Friday, September 28, 2012

Marriage & Divorce and Children's Welfare (Mark 10:1-16)

Marriage, Divorce and Children’s Welfare (Mark 10:1-16)

When I was given this passage from Mark 10 to preach on some six months ago, I thought it would be something not overly relevant. However, in recent weeks we have heard much about getting young people to get married and have more children, if not for personal gain but at least to alleviate the declining birth-rate in the country. Come November, we will have a brand new Ministry of Social and Family Development, all in the name of nurturing and encouraging stronger Singaporean families. I welcome that! However much the idea of marriage and building larger families are seen as hot button issues, it is pertinent for us to see marriage and families from God's perspective. Marriage is indeed of antiquity, among the oldest institutions in the created order as far back as Genesis chapter 2. As Jesus says, "It is God who joins the man and woman together and the two shall become one flesh". And whatever "God has joined together, let no man put asunder." With these sayings, we can deduce several things about marriage.

First, marriage is a divine institution - It is God who joins man and woman together. Before nation-states came into being, marriage already existed; in fact the existence of the man as a single person or an individual was short-lived because God said of the man, Adam: "It is not good for a man to be alone." Adam was put to sleep and out came a woman from his side - a climactic act of God, the pinnacle of God’s creation on the sixth day, "Let us create man in our image and our likeness and male and female He created them:" (Gen 1:27).

Second, marriage is between a man and a woman. Man and woman are created naturally to fit one another in more ways than one. Physically and spiritually the two - the man and the woman shall join together and become one flesh when marriage is consummated. This is hardly novel until in recent years, men and women of the 21st century are trying to re-define marriage, as no longer restricted between a man and a woman but also between a man and a man or a woman with another woman. One Hong Kong tycoon was so worried that his daughter got hitched with another woman that he offered S$70 million dollars to any man who can woo his daughter. Same-sex relationship is sinful because it transgresses the divine order of a man and a woman joined as one in holy matrimony. As we shall see, “fornication”, “adultery” or any unsanctioned sexual relations (in Greek, porneia) is sin. And sin and a lifestyle of sinning take a person away from God and in danger of judgment and damnation.

Third, according to our Lord Jesus divorce is wrong. "What God has joined together let no person put asunder." The question is put to Jesus by the Pharisees that Moses allowed divorce, but Jesus replied that it was simply a concession to man's hardness of heart, hardly reflecting the divine will as "it is in the beginning". Let no man put asunder what God has joined together suggests that marriage is for life - till death do us part. Why then is divorce so prevalent even among Christians?

Five years ago when I was still a pastor in KK, I preached in a semi-mega church of 2,000 members in Kuala Lumpur. I was asked to preach the same sermon at 4 separate services in 2 places over 2 Sundays. After the 4th sermon, a Chinese woman came up to me and said, "Pst Tony, I listened to you preached 4 times". I looked at her in disbelief. She introduced herself as the wife of the Chairman of the church and told me that she was a High Court judge. Then she said something that shocked me: "You know half of the divorce cases that come before me involved Christians. Why are Christians divorcing with such frequency?”

Why do Christians divorce? Aren’t Jesus’ teachings against divorce clear and explicit? Jesus gave the answer: "It is because of your hardness of heart." Our hearts are hard. Our old man is as bad as it comes. It is sinful. It lacks grace. It is cruel. It is unforgiving. It holds grudges. As Malay proverb goes, "Dendam sampai mati." (Vengeful till death) No wonder marriages break up. Remember that marriage involves a man and a woman. Though they become one, there are still two distinct personalities. Although at first in the full blossom of romance, differences are seen as nothing, but very soon after marriage these differences either in temperament or interests can lead to misunderstanding and conflict. Discussion becomes debates; debates become arguments; arguments lead to fighting and spousal abuse. In love, they have pillow fight; in hate they throw punches, pots and pans. And if these differences are not managed and overcome with love and patience, the couple drifts apart and soon on any pretext, they split and divorce.

The other main reason why divorce happens is when the husband or wife strays. The eye that so easily causes us to sin begins to wander. The husband begins to feel that other women are more attractive than his wife. There is a fine line between lust and love.  Man’s heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jeremiah). “I hate divorce” saith the Lord, the prophet Malachi declares (Mal 2:16). “So watch your spirit and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.

But sin being sin and lust being lust, some men (and some women) could not resist and fall headlong into adultery. Adultery is the betrayal of trust and the breaking of the marriage covenant. The offended parties are hurt and their lives are shattered. Although some spouses are forgiving after the initial sense of betrayal and anger but in most cases, once adultery is involved, the couple splits and they divorce.

Is divorce always wrong in God’s sight? In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus actually gives a specific concession as a ground for divorce: “if any man divorces his wife except for porneia (sexual immorality) makes her an adulteress and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery (NJB, Matt 5:31-32). It seems to be saying that divorce is permissible when one spouse commits adultery and the innocent party can choose to divorce the guilty party. Jesus’ teaching in Matt 5 on divorce and re-marriage is part of the sermon of the Mount and Matthew repeats Jesus’ teaching in chapter 19, in a passage similar to Mark 10. There in Matt 19, the man who divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery. Together with Jesus’ teaching in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that re-marriage put all parties caught up in it in some sort of adulterous relationship:
 Luke 16:18 "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

This teaching seems incredibly harsh as even the disciples complain to Jesus that, “if that is how things are between husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt 19:10). Jesus replied: “Not everyone can accept what I have said, but only those to whom it is granted.” Does Jesus’ reply mean that very few can accept this hard teaching against divorce and re-marriage or is Jesus saying that remaining in the state of marriage is simply due to God’s grace, something granted to us? I would prefer the second option as I know that to remain happily married is purely God’s grace. I think when you stay married for more than 23 years you will realize that it is God’s grace overflowing in the life of both the husband and the wife to maintain a healthy marriage.

How then Christian couples stay married and be happy? Some of you know that I follow American politics. I listened to the two Conventions’ speeches of Mitt Romney and President Obama, live on TV. I can’t remember what Romney spoke about except one thing. Speaking of his mum and dad, Romney shared that his dad would buy a rose for his mum every day for more than 40 years. And he added that the florist could testify to that. I thought that was incredible. Gifts are tokens of love. Even God gives good gifts to his beloved children (Matt 7:11). It is not so much the flower but what it represents – love. In theory or preaching about it is easy but showing love to your spouse is not easy, more so after 20 years of marriage. I speak from experience. And often it is the not the material thing which a woman wants but a gentle word, a tender touch, or appreciative smile which you can give to your husband or your wife. And better still it is something practical and mundane, like helping with the dishes and picking up your socks.

Really if you want to talk about marriage, a Christian couple must show by example how a marriage should work and lived out day in and day out. O how we need God’s grace to continue loving our wives and our husbands as Jesus would want us to.

Finally, Mark 10:13-16 speaks of children and I am glad today’s passage includes this section of welcoming children. Interestingly, at the end of Mark 9, Jesus said in no uncertain terms that we must not do anything to cause the little ones to stumble. And also the week before, Dr Maggie preached about letting the children come to Jesus. It seems that for Mark, the teaching of children in Mark 9 precedes the passage on marriage and divorce in Mark 10:1-12 and followed by another passage on children in 10:13-16. Thus, we have the teaching on children before and after the teaching on marriage and divorce.

Why is this so? In Markan style called “intercalation”, I think the Gospel’s author wants us to see how marriage or divorce impacts the children’s welfare positively or negatively. If divorce occurs and parents split up, the ones who suffer most are the children. And if remarriage takes place, the children suffer doubly because now they have two fathers instead of one, or two mothers instead of one. A stepfather or a stepmother may not be the devil from hell, but the child’s security of having both biological parents caring for him or her is jeopardized when a third party is involved. It’s natural for mothers to love her biological child more than her step-children and step-children usually get a raw deal, at least less than what they can expect from their biological parents. 

Thus, when a man divorces his wife, he is not only sinning against his wife but he sins against his children and anyone that makes these little ones stumble come under judgment. In Malachi, the prophet says that the Lord desires “a holy seed” from marriage. Parents who stay together and are happily married are more likely to raise holy seed, able to instruct their children in the fear of the Lord. The Lord Jesus loves and cares for the children. Marriages that are stable and strong ensure the well-being of children because the kingdom of heaven belongs to these little ones. Amen.

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