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JESUS: His Life, His Mission. Marriage: Two Become One, Mark 10:1-12

Marriage: Two Become One

Mark 1-:1-12


Rick and Kay Warren have been one of the most public ministry couples in America. In many ways they seemed to have the ideal marriage. But Kay admits that their relationship descended into what she calls “marriage hell.” Married at the age of 21, their brand-new marriage took an instant nosedive. She writes:


We didn’t even make it to the end of our two-week honeymoon to British Columbia before we knew our relationship was in serious trouble. We had been warned about five areas of potential conflict all couples have to deal with, and we immediately jumped into all five of them: sex, communication, money, children, and in-laws. … Then we argued about our arguments and began to layer resentment on top of resentment, it was a perfect setup for misery and disenchantment.


Healing started to come, but it was an agonizing process. Kay writes:


I don’t approach this subject from the Hallmark-card version of marriage but from the blood, sweat, and tears of the trenches where our marriage was forged and is sustained. I know what it’s like to choose to build our relationship; to seek marriage counseling again and again; to allow our small group and our family into the struggle; to determine one more time to say, “Let’s start over” and “Please forgive me, I was wrong” and “I forgive you.” I know what it’s like to admit that my way isn’t the only way to see the world and to try to imagine what it’s like to be on the other side of me; to choose to focus on what is good and right and honorable in my husband instead of what drives me crazy; to turn attraction to another man into attraction to my husband. … I know what it’s like to be cracked open by catastrophic grief and to share it with your spouse when you’re so different.


Each of us is not who the other was looking for, but each of us is who the other desperately needed to become the person we each are today. Yet, it’s also been the very best thing that has ever happened to either of us. We wouldn’t be who we are today without each other … The shrieks of iron sharpening iron have often sounded like gears grinding on bare metal, but the result has been profound personal growth in both of us.[i]


Marriage is at the same time the source of some of life’s greatest joys and deepest heartaches. At times it flows and feels like the easiest, most logical thing in the world. At other times, it becomes THE hardest commitment you’ll ever try to keep.


It’s no accident that as we journey together through Mark’s Gospel, the next passage up, the passages that “happens” to fall on Mother’s Day, involves Jesus winding up in a confrontation with the Pharisees … about marriage. Or at least their understanding of marriage. Turn with me to Mark 10:1-12, where we find Jesus laying out God’s will and plan for marriage, the impact of human fallenness on marriage, and God’s grace in the midst of it all. Let’s look first at Vv. 1-4.


We absolutely have to understand here that this isn’t a part of Jesus’ larger teaching about the Kingdom of God to the crowds that seem to find him wherever he goes. Oh, they’re very much a part of the listening audience, because he HAS been teaching them, “as was his custom.” But Mark doesn’t tell us specifically what he was teaching them. He does tell us that at some point, a group of Pharisees approaches him either while he’s teaching or shortly after he finishes and they ask him a question. And it isn’t an honest question. They don’t really want to know how Jesus interprets the law of Moses here. They’ve been trying to get rid of him for some time now, looking for a way to legally do so. And they ask this specific question in order to trap Jesus. They’re trying to get him to condemn himself, get himself in trouble with Israel’s leaders.


You see, they’re in the region of “Judea and beyond the Jordan.” That’s the territory of Herod Antipas. Remember him? He’s one of the sons of Herod the Great who was given charge over the regions of Galilee and Perea. He’s also the one who married Herodias, his brother’s wife, and who later ordered Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, beheaded because of his public denouncing of Herod for marrying Herodias. Suffice it to say, morality around marriage was a sore subject for Herod and Herodias and their family at the moment, and Jesus and his disciples are right under Herod’s nose at the moment. So the Pharisees are trying to get Jesus to unwittingly take a stand against Herod’s marriage to Herodias, and hopefully wind up beheaded, just like John did.


Jesus isn’t offering comfort to people in broken relationships here. Oh, he does that. Yes, he does that. But that isn’t what he’s doing here. He’s responding to bitter opponents who are trying to trap him.


Now, the Jews, like most social institutions pretty much ever, developed two schools of thought as they interpreted the Scriptures. One was more conservative, the other more liberal. On the more conservative side, we have the School of Shammai. Shammai was a Pharisee who was viewed as a crusty, rigid, curmudgeonly teacher of theology who advocated for a very rigid interpretation of Scripture. On the more liberal side was the School of Hillel. Hillel was also a Pharisee who was viewed as a winsome and engaging teacher whose “legendary kindness made him a political success.”[ii] The School of Hillel got really creative in their interpretation of Scripture and found ways to make it say whatever they needed it to say.


The Law of Moses allowed for divorce in certain, extreme instances. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 says, “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.”


In commenting on that specific passage, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel differed in their interpretation of what the phrase “some indecency” means. The word translated as “indecency” literally indicates a matter of nakedness, or something extremely shameful. So Shammai interpreted it as strictly falling along the lines of unchastity. Being found to have been with someone else before or after marriage. But because Deuteronomy adds the word “some” to “indecency,” Hillel interpreted it to mean anything at all that is displeasing. One member of the School of Hillel said “Even if he found someone else prettier than she,” a man could divorce his wife. And of course, in that day in Judaism only men could divorce women. Women could not divorce their husbands. Even in the larger Roman Empire, women had only been allowed to divorce their husbands for the past 50 years or so at the time.


Obviously, the people in Herod’s court preferred the interpretation of the School of Hillel here. It gave men pretty much all the leeway they needed to divorce their wives whenever they wanted for whatever reason they wanted. Not all that different than our modern “no fault divorce.” And based on his previous teaching about a number of topics, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus had taught that a married man looking at a woman lustfully amounted to committing adultery with her in his heart, they figured Jesus would side with the school of Shammai, as his cousin John had, and Herod would take care of their Jesus problem for them.


But Jesus doesn’t bite. He refused to play their political game, and sides with neither the conservative nor the liberal side. Instead, he takes them back to God’s original intention for marriage, And he quotes Genesis 2:24. Look at Vv. 7-9. So what IS God’s intention for marriage? That two become one in an inseparable way.


In Genesis 1, we’re told that God created humanity, as male and female, in the image of God. And while each individual carries within and on themselves the image of God, when a man and a woman come together in marriage, and God makes the two one, they carry that image of God even further. For just as God exists as three distinct persons, and personalities – Father, Son, and Spirit – and yet is ONE God in the mystery of the Trinity, so, in the mystery of marriage, two distinct persons and personalities become one. And it is the work of God that unites those two persons as one. Marriage isn’t just a legal document, and it is far more than the words of a pastor or priest or officiant. It is the uniting of two hearts, two minds, two souls, as one BY GOD. And what God has joined together, we should not separate.


BUT, there’s a problem. As is always the case, we fall short of God’s ideal plan for his creation. Our hearts are filled with sin and brokenness. We inherit unhealthy relationship patterns from the unhealthy models of our past. We have patterns of brokenness in our own hearts and minds and lives that fly in the face of what God intends for us to be. In short, our hearts are filled with sin. Look at V. 5. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” What commandment. The commandment of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. That when there is a problem in a marriage that is too big to overcome because of sin and unforgiveness, and a man (in that day), decided to divorce his wife, he must provide her with a certificate of divorce. It was a law designed to protect vulnerable women who had no power in that day whose husbands rejected them. The purpose of this law wasn’t to make divorce acceptable, it was to limit sinfulness and control its consequences. In the Law of God, divorce was tolerated but never sanctioned.


And what Jesus does by taking us back to the very beginning of creation, before that law was given to Moses, is lift high God’s intention for marriage: that two become one. It’s an intention that most engaged couples embody in their beautiful love for one another. They aren’t assuming they’ll some day divorce. They’re hoping and praying that they won’t. That’s God’s intention.


But because of our hardness of heart, God has allowed for divorce in certain circumstances. It is never God’s intention and plan, but a healthy relationship takes two, and sometimes one of the two either will not or cannot do what it takes to make the relationship healthy. This passage must not ever be used to convince or try to force or shame a battered and abused spouse into staying in a relationship that is physically or emotionally unsafe. Ever. That isn’t the intent.


And sometimes, sin an brokenness get too much in the way. As a therapist, one of my specialties is marriage and relationship counseling. And I do it a lot. The foundation I use is the work of John and Julie Gottman, the world’s foremost relationship researchers. I use Gottman method, along with some emotion-focused marriage counseling. John has been studying marriage relationships for over 5 decades now, and he’s figured out how to do quantitative research on relationships in ways others haven’t. One of the powerful things about his research is his insistence on looking not just at unhealthy relationships, but also healthy, lasting ones and comparing them side by side.


In the process of doing that, he’s identified the four biggest predictors of divorce. He even uses Christian imagery from the Biblical book of Revelation to describe them. He calls them the four horsemen of the apocalypse for healthy relationships. For things that, if not curbed, will predict divorce with a high degree of accuracy. The first of the four horsemen is criticism. Criticism isn’t complaining. When I’m complaining, I’m focused on a specific issue and behavior. When I’m criticizing, I’m attacking my wife at the core of her character. See if you can tell the difference between a criticism and a complaint.


Criticism: You’re such an inconsiderate person. You never let me know when you’re going to be working late. You’re such a jerk.


Complaint: I worry when you work late and you don’t let me know. All I need is a brief text letting me know what time you’ll be home so that I don’t worry.


Can you feel the difference? The second of the four horsemen is defensiveness. It’s the other side of criticism. When we feel unjustly accused, we look for excuses and play the innocent victim. It often starts with the words “Yeah, well you …” and then launches into a diatribe about a similar shortcoming in the other person. A healthier response would be, “Yeah, you’re right. You’ve talked to me about that before. I’m sorry I didn’t give you a heads up. I’ll do my best to do that from now on.”


The third horseman is contempt. This one is the biggie. John can talk to a couple for a few minutes and predict whether they’ll divorce within the next 5 years with 90% accuracy just by assessing for contempt. Contempt is criticism on steroids and its lethal to a marriage. Criticism attacks your partner’s character. Contempt adds a position of moral superiority over them. It’s “I’m better, smarter, more right than you” and it involves disrespect, mocking, sarcasm, ridicule, name calling, and eye-rolling.


And the fourth horseman is stonewalling. This is when you withdraw and shut down. It isn’t the same thing as giving someone the silent treatment. When you’re doing that, you usually actively do things to let the other person know that you’re not talking to them. You may not be talking verbally, but your body language is saying plenty. In stonewalling, you’re in fight, flight, or freeze and your brain isn’t working and you just shut down.


Criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling are the four most common things we in our brokenness and sinfulness and hardness of heart do wrong, and they’re the four biggest predictors of divorce.


Here’s the thing: they’re all reversable. Couples can learn the skills they need to communicate in healthier ways. None of them are grounds for divorce, but they’re big predictors of divorce if nothing changes.


And yes, there are times when divorce is a necessary evil. Divorce is an allowance on God’s part, a way of staying safe in the presence of deep, deep, uncontrolled sin. It is still and will always be an evil, but sometimes it is the lesser of two evils.


And to understand that point, we need to look a little farther down the road at the words of St. Paul. He actually EXPANDS the clear teaching of Christ here. Look at 1 Corinthians 7:12: “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord)…” Some people have misunderstood that sentence. Paul is not saying that his teaching does not carry the authority of Christ. What he is saying is that what he is about to say was not spoken by Jesus, but is being spoken by Paul as an apostle with all of the authority that comes with that role. “… that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him … But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” Did you hear it? He actually added to what Christ himself taught. He added abandonment to the list of things that make divorce, while never God’s ideal, something that can happen. He says “If your non-Christian partner leaves you, let him, let her go.”


What’s the point? It’s that divorce in NEVER God’s ideal, but in this sinful world, things sometimes happen that are out of your control and leave you in a place in which you are unsafe. And so there will be circumstances in which we have to choose the lesser of two evils, and there are circumstances in which that may be divorce. When a man or a woman obviously fails to be the spouse that covenant love demands, that love that is with, for, and unto, then grounds for divorce MAY be present. Physical, emotional, and psychological abuse destroy the biblical picture of covenant love. Abuse of this kind destroys any sense of shelter, of safety. And friends, Jesus’ words in Mark 10, the words we are looking at today, have been used time and time again to protect aggressive males and to justify the abuse of a wife, telling her that the command of God is to stay and submit. That is a perversion of this passage, and a complete destruction and misuse of the intent for the justification of outright evil.


When I was in my senior year of undergraduate study at Asbury College, now Asbury University, I took a social work class, and one of my assignments was to interview the police chief in Wilmore, KY, the tiny town that is home to both Asbury University and Asbury Seminary. One of my questions for him was, “What crimes do you and your officers face most often?” His answer stunned me. “Domestic violence. Spouse abuse. Hands down.” But he didn’t stop there. He went on. And what he said next haunts me to this day. “And do you know where almost all of those calls come from? Seminary student housing.” I didn’t know what to say. Seminary students. Those preparing for ministry as clergy, missionaries, professors, youth pastors, and counselors.


I’ve never forgotten that encounter. May we never tolerate that evil in our midst. But may we also never stop fighting, scratching, clawing to save any relationship that can be saved. I’ve seen couples survive seemingly insurmountable odds, including the admission of multiple affairs. The key is not shame or guilt. It is repentance, an admission of wrongdoing, of owning the wrongdoing, and a commitment to make the wrong right over the long haul. I promise every couple that I work with that long after they have both given up hope, I will commit to being the last one in the room fighting for the marriage.


For those whose fight has been lost, those who must deal with dropping kids off at the home of an ex-spouse, those who try to support a family on a single income and feel abandoned and alone, let us mourn your loss with you, and surround you in the love, and the grace, and the mercy of God. And for those whose marriages are together but falling apart, for those who fear that they are losing the battle and are giving up hope, let us fight with you, scratch and claw with you, and failing in every effort, let us cry out to God with you, “God help us all.” Let us pray.

[i] Kay Warren, “We Were in Marital Hell,” Christianity Today (June 2017)

[ii] Chuck Swindoll, Mark