Mark 10: 1-12 is one of those readings preachers hate to get. It is all about Jesus being asked about divorce, and Jesus seemingly taking a really conservative line. It was the reading for the final service at Convocation last year, and I offered to preach. Why? Because I think we need read it in a different way.
The world Jesus lived in was deeply divided. There were the various religious and ethnic groups: Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles. And they hated each other. Within each of those groups were further divisions. It was very important to know who was in and who was out of your group, to know the markers, and to work hard to preserve the boundaries. Being a male really helped in this process. For a woman to have a place in this world she needed a man, either a father or a husband. To not have a man: to be an orphan, a widow or a divorcee placed a woman at risk. She was on the edge of being out: out of her community, out of God’s community, seen as out of God’s love, care and concern.
At the last IPTOC Archbishop Roger Herft spoke about another story, the woman at the well. Another woman pushed to the edge of her society through the divorce or death of her husband. He spoke about growing up in Sri Lanka, a society very like the one Jesus lived in, and what happened to his mother when his father died. He spoke of her ostracism, how she no longer had a place in her community. She became a non-person, no longer seen or heard. And so it was when Jesus lived. This was the woman Jesus met at the well. These were the women Jesus met on his journeys. Women ostracised, silenced, invisible.
In light of all that how might we read this reading from Mark? As we read the gospels as a whole we meet a Jesus who did not defend the traditional boundaries. He came to live out God’s boundless love for all people, particularly for all those his society and his fellow Jews saw as beyond this love. By his healing he restored the sick to God’s community. When he shared table with tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes he acted out their place in God’s community. His concern was always to break down the boundaries that excluded people, and to restore them to God’s community. There was no in and out for Jesus. All were in God’s boundless love. As I read this passage I do not see Jesus excluding divorced people. Instead I see him standing in solidarity with all those women who had been excluded by the actions of men. Men paid no price for divorcing a wife. Their honour, their status, their place in the community didn’t suffer one bit. Women paid the price for their husbands’ decision. In his statements about divorce, Jesus wasn’t enforcing a draconian rule; Jesus was protecting women from men who treated them as property they could dispose of without second thought. Jesus stood with those pushed to the edge of his society and said, “enough”. He gave them back their place, their voice, their personhood.
Francis also lived among those on the edge of his society, the poor, the lepers, those excluded, with no voice and who had become non-people. To walk in Francis’ footsteps is to include those others wish to exclude.
How often do we read stories such as these and use them to exclude others? Is that really what Jesus seeks from us? I believe that the more difficult route is to read these stories as Jesus embracing those we would be much happier excluding. Which group of people do we need to re-examine our attitudes to? Are we able to join Jesus and Francis in the much more radical stance of embracing those excluded by our society, by our brother and sister Christians, by us? Are we able to say with Jesus “Enough”. Are we able to give them back their place, their voice, their personhood.