Bible Readings: Genesis 2:18-24 & Mark 10:2-16

Relationships

So, I wonder who’s hoping I’m going to speak on, “let the little children come to me”. I have to admit, I was tempted when I first read the readings for this week. And continued to be tempted as I looked at the commentaries on the rest of the passages. And tempted some more as I thought about what I might say about these passages, and about the people that might be upset or offended by them. Those who are single, divorced, in unhappy marriages, gay, trans. Those who have friends or family members who fall into any of those categories and feel defensive for them. It seemed to me a bit like a minefield I would be wandering into, and it would be a miracle if I made it out without blowing somebody up.

And yet, this is the word of God, and it is the Scripture in front of us today. It might make us uncomfortable, it might even be painful, but we can’t just pretend it’s not there. It seems to me that we have to engage with it, to look it full in the face, and listen to it. But as we do, perhaps it’s worth laying out some ground rules, some principles I aim to stick to.

Firstly, I am approaching this with the attitude that our place is to sit under Scripture, not in judgement over it. This is tough when it comes so close to the bone, but I believe that it is at the times when it might really cost us, in which we find it difficult to understand, that our true attitude to God and God’s word to us is revealed. Having said that, I’m going to speak as clearly and as gently as I know how. I may fail, and for that I am sorry. I’m happy to discuss any of this with any of you afterwards, in public or privately.

As we explore this, I’d like to remind us that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. It may be that the Holy Spirit will bring to our minds and hearts things that we need to repent of this morning. That is not condemnation, it is conviction. It’s part of the work of the Holy Spirit. It is usually uncomfortable, but when we respond with repentance we can be forgiven and released from any guilt or shame.

So, with those ground rules in place, let’s have a look at this Genesis reading, and let’s start at the beginning, with verse 18.

“It is not good that the man should be alone.” Now, in some senses this is fairly uncontentious. This week the BBC published the results of some research that they had done in collaboration with the Wellcome Collection. 55,000 people had taken part, and this very modern research backs up this very ancient assertion. 33% of people often or very often feel lonely, people feel ashamed of this, those who are lonely often have poorer health and find it difficult to trust others. It is not good for humans to be be lonely.

However, there was another conclusion that takes a bit more consideration, and it is this,

“More than four fifths of people told us they like spending time on their own. And only a third believe that loneliness is about being on your own. However, people who said they were always alone were more likely to say they felt lonely.”

So, loneliness and solitude are different things. We know from the gospels that at times Jesus would go off on his own for some solitude so that he could pray and think and just be. Solitude is not necessarily bad for us, and neither, by the way is singleness. Jesus was single and so was Paul. What is bad for us is isolation, extended aloneness, and loneliness

Let’s move on to the second half of the verse, “I will make a helper fit for him.”

Now, there’s quite a range to the meaning of the word helper. When my kids were little and I asked them to help me with something, it wasn’t because I needed their help, in fact things usually took longer with “Daddy’s little helper” along. It was more about spending time together and teaching them a skill. One step up from that is the idea of the helper as assistant. The scrub nurse to the surgeon, handing the instruments over on command at the right time, keeping things clean and tidy, perhaps mopping the surgeon’s brow. Neither of these meanings are what the Bible means by helper. If you were trapped in a collapsed building or had fallen in a river, what would you call out? Help! Help! You’d be looking for a helper, but not a child learning a skill or an assistant. You’d be looking for someone who could actually help you, who could rescue you. This is much closer to the meaning of the words help and helper in the Bible. It is the word used to call to God for help, the word used to describe allied armies coming to the assistance of Israelite armies. It is a word of power and of agency. This is the kind of helper that is fit for man.

So God brings out all the animals, but none of them have this power and agency. Dogs can help hunt, horses can help get us places, oxen can help plough, but none of them have the power and agency needed to be a helper fit for man. So, God causes man to fall asleep, takes a rib, and fashions woman. A poetic, not scientific, expansion of chapter one, verse 27, “so God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.

Men and women, human beings, both created in the image of God, with equal power and agency, inextricably linked in partnership, whether as friends, colleagues, or marriage partners. “Male and female he created them.”

As we come towards the end of our Genesis passage we come to the verse that Jesus quoted when he was teaching about divorce.

“therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife”

The first bit of this is really important. Before cleaving there has to be a leaving. Keeping Les Dawson and his ilk in mother-in-law jokes is not sufficient reason to ignore this principle. There is a reason why it is a staple of family based situation comedies – it happens. Parents can be really bad at allowing their children to leave, particularly mothers their sons, and children can be equally bad at leaving. This can be made worse by the current economic situation meaning that children often to remain living in the parental home after they become adults. In these cases we have to find new ways of living together, which allow a new adult-adult relationship to emerge between parents and offspring.

Now, Genesis does not mention marriage and divorce, but Jesus does, and in a pretty uncompromising way.

Before we get into this, let’s take a step back and understand what the divorce laws at the time were. Firstly it is important to realise that under Jewish law a man could divorce his wife, but it was almost unheard of for a woman to be allowed to divorce her husband. Secondly, the man, as long as wrote the certificate of divorce, was able to divorce his wife for pretty much anything he liked including burning dinner, or no longer being attractive enough. When a woman was sent away, there was no divorce settlement, no question over who kept the children, she was out of a home, a family, security, everything.

This is the hardness of heart that Jesus was addressing, a hardness of heart that put women away, that robbed them of the power and agency that was their birth right as helpers fitting for their partners. It was this injustice that Jesus was attacking, when he challenged the culture of easy divorce in public. In private he went further and even introduced the possibility that a woman might divorce her husband.

Which all sounds very good, and liberating, but we still have the reality of what Jesus said to face. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

We can’t make it go away by wishing that he hadn’t said it, or that he’d left us some wriggle room. He didn’t. However, others did. In Matthew’s account of the same conversation, we get an exception, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity…” I don’t know why Mark leaves out this exception, because it does seem to be a pretty big one. There’s another one in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, in chapter 7. Initially he says that husbands and wives should not separate, but then, when talking about partnerships where one is a believer and the other not he writes, “if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound.”

So, how do we make sense of these exceptions, given Jesus’ clarity in Mark? It seems to me that the understanding that the Church of England has reached on this is pretty good. Marriage is intended to be life long and life giving. If it stops being life giving, then the church should not be hard hearted to those caught in that situation. There should be support offered to see if the marriage can be rescued, and if it cannot, compassion for both partners. If either wants to remarry in future, the reasons for the break up of the first marriage should be understood, and, where necessary, repentance encouraged.

As I was preparing for this sermon, I recalled that the government is currently consulting on changes to the divorce laws in this country. I went to look at what they were proposing and got caught up in actually submitting a response to the consultation. Whether or not you come to the same conclusions I did, we need people of faith to take part in this conversation. Google it, read the documentation, pray about it, and then respond.

As I said at the beginning, these have not been the most comfortable bits of Scripture to read and to explore. But, I believe that in facing up to them, bringing them to the reality of our lives, and submitting to them, there is grace and freedom. For those of us who feel lonely, for those of us who need some help, for those of us who have messed up relationships, in short for all of us, there is grace and freedom as we come to the God who created us, whose heart is soft, and who welcomes us with forgiveness.

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