An address delivered in Warragul Uniting Church, by the Rev Rosalind Terry

on Sunday, 5 October 2003


Bible Readings:

            Mark 10: 2-16

            Job 1: 1;  2: 1-10


Both our readings deal with the problem of suffering.

Job suffered at the hands of “Satan”, the Accuser, with the permission of God, we are told.  Indeed, as the Bible begins the story, it would seem that God was almost letting Satan have his bit of fun, knowing that Job would not crack under the pressure.  The suffering is not portrayed as something that would help Job grow, or as something that would make him more righteous.  He was already a righteous man.  The suffering seems meaningless cruelty for Job, although as long as he doesn’t crack it will prove to Satan that there is at least one righteous man on earth, who is good not for what he can get out of it, but simply because he is good, and he trusts God.  God seems to be using Job to prove a point to Satan.  So God will be elevated in Satan’s eyes.


I do not find this way of reading the story very elevating.  Indeed, read as a short snippet like this, the story makes little sense to me.  Certainly Job’s words at verse 11 are edifying.  “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”  These words indeed have helped me at times of minor hardship.  But as is seen when Job’s sufferings deepen, they are of no comfort when really deep trials strike, where the evil far outweighs the good a person experiences in life, as sometimes happens, particularly in third world countries.  Then a deeper answer is required, and the book goes on to explore grace, to the extent that was possible so long before Jesus was born.  In the end, Job is overwhelmed by the mystery of God.  Job experiences God’s presence, even in his suffering, and that is enough.  Sometimes today that is the only answer we get.  To get that answer is wonderful beyond imagining.  It is enough.  It is not to deny our intellectual problem with pain in a world we believe was created by a loving God.  (How can this be so?)  It is to rise above such a question.


The book is a wonderful antidote for those who try to gloss over the problem of suffering in our world.  Good people do not always prosper.  Sometimes innocent people, even innocent babes and children, experience gross injustice and inexpressible pain.  Even The Righteous One, at the time of His greatest suffering, cried out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

  . . . . . . . . .


And which person who has ever experienced, the anguish of marriage break up, either as one part of the now separating couple, or as child or grandparent or close relative or friend, would doubt the distress of such an event. Yet Jesus, at first glance, in these words spoken in reply to a test question from the Pharisees, says that suffering is no grounds for divorce.  That in the world as God planned it to be, there was no provision for divorce.  How could Jesus, the gentle and understanding one, be so cruel?  Is Jesus condemning the woman trapped in marriage with a drunken, abusing, philandering husband, to a life of destructive misery, along with her helpless children?   Does Jesus expect a man to for ever put up with his wife’s gambling wasting his hard earned money, instead of using it to feed and cloth their children?   Integrity always involves suffering, certainly the integrity of the marriage vow does, as each partner must change, must compromise, must give up selfishness to accommodate the new “one flesh” reality.  But isn’t there a point at which such suffering becomes demonic, and needs to be faced and cast out by divorce? 


As so often happens with difficult Biblical passages, we need to go back and understand the context in which Jesus was talking here.  The Pharisees asked their question against a running argument between the two Pharisaic factions.  In both, there were no rights for the woman.  She was a “chattel”, bought by the man as his bride, and able to be disposed of according to law.  The question was, what was sufficient reason for a man to “dismiss” his wife, leaving her at the mercy of her father, her brother, or the nearest male relative, none of whom would want this responsibility for “damaged goods”.  The plight of the Samaritan woman by the well, with her five husbands, and now living with one who was not her husband, graphically portrays the plight of such rejected women.  Jesus refused to rule on the Pharisaic debate.  For him, women were and are not chattels to be bought and disposed of at the man’s convenience and pleasure.  Jesus points back to God’s original sacred plan, and points out a startling truth in such a patriarchal society.


“From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female”, in his own image.  Male and female are both of equal value in God’s sight.  And “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”  The MAN is to leave his birth family!  The woman does not have to do all the leaving and changing and sacrificing to make this new entity work!  This was radical stuff in the days of Jesus.  It is still quite radical today.  If we really practiced it, perhaps both parties to a marriage would choose to symbolise this leaving of birth families by BOTH changing their surnames, and together picking a new name.  No, don’t take that suggestion seriously.  It would make the doing of a family tree just too difficult.  But the horror I saw on some people’s faces at the mere suggestion does show how difficult it is for us still today to take in the radical nature of Jesus’ words, which are only quoting from the second chapter of the Bible!  Nothing new!  But very radical! 


Then Jesus goes on to shock his disciples further.  He suggests to them in private that women as well as men should have the legal right to divorce their spouse!  Now we know that this is not what God first intended, but in this sinful and broken world, sometimes relationships become irretrievably damaged.  At that time, either the husband or the wife can take the initiative to acknowledge the failure, the sin, and leave the “one flesh” relationship.  And there will be more pain to go through.  It is like going for a physical operation.  There may or may not be pain before the operation.  There will be pain afterwards, because the body has been violated. 


In marriage, two people become one flesh.  In divorce, the one is separated into two.  It is painful, more or less so depending on the maturity of the couple and the pain suffered before the divorce began.  And here Jesus seems to increase the Biblical legalism.  He rules out re-marriage for both parties, according to the law!  I can see no way around this.  Some of you see me and others who speak of “right relationships” as a Biblical Principle as somehow watering down the Bible’s teaching.  I would claim that we in fact heighten the Biblical requirements.  Marriage is for life.  If sin and human weakness force a couple to break that “one flesh” bond, then the Bible law demands that they live in celibacy from then on! …




Biblical Law does NOT have the last word!


GOD’S GRACE has the last word. 


Every one of us is a sinner, one way or another, all of our lives.


Strive as we might, we cannot fulfil God’s law.


But Jesus Christ came to save sinners.


He himself said he came not for the righteous, not for the self-righteous, but to save sinners.  And such we all are.  If we could somehow live without sin, we would no longer need God’s grace.


Those who have experienced divorce, by grace and by grace alone can remarry.  I do not know if God sees this as a new and first marriage, because our sins are washed away by faith in Jesus.  Or perhaps God sees this as adultery that is washed clean by faith in Jesus.  But if the later, the ones in such a marriage are no more and no less sinners than any of the rest of us.  We are all sinners.  We are all loved by God by grace alone.  If we dare to think that some are more worthy than others, that in itself may be the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit.  For by grace alone we are saved, and that not through any work (or righteousness) of our own, but by faith in Jesus Christ the Word made flesh.


And as if to underline this truth, Jesus rebukes his disciples for preventing little children from coming to him.  Little children.  Grubby, noisy, disruptive children who should have been seen but not heard, or preferably not seen at all.  Little children who are always the ones who suffer most in a messy divorce. 

If there was a human being lower than a woman in Jewish society, then it was a child.  A father could legally beat his child to death for insubordination!  That is given Old Testament warrant.  Yet here Jesus says, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  And he took them up in his arms and blessed them.


Many sermons have been preached on this, extolling childhood innocence and trust.  Come like that, the preachers plea.  But I think Jesus was saying something deeper.  He was underlining his earlier message.  He was saying, look at these children.  They have no rights.  They have done nothing useful to deserve consideration.  They can be a nuisance.  They know next to nothing of the law.  They can do nothing to pay for anything they are given.  They are totally at the mercy of their adult guardians.  Daily they may suffer abuse at the hands of the adults in their lives.  But I call them to come to me.  They are precious in God’s sight just as they are, dirty, fighting, frightened, helpless, demanding, hopeful, excited, …  Let them come, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 


Hear this.  WE do not deserve the kingdom, any more than any of those children.  We are sinners and sinned against, like each of those children. KNOWING THIS is how we should come.  Accepting God’s love as pure grace is the only way to receive it.  This is where all right relationships begin. 


Because we are loved, just as we are, we can love God and our neighbour as ourselves. 


To know God’s love is to know the answer to human suffering.  I know no other answer.