing such a question.  It sounds too much like my daughter asking me “Don’t you want to make me happy?”

Jesus isn’t about making us happy nor is he about choosing who gets compassion and who doesn’t.  He’s about restoring relationships, mostly our broken relationship with God.  So, it’s no wonder he would favor marriage lasting a lifetime; and in a perfect world, it would.  But nothing is perfect about our world.  The best we can do, is to know ourselves well, and be true to ourselves, and when it comes to ourselves and to others, to choose compassion over judgment and keep reaching for the high bar.