Lectionary 27B, October 7, 2018
Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” The thing about this verse is that there are at least two things that don’t translate very well into English, or are misleading. First is the word “helper.” In English, that word gives us the impression that the helper is a subordinate. Think of children helping their parents, or an aide helping their superior. But in Hebrew, the word doesn’t have that connotation. In the Bible, “helper” is most often used to describe God. God is our helper. The word implies that the one who helps is a powerful person, not an underling or a subordinate.
Second is the word “partner.” Partner, in English, is a word that is very businesslike and limited. A business partnership is a contract between two or more people to accomplish a specific goal, like running a law firm together. Outside of that one goal, the partners may not have anything to do with one another or care about one another. But the Hebrew phrase implies a much deeper relationship, one that goes beyond than contracts and obligations. If you’ve ever had a friend or loved one whom you just clicked with, who understood you on the deepest level, who would drop anything for you if you needed them and who you would do the same for, that’s what this verse means. Or, as Ecclesiastes puts it, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?”
One thing the Bible is very clear on, from the beginning to the end, is that being human means being in relationship with others. When we read this passage, we tend to focus on what it means for gender relations or for marriages, but the first thing we should remember is that it is not good for humans to be alone. This is still in the garden of Eden, before the fall; sin has not yet entered the world. Everything so far has been “good.” The human’s aloneness is the first thing that is not good. We were created in God’s image, and God is a relationship: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all three together. In the same way, human beings were created to be in relationships. And that’s why God split that first human being in two and created Adam and Eve. And by “relationships” I don’t just mean romantic relationships, either. Parent-child relationships. Friendships. Sibling relationships. Neighborly relationships. Mentorships. These are all incredibly important to our spiritual well-being. Good relationships help us grow and sustain us even in our darkest times. But when sin intervenes—when our relationships are twisted or bad—they are incredibly damaging and make our lives measurably worse. The Bible spends more time focusing on our relationships with other human beings, in all their variety, than it does focusing on our relationship with God. Why? Because God created us to be in relationship with other people. And those relationships can do either great harm or great good.
Marriage is one of the most fundamental of those relationships. It is the foundation, not just for the relationship between spouses but of a life together which may include children and which will affect every other relationship we have. God wants that marriage to be a partnership in the Biblical sense, one that nourishes both spouses, in which both receive what they need and work together for their common good. God intends that marriage should be faithful, that both spouses should be committed to one another in not just body but mind and heart, too. There’s a reason that adultery is the only sexual sin mentioned in the Ten Commandments. It’s a betrayal of the relationship and of the faith the spouses place in one another. God intends marriage to be a thing that gives joy and helps both spouses to grow in faith and love, which gives support in time of trouble.
And that’s not an easy thing to maintain! We don’t live in the garden of Eden anymore. Even in the best marriage, there are going to be times when things don’t work right. Times when one or both spouses is selfish or self-centered, times when they do things that hurt their spouse, times when anger or fear or jealousy or indifference lead to words or actions that break down the relationship, or hurt one another. Or sometimes they take it for granted that the help should only be going one way, and what should be mutual support and partnership turns into one taking advantage of the other. None of these things are what God intends marriage to be. And they all hurt. And it’s a hard thing to recover from; it’s hard to fix the problems and build a good and life-giving relationship back up. I’ve never been married myself, but I’ve seen it in friends and family and parishioners. It is hard work, but can be so rewarding if both spouses are willing to honestly do their best to build a better relationship.
But sometimes, one or both spouses isn’t willing to put in the hard work to build a better relationship. Sometimes they like taking advantage of their spouse. Sometimes they like hurting their spouse. Sometimes they don’t like hurting their spouse, but don’t care enough about it to change the things in them that lead them to hurt their spouse. Sometimes they like using their spouse as an emotional or physical punching bag, someone to blame and attack when things go wrong. Sometimes they decide that desiring someone else means it’s okay to be unfaithful. Sometimes they want to trade their spouse in for a younger model. Sometimes there are other problems. All these things are caused by a hardness of heart. And, if they go on long enough, they can cause SERIOUS damage, not just to the relationship, but the people in it. And when that happens, it is a perversion of God’s good gift of marriage.
Every society throughout history has struggled with this problem. What do you do when human hard-heartedness pervert’s God’s good gift of marriage? What do you do when a relationship that is supposed to be life-giving and supportive turns destructive? What do you do when one or both spouses either can’t or won’t put in the work to get the relationship to a healthier state? If you make divorce hard, you trap people in destructive mockeries of what marriage is supposed to be. If you make divorce easy, then people in destructive or abusive relationships can escape them … but some people who could heal the problems in their marriage if they put in the effort will decide they simply don’t want to do the hard work, and walk away from their marriage. Where do you draw the line? What about relationships where it’s not abusive, but it’s not the mutually supportive relationship God intended? What about when there are children? What about when one spouse—usually the wife—has no resources to live on if they divorce? Human beings, and human relationships, are complicated. These are not easy calls to make, and there is no hard-and-fast one-size-fits-all rule that everyone can agree on.
Which is why the Pharisees asked about divorce when they were looking to test Jesus. They don’t like him and they’re looking for a way to discredit him. So they choose a topic which has lots of debate about it, which has far-reaching implications. No matter what he says, somebody’s going to be offended. If he says divorce is legal, they can crow about how he’s not following God’s law. If he says divorce is illegal, they can crow about how he’s not following Moses’ law, and has no compassion to boot.
Jesus responds by pointing out the flaw in their argument. If a relationship is to a point where divorce is being thought of, it’s already a violation of God’s good gift. God gave marriage to be a support and a help and a partnership, a nurturing relationship in which a couple can depend on each other and trust one another to be there for them and help them grow. If one or both spouses is contemplating divorce … there’s already a problem, whether or not a divorce actually results. And if they want a divorce not because their relationship is damaging, but simply because the grass is greener on the other side, well, they’re going to leave a lot of damage in their wake. But whatever the reasons, the ultimate problem is not the divorce itself, but the hard-heartedness that leads to it. Divorce is one of the things that can happen when human sin and hardness of heart corrupt a marriage.
God gave marriage for a reason. To be a supporting relationship that will help people grow strong and healthy. Marriage—a good, healthy, mutually-supporting relationship—can be a great gift from God, one that takes hard work to maintain. But we humans are hard of heart, and sometimes we turn marriage into something unhealthy, something that is nothing like what God created marriage to be. We give thanks to God for all good and life-giving relationships. And where heard-heartedness breaks or corrupts relationships, we pray for the safety, the healing, and the recovery of those who have been hurt by it.