Sometimes, when struggling with a thorny issue - like say, a scripture text about divorce in the gospel passage from Mark this week (Mark 10:2-6) - I like to sit in the church and think. I find the atmosphere helpful: the quiet … the stained glass … the banners … the abstract painting behind the cross … the hand painted signs that say "Keep Out!" and "Beware of Ogres" …
That seems rather incongruous, I bet. But there are days that the drama of our church services gives way to the drama of the Bashaw Community Theatre's rehearsals for Shrek, coming later this fall. Our space is sacred both for the community that gathers and the community it makes.
That intersection of things is a powerful reminder to me of the importance of context.
I don't mean the appropriateness of things inside the building called a church. Every community of faith can decide what's appropriate in it's space and ours has simply decided to begin with deciding that it builds community, honours the desire to welcome everyone and lives out our mission, which is "living God's love, sharing God's love."
No, I mean the relevance of the stories we tell, and the message we share, to our life experience. Love, hope, joy, peace, wisdom - too many ideas and principles to name them all - become most meaningful and alive to us when we can see them where we are. Comforting or challenging, doubtful or inspiring, calm or dramatic, these things all become more understandable, more tangible and more real in practice.
Jesus didn't sit in a cave somewhere and wait for people to come to him for his words. He was out meeting people where they were and how they were, teaching with words and action. Feed the hungry - look, I'll show you. Care for the sick - look, I'll show you. Welcome the poor and marginalized - look, I'll show you. Love one another - look, I've been showing you with my life.
What's true in Jesus' life is timeless, but the stories of his living are in a certain time. I know it's part of my job to delve into the context of the day and draw out the meaning and I love a good bible study and find the study of ancient history fascinating and, ultimately, important. But I don't live there. Or then. So, sometimes, I have to wonder how Jesus might tell a story or make a point today. Who would be the characters in the Parable of the Good Samaritan? How, and where, might he feed a large crowd of people? How might Jesus talk to a global audience?
Which brings me to that passage from Mark. Pharisees come to test Jesus with a question about whether or not divorce is lawful. It's a trick question, of course, because Moses allows for it in the law. Jesus isn't interested in Moses' law, given because of "your hardness of heart" (Mark 10:5), but rather what God intended, which is that people be in relationship, joined by God. He even goes on to say "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).
Ouch. That seems pretty clear and to the point. Bearing in mind, of course, that in the first century, it was simple: marriage had nothing to do with love or relationship, it was a contract involving the exchange of goods and divorce ensured (or manipulated, in most cases) your contractual obligations were met if you wanted out. And also that Jesus is clear that the law only reinforces the brokenness of the people. And, of course, that this is someone's retelling of what Jesus may have said in that moment, to those people, retold for the benefit of later readers.
Now that we've mitigated a little of the harshness, what's Jesus really talking about? Relationship. Just as Jesus challenges the other structures of society and reminds us of what's at the heart of the law, Jesus challenges this law, too, as leading away from what was intended by God, that we live in loving, mutually respecting and life-giving relationships.
What might Jesus say to that question today? Maybe the same thing. Or maybe Jesus might acknowledge this much is still true: the law is there to put a structure on something far greater, kind of like how religion is the way you structure belief, government is the way you structure care for all people and society is the way you structure the organization of your lives. None of them are perfect. All of them need to take into account the fundamental need for relationship and what might be right relationship, lived with love, respect and grace. But this much we have learned, that relationships aren't a contract, they're a covenant in which something new is created, that bond between people. He might also acknowledge that we've learned enough that we know that many relationships do well and many don't. People grow and relationships change and it can get messy. What's most important is our commitment to being in relationship. And if that relationship is broken, that we commit to mutual healing, however that changes the relationship. And we commit to loving one another, as Jesus still loves, as God loves.
This moment in Mark is followed (not at all coincidentally, I think) by Jesus telling the disciples to let the children come to him because "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:15).
Maybe this means, literally, when you're a child, but I doubt it. Maybe it means with the open, wide-eyed innocence of a child. That would certainly bring us to embracing what Jesus was teaching. Or you could look at the children around you today, in this time. Children engage - they need to touch and taste and ask questions, they say "no" a lot and they don't always do what you tell them. It can get messy. But they look for relationship.