Sunday, October 4, 2009:

Lectionary 27
Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-26

What is man, that thou art mindful of him?

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” This is a great question. After all, when you consider the entire creation, human beings aren’t much. There are nearly seven billion people living on earth at this moment. Best estimates say that there are probably about two hundred billion stars just in our galaxy, the Milky Way. There isn’t even a word to describe the number of stars in the entire universe. Someone has guessed that there are probably about a hundred trillion mosquitoes living on the earth at any one moment. There are about sixty-four million house cats living in the United States, there is no estimate of how many cats (domestic and wild) might live on the earth. In other words, we are pretty rare in the whole scheme of creation. We are not the largest or the smallest. We aren’t the strongest, fastest or prettiest. We might even argue that we aren’t the smartest. But we were created uniquely and charged with the care of all that God has made.

Of course, there’s not a lot we can do about the stars. We can’t change them in any way. We can’t even get close enough to one to stand on its surface or take samples of the gases. But we can learn about them. As a matter of fact, men and women have been studying the stars for as long as we can remember. Even Abraham was aware of the stars when God promised him that he’d be the father more people than stars in the sky. Sounds like we’ve got a long way to go for that promise to be fulfilled! We’ve tried to control the mosquitoes, but to no avail. They just keep coming to our campouts and picnics, annoying with bites and bumps and sometimes disease. Who can control a cat? Oh, we might think we have mastered them by having them as pets, but I think sometimes that our cats have mastered us. After all, we feed them, clean the litter box, pet and play with them when they so desire and keep them safe from harm, only to be ignored and rejected when they aren’t in the mood for human companionship!

So, though we have dominion over the rest of creation, we don’t have much to brag about in the scheme of things. Who are we that God would know us, not only as a species but as individuals? Who are we that God would care about each one of us personally? We are His, created in His image for a purpose. We are created to be part of a community, to be in relationship, not only with each other but also with the world and with our God. This is pretty amazing.

In the passage from Genesis we are given a glimpse of the first relationship between people. God created a being out of the dust of the earth and knew that it was not good for this being—this earthling—to be alone, so God worked to create a helper for the earthling. Each animal was given a name, and though we do not see this in detail, I imagine the names that the earthling gave to each animal had meaning. Names, particularly in the ancient days, defined characteristics and purpose. ‘Adamah’ meant ‘red earth,’ so Adam, the earthling, was named after the earth from which he was made. The animals God created were surely useful to the earthling, but none were the right helper. So, God took a piece of the earthling and used it to create another being, another earthling, who was called ‘woman’ because the scriptures say, “out of Man this one has been taken.” These two are joined together, to cling to one another for as long as they live.

This first relationship stands as an example of the relationship that God has with His people. The scriptures tell us repeatedly that God is the groom and His people are the bride. In the New Testament, the Church stands as the bride. There are many types of relationships, but marriage is the one that God establishes as permanent. The parent and child relationship is temporary, since the child eventually leaves home to join with another in a new family. A teacher and student relationship is temporary; as the student grows they may even become the teacher. A master does not hold on to power forever. But a husband and wife are one flesh forever. This is why God uses the example of the husband and wife to describe His relationship with His people and the Church.

The writer of Hebrews repeated the question of the psalmist. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” he asked. But he did so with one particular earthling, the new Adam, through whom all things were made. We were given dominion over all creation, but we haven’t done a very good job with it. We have not been the best caretakers of all that God has given us. This is not simply an environmental concern or a concern over the care of the animals. We fail with our human relationships, too. We use our power and resources in the wrong ways. We take advantage of others. We don’t share what we have with our neighbors. We are sad and broken people, in need of someone to show us how it should be done. But we need more than just a good example. We need a Savior.

Jesus, the new Adam, being an exact imprint of God’s being, a reflection of His glory, sustains all things by His powerful Word. He could, by this power, have made the world perfect with a word, taking all fear and pain away by His grace. Yet, the plan to restore God’s people to one another, to the creation and to God required something more than a word. God established a new covenant, a covenant that we could not break, in and through His own Son, Jesus the Christ, who was born among men to suffer and die for our sake. Then He was raised into new life to be the first of God’s children crowned in glory.

We don’t like the idea of suffering. We’d rather not experience pain or disappointment. I think this is especially true for our generation of earthlings. We are quick to escape suffering: taking pills for pain until we become addicted, quitting our jobs in a heartbeat when we aren’t happy, or running away from circumstances that are not going the way we want it to go. Even marriage has become impermanent in our world. By 1990 it was almost as likely for a marriage to end by divorce as death. Marriage isn’t forever, anymore.

But the question of divorce was a real issue for the people in Jesus’ day, too. Divorce was allowed in the Law of Moses, and the Pharisees wanted to test Jesus about the Law. They wanted to destroy Him, and they attempted to use the same trap as finished off John the Baptist. Herod had recently beheaded John the Baptist. It was Herod’s wife that insisted on the beheading because she was offended by his stance on divorce. So, the Pharisees asked Jesus about the issue. “What do you say about divorce?” they asked, hoping that Jesus would upset Herod (or Herod’s wife) to the point of demanding another beheading.

Jesus answered with a question, “What does the law say?” They answered that Moses allowed them to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her. T he problem with this law of Moses was that the only one with any power in the relationship was the man. He could decide for whatever reason that the woman would be sent away along with the children. A modern single mom might be able to support her family, but in Jesus’ day the society did not allow independence. Women and children were property, whose survival was dependent on a man, first father and then husband. When she was cast off in divorce, she was not only left alone and unable to support her family, but she was also unable to find another husband to marry because she was damaged goods.

The reasons for divorce in today’s world might be different than those in Jesus’ time, and perhaps we have reasons that are justifiable. We like to look back at their stories and think that they were so much different. Men were able to divorce their wives for the stupidest reasons, while women were given no such rights. She could be cast off for burning dinner, leaving her completely alone. Who would marry a divorced woman? Who would support her in a world where she had no rights? Though divorce is described and regulated by laws, God was not pleased that His earthlings were so careless with the covenants they make. God hates divorce.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus makes divorce a two way street, odd because He gave women as much right as a man to demand a divorce. Yet, in doing so, He also made the consequences equally harsh on her. Society may have created imbalance between men and women, but God had not done so. Relationships are never one-sided. Men and women are partners, made one flesh by the marital vows. The woman was not created as a second class citizen. She was created as a helper, a help-mate, for the earthling. God made concessions for the hard heart of human beings, but that was not because divorce was His intent for His people. That divorce was even necessary was a consequence of our sin.

This is a hard topic, especially for those who have been through the experience. We all need God’s grace and forgiveness. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to talk about divorce in our communities of faith because we do not want to hurt those who are already hurting. I’m sure that many pastors are trying to find some way to avoid the subject of this week’s scriptures.

Jesus does not stumble over the question. He points back to the story of that first relationship to address the question of the Pharisees. Jesus’ answer might seem very harsh, especially in light of the fact that Paul allows for marriage in certain circumstances. Even Jesus gives just cause for divorce in Matthew’s gospel. We might want to reduce this passage to little more than Jesus protecting the women, but there is more to divorce than we sometimes realize. Divorce hurts everyone: the man, the woman, the children, the family and the community. Divorce takes what no man should separate and it causes division. It takes what was meant to be permanent and makes it temporary. It destroys what God has created, that one flesh joined forever. Divorce takes control of the relationship out of the hands of God and puts man above His God.

It would do us well to talk about divorce, to encourage marriages and to uphold our vows, but we need to study this lesson for another reason. God created earthlings to be in relationship with others: the creation, each other and Him. We don’t do it very well sometimes. We not only divorce our spouses, but we fight with our friends and we run away from our families. We are a sad and broken species. It makes us wonder why God would be so mindful of us.

But that is exactly why He is mindful of us. He created us in His image, to be in relationship with all He has created. As earthlings reflecting the image of God, we are meant to be faithful. We fail because we are sinners, but He walks with us, forgiving our failures and transforming us into the people He has created us to be.

God is mindful of us because we have the ability to be in relationship. Mosquitoes come and go and cats sometimes purr. But we are so messed up, failing in thought, word and deed. The history of God’s people is filled with stories about how we have not done what is right in His eyes. How easy would have been for God to forget us, to divorce Himself of His people? But God has made a covenant with His people. He has promised to be faithful. God must be faithful; it is out of character to be anything else. He calls us to be faithful as we live in the relationships that have been born out of our own covenants with others, to try to remain faithful even when it seems impossible.

Would Jesus have had mercy on those who can find no other solution to their problems? Of course. He would have offered comfort and peace, hope and love to those suffering in the midst of human frailty and failure. This passage is not meant to cause guilt in those who have found themselves in the midst of divorce. In this story we see Jesus standing up for the truth of God’s word even though it might mean the destruction of His ministry. The Pharisees were scheming to end the ministry of Jesus, but He did not fear their threats. The truth is that divorce divides what God intends to be one, whole, complete. Even worse, our hard hearts keep us from fully living in the grace of our God and Creator.

The Pharisees were seeking to destroy Jesus and the work He was doing for God in this world. They were divorcing themselves, in a sense, from the very One who gave them life and relationships. Their hard hearts kept them from living a whole and complete life with their own ‘husband’. It is much too easy for us to decide that we do not need to live in a relationship with God, to go our own way. It is much too easy for us to think that we are an island. If we can easily give up the human relationships that so bless us on a daily basis, how much easier is it to put aside the relationship we have with the God we can’t see or touch? Their rejected Jesus and in doing so also rejected the God of their forefathers.

The first part of the Gospel lesson is about divorce and it moves into a story about children. In their world children often died very young, so it is not surprising that the people would bring their children to Jesus. If He could heal the sick, they thought, He could bless their children with a long life. The disciples thought Jesus was too important to deal with such triviality as children. Children were nothing but property. Those bringing the children may have even been mothers that had been cast out of a marriage for all the wrong reasons.

Jesus wanted to be in relationship with all God’s people, including the young ones. Perhaps He even preferred being in relationship with children because they are innocent and helpless and faithful. They had not yet learned to run away from suffering, but trusted in those who provided for their needs. Jesus lifted them as an example, so that we might see how to live in a relationship with God, trusting that He will get us through all our suffering. Who has suffered more than Jesus? But Jesus remained faithful to God, to the entire creation and to each one of us. He was indeed mindful of each of us as He was faithful to the work God sent Him to do. He cared about each of us as He hung on that cross, never leaving us despite all the reasonable and justifiable reasons He might have had.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?” This is a good question. What are we that God would care so much about us? We are not much different than those Pharisees. We also have hard hearts; we try to justify our frailty and failings. We break relationships as easily as we create them, turn away from the families and communities that God has built. We do not keep God in the center of these things. What are we that God is mindful of us? We are heirs, brothers and sisters to the One who is not only the One through whom all things were created, but who is also the Savior who restores us to the relationships in which God has created us to dwell.

Back to Midweek Oasis Index Page