We read the Scriptures as disciples of Jesus, the living Word of God, and are guided in our reading and understanding by our fellowship with the Triune God that Jesus has given, and by the love of God Jesus has revealed to us and called forth from us.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 27, year B; text: Mark 10:2-16
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
If you want, you can blame Martin Luther if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable with that Gospel reading, or if you wish you’d been warned we were going to hear hard words from Jesus before coming today. If Luther hadn’t insisted that each Christian ought to be able to have their own copy of the Scriptures, in their own language, and be able to interpret for themselves God’s Word for their lives, we’d not have this problem. And if he hadn’t insisted on the Scriptures being read in the people’s language at worship, you might not read these words or hear them at all. But here we are, with a second week of hard words from Jesus.
I think we need to take this opportunity and consider how we interpret the Scriptures. What Jesus said about divorce, remarriage, and adultery couldn’t be clearer. Yet I’m sure that if I announced from this pulpit today that from this moment on I would not preside at a marriage involving divorced people, and that I was beginning a campaign to get the ELCA to remove divorced clergy from the roster, I might be in danger of losing this call. I expect that a lot of you would be angry and hurt by such a proclamation.
Now this is what we must understand together, and what each of us must individually consider. I’ve no intention of making such an announcement. But if it would anger you, or cause you to want me not to be your pastor, I’d like you to try and think why. Why. Because Jesus is pretty clear here.
Now, I’d say there are few, if any, people at Mount Olive who do not take the Bible seriously as a norm and guide for life. Yet we disagree on things, even amongst ourselves here. How is this possible? And how do we read what Jesus says today and act differently than what he says, and still claim the Bible as our norm for faith and life?
We need to take a moment to recall how Lutherans interpret the Bible.
We don’t ignore anything, everything is considered God’s Word. This is really important as a starting point. So we can’t skip this passage. We look at this passage, like all of them, very carefully.
But we look at it with at least three basic interpretive lenses:
First, Jesus is the living Word of God, to whom the written Word, the Bible points. Therefore, Lutherans would say, everything in Scripture must lead to a deeper connection with our Lord and Savior and an understanding of God’s amazing grace in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We call this a canon within the canon – Lutherans read the Bible through the lenses of God’s free grace in Christ, and consider those many powerful passages about God’s grace not only most important but also the ones which encompass the whole purpose of the Bible and shape its message for us.
Second, Lutherans read the Bible with a sense of context – both the context of the times in which the book was written and the people to whom it was written, but also the context of any passage within the whole of Scripture.
Third, leading from that, Lutherans let Scripture help interpret Scripture. We try very hard to understand the connection of the whole of the Scriptures to any text, and use the Bible to help interpret itself. That means that at our best we don’t proof-text. We don’t take one verse out of any context and make grand claims for its ability to norm us. We try to use the whole of Scripture.
An example is a seminary classmate of mine who’s a woman and a pastor, who once told me she wouldn’t have accepted ordination if the only reason the church did it was by ignoring the passage that says women should be silent. What made her feel she could answer God’s call were the many passages describing women in pastoral ministry, the many places where the equality in the family of Christ was proclaimed, and so on.
So how do we read these verses today using these lenses?
First, these are Jesus’ words. Jesus said them. And we know Jesus very well. Jesus, the Living Word of God, is risen from the dead and gives us life even though we are broken people, living too often as opponents of God. He offers grace and forgiveness to all, even criminals crucified next to him. So when a couple comes into my office, with one or both of them having been divorced, and they are seeking marriage, my sense of Jesus’ grace, of all that Jesus asks of me as a pastor and a disciple, throughout all of the Gospels, calls me to be open to that request.
We can’t read these words apart from our full knowledge of everything he is and all that he models for us, or from our full understanding of how Jesus then calls us to live, to pray, to love. In just this small section, we see Jesus indignant that children are being kept from him. That indignant Jesus, who wants no one excluded from God’s grace, is the same Jesus who says these hard words. And that matters.
Second, there is a context here. Jesus is actually protecting women in this passage. We discover this when we explore the divorce practices in Jesus’ times. Women could be divorced summarily by their husbands under Jewish law, by the husband simply declaring several times that he divorced his wife, and then handing her notice. In this culture, if the woman didn’t have a son to protect and support her, divorce would leave her destitute, a beggar, an outsider.
And notice Jesus’ last sentence: “If she divorces her husband . . .” and so on. This is eye-opening. Women didn’t even have the right to divorce their husbands then. Yet Jesus assumes an equality of standing, even in his prohibition. Women and men are equal under God’s law, a radical departure from tradition.
And last, Jesus is speaking here to support marriage, to underscore its divine approval, to strengthen families.
Third, Scripture helps us interpret Scripture. It’s true Jesus is clear here. Just as he is also clear throughout the Gospels that we are not to judge others.
Just as he is clear when he tells us to forgive each other in unlimited ways.
Just as he is clear when he says the sum of the law of God is to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Given this repeated mandate, I believe we simply have decided not to make a bad situation, or a painful situation, worse, by refusing to give second chances. We’ve decided to offer forgiveness in Jesus’ name and to be gracious. This doesn’t mean we like divorce. I don’t know many Christians who’ve been divorced who do. But it does mean we’re honest about it. I still teach new couples that they should plan never to divorce, or else it will come too easily. It still is not God’s will for marriage.
But we also know that sometimes divorce is the only option that seems possible, sometimes it’s tragically imposed, and sometimes it even must happen if a spouse is abusive. Divorce is not always the worst evil in every situation. There are simply too many times when we do not feel capable of being judge over each other on this.
But that doesn’t mean we’re ever completely certain that we are right in how we consider divorce. And that’s important to remember.
Because of Luther, each of us can interpret the Bible for ourselves. And as the Church, we collectively discern and interpret the Scriptures. It’s a great gift. But it’s also a huge responsibility. We always interpret prayerfully and carefully, asking the Spirit to lead and guide us, and show us what we are called to be and do. But we can still be wrong.
That’s why we belong to communities of faith, why we pay attention to what others in the greater Church are saying, why we find places where we are gathered together by the Holy Spirit. So we check our interpretation with each other. So we can struggle together, whether as a small group in a congregation or a council of bishops and leaders of the whole Church, or anything in between.
That can correct us when we falter. But it also can be that, even within a community of faith like Mount Olive, and even in the greater Church, we will not agree on the proper way to do things, the godly thing to do. As in this case, where the way most U. S. Lutheran congregations deal with divorce is not universally accepted as legitimate across the whole Church.
And that means we must know when it’s OK to disagree and when it isn’t. What Lutherans have said is that we make our distinction based on whether it is central to the Good News that the Triune God has saved us in Jesus the Son. The Augsburg Confession says that it is enough for unity in the Church that the Gospel is preached in its purity and the Sacraments are administered according to that Gospel. What that means is that anything that affects our teaching and hope in the death and resurrection of Jesus for all people and for us is central.
All the rest is not essential for agreement. It doesn’t mean other things aren’t important. But it does mean we do not necessarily have to agree in order to remain together. And ethical stances fall into this category more often than not. Whether we accept and re-marry divorced people does not affect our salvation in Jesus. Therefore we can and do disagree on this in the greater Church.
So what do we do if we’re ever wrong? What happens then? Well, it’s always good to ask that question of ourselves when we interpret Scripture. I always try to keep a part in the back of my mind that says, “Keep listening, just in case you’re wrong on this one.” It’s healthy for us to have that humility before God and before this Word, and before each other. And so we keep listening to each other, and to the Church as we go, in case we’re wrong. We’re not all going at this solo, and we need to listen to the Church Jesus has given us.
Even so, we might individually or as congregations or denomination, disagree with the rest of the Church. If it’s not on an issue of central importance to the Gospel, even that can be OK. But when we do, we must take extra care that we believe we’re listening clearly to the Spirit’s guidance.
But finally, it’s important that we learn to pray, read, discern, and then make our decisions and act. We can’t just sit still and never act or do. If we’re right, we thank God, whether we’re acting as individuals, congregations, or as the whole Church. If we’re wrong, we trust in God’s gracious forgiveness and guidance to get us back on the path, individually or collectively. As the Reformation showed, even the Church sometimes goes collectively astray and needs to be brought back.
But we know this is true, because Jesus, God’s Son has shown it again and again: The Triune God will not abandon us in our wrong decisions. And please hear this: the only way any of us will have eternal life is by Jesus’ forgiveness of all we have done. If after prayer, conversation, and discernment, for example, I make a wrong call, I absolutely trust that Jesus will be able to forgive it as much as any other sin I have committed in my life. I’ll have plenty in my bag that will need to be forgiven when I come to those gates; anything additional that I didn’t know about I’ll still need to trust to Jesus’ forgiveness. And so will the whole Church.
God has given us a great gift in this written Word that leads and guides us.
And I’m convinced the more I do this ministry that Jesus meant it when he said the Spirit of God would lead us into truth when we’re ready for it. As we live together in this community and as a part of the greater Church, let us always pray for God’s guidance and direction through the living Word, our Lord Jesus, to better understand what the Scriptures would tell us about how to live faithful lives as disciples and share God’s love with the world, and to fully live the abundant life he offers through this.
In the name of Jesus. Amen