Pentecost 19 B: Communities of the Broken and Blessed

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Let me suggest a totally different way to approach this text. I’ve written it on it from the perspective of how Mark’s “divorce text” relates to questions of marriage before, and there are certainly excellent commentaries available on this theme. But what strikes me this time around is that perhaps we don’t need to read this as addressed to individuals but rather as something descriptive of, and helpful to, a community. Bear with me a moment while I explain.

When this passage is read at church, we tend to hear it in an intensely personal way. This is particularly true, of course, if you have gone through a divorce, or your parents have been divorced, or someone close to you has. All of this has the end result of hearing this passage as addressed to particular individuals and feeling ashamed or angry or hurt or embarrassed, and that’s totally understandable. Especially if Jesus imagined these words being addressed to individuals.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think he did.

Note, for instance, how Mark sets up this scene: “Some Pharisees came and to test him, said ‘Is it lawful…’” Did you catch that? This isn’t a casual – or even intense, for that matter – conversation about love, marriage, and divorce. It’s a test. Moreover, it’s not even a test about divorce, but about the law. There were, you see, several competing schools of thought about the legality of divorce. Not so much about whether divorce was legal – everyone agreed upon that – but rather under what circumstances. And with this question/test, the Pharisees are trying to pin Jesus down, trying to label him, trying to draw him out and perhaps entrap him so that they know better how to deal with him.

And Jesus is having none of it. He deflects their question away from matters of the law and turns it instead to relationship and, in particular, to God’s hope that our relationships are more than legal matters but instead help us to have and share more abundant life. Hence the turn to Genesis: questions of marriage and divorce, he argues, aren’t simply a matter of legal niceties, but rather are about the Creator’s intention that we be in relationships of mutual dependence and health.

In fact, Jesus goes one step further and takes what had turned into a legal convenience – typically for the man who sought a divorce – and pushes his interlocutors to see that this law – indeed, all law – was and is intended to protect the vulnerable. When a woman was divorced she lost pretty much everything – status, reputation, economic security, everything – so how can they treat this as a convenience, Jesus asks, let alone a debating topic. The law is meant to protect the vulnerable and hurting and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter.

Jesus isn’t speaking to individuals, you see, he’s making a statement about the kind of community we will be. In fact, he’s inviting us to imagine communities centered in and on real relationships; relationships, that is, founded on love and mutual dependence, fostered by respect and dignity, and pursued for the sake of the health of the community and the protection of the vulnerable.

Now, here’s the interesting part for me. Even though the discussion up to this point has been about divorce, I don’t think that’s really the heart of what’s going on here. Which is why I’m grateful the lectionary includes the next verses describing the reaction of Jesus’ disciples to those bringing children to Jesus to bless and, more importantly, Jesus’ reaction to the same.

Let’s recall the context: Jesus has announced his intention to go to Jerusalem to die and, in response, his disciples argue about who is the greatest. Jesus in turn tells them that to be great is to serve, and that the very heart of the kingdom he proclaims is about welcoming the vulnerable. In fact, he says that whenever you welcome and honor a child – one who had the least status and power in the ancient world – you were actually welcoming and honoring Jesus. Now, on the heels of this conversation about the purpose of the law, some folks bring their children to be blessed and the disciples try to keep them away. And Jesus intervenes, forcefully, saying that welcoming the kingdom pretty much means welcoming children, that is, the vulnerable, those at risk, and those in need.

This whole passage, I think, is about community. But it’s not the kind of community we’ve been trained to seek. It’s not, that is, a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent. Rather, this is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk. It’s a community, in other words, of those who know their need and seek to be in relationship with each other because they have learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place.

This is what the church was originally about – a place for all those who had been broken by life or rejected by the powerful and who came to experience God through the crucified Jesus as the One who met them precisely in their vulnerability, not to make them impervious to harm but rather open to the brokenness and need of those around them.

But, goodness, is that hard to remember! No wonder Paul had to remind the Corinthians,

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God (I Cor. 1:26-29).

Part of being human is to be insecure, to be aware of our need and, in light of the cultural preference for strength, power, and independence, to be embarrassed by our need. For this reason, Paul, following Jesus, reminds us that to be broken isn’t something to be ashamed of. Rather, to be broken is, in fact, to be human. And to be human is to be loved by God and drawn together into relationship with all the others that God loves. Which means that our gatherings on Sundays are local gatherings of the broken and loved, of those who are hurting but also healing, of those who are lost but have also been found, of those that know their need and seek not simply to have those needs met but have realizeed that in helping meet the needs of others their own are met in turn.

Can we look at this passage this way, Dear Partner, not so much as instructions about divorce but instead as an invitation to see our communities as those places where God’s work to heal and restore the whole creation is ongoing, not by taking away all our problems but surrounding us with people who understand, and care, and help us to discover together our potential to reach out to others in love and compassion? Can we, that is, tell our people that we are communities of the broken, but we are those broken whom God loves and is healing and, indeed, using to make all things new?

We are, in short, communities of the broken and blessed. And that can be a hard message to hear because it runs contrary to conventional wisdom about strength and security. But it can also be life-giving, not only to those who know themselves to be broken and wonder if this is a place to them, but also to those of us in denial, seeking relentlessly to make it on our own, even if it kills us. Your words this week, Dear Partner, may just help folks discover God’s life-giving grace, love, and mercy. Thanks so much for offering them.

Yours in Christ,