Jesus in The Rye

Rev. Sarah Buteux
October 7, 2012
Genesis 2:18-24; Mark 10:2-16

 
Do you all know what a Christ figure is in literature or cinema? It is a character who parallels the life and sacrifice of Jesus in significant ways. We come across them all the time in popular culture, so I was hoping you could name some for me today… from any book or movie?
 
My favorite, obviously Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Frodo running a close second, but who is yours? Just go ahead and shout some out:
 
Whose your favorite Christ Figure?
 
Buffy, Harry, Frodo, Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Optimus Prime, the Transformer. (Yeah. Of course I can’t actually say much about that having never seen the movies, but apparently, at least according to Wikipedia, Optimus Prime - Christ figure). Who knew?
 
Alright, well, thank you. Those are all wonderful examples, wonderful examples of characters who were willing to sacrifice themselves in some way for the good of others.
 
That is what they all have in common, so what I’m about to say may sound a little strange to you, but I’ve always thought of The Catcher in The Rye’s Holden Caulfield as something of a Christ figure too.
 
Not because he does anything especially heroic or sacrificial - as anyone familiar with the book can tell you, Holden is a confused, alienated, self-centered and angst ridden kid - but simply because of that one bright, shining, moment of compassion that gives the book its name.
 
It is the moment when Holden tells his sister about his deepest ambition, his secret dream, the one thing he wishes he could do with his life.
 
 
“… I keep picturing all these little kids,” he says:
 
playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.
 
Those lines, that phrase – the catcher in the Rye - it all belongs to Salinger, but man does it remind me of Jesus. I imagine this is how he felt too as he walked amongst us and probably how he still feels looking down on us.
 
Because the sad truth of this life is that children, his children, are falling all the time: falling down, falling off, falling away, falling short… whether we mean to or not… falling all the time. We fall from cliffs of our own making.
 
We fall from cliffs carefully designed and maintained by others. Some of us slip, some trip, some are pushed, but his children all fall eventually - from grace if nothing else - and I think if there is one thing Jesus wants to do, it’s catch us, gather us up in his arms…and bring us home.
 
That, to me at least, seems to be the driving impulse at the heart of God’s heart, an impulse to save, love, and protect, which is why I think conversations like the one we encounter in today’s reading must have been so hard for Jesus; not because he didn’t know the answer, but because he knew all too well the dark intentions behind the question.
 
As you can see from the text, when this small group of Pharisees came and asked Jesus: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they weren’t asking out of actual concern for the plight of divorced people, they were asking to test him. That is, they were asking Jesus to take a stand on a particularly divisive issue in the hopes that no matter what he said he would offend someone.
 
 You see back in Jesus’ day there were at least two schools of thought about divorce in the Jewish community, both of which relied on scripture to bolster their arguments, both of which had very powerful supporters. The first school believed that God designed marriage for the purpose of procreation. They based their argument on the verses in Genesis 1[1] where God creates humanity in his own image and bids them “be fruitful and multiply.” In the minds of these men, the purpose of marriage was to beget children.
 
 
The only legitimate reason, then, for a man to divorce his wife would be if she were either unable to bear him children or had been unfaithful and was therefore unable to prove that her children were his children.
 
The second school, relying on the verse Jesus alludes to from Deuteronomy, believed that a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever because Moses himself had said as much.
 
Deuteronomy 24:1: “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, (then he can) write her a certificate of divorce, give it to her and send her from his house.”
 
You know how we have no-fault divorce? Well back then, they had something more like, “Her fault divorce.”
 
If a man didn’t like the way his wife looked, or cooked, or talked, or aged, he could write “we’re finished” on a piece of paper, put it in her hand, and send her packing… a move that would have been utterly devastating for a woman and her children both socially and economically.
 
For you see, the chances of her remarrying were slim; the chances of her finding a job … none. With no other recourse, she and her children would most likely have been reduced to begging if not worse.
 
Women and children were incredibly vulnerable under this interpretation of the law, and Jesus would have known that. He would have known that and no doubt been angered by that, but had he come right out and said that, he would have rendered himself incredibly vulnerable as well, because you see there was already a rather high profile case of “Her fault divorce” taking up space in the public consciousness back then.
 
King Herod had just recently divorced his wife in order to marry his brother’s. He had also, just recently, beheaded John the Baptist, for openly criticizing him about it.
 
So there’s the rub, the trick, the trap. That’s what’s really going on here.
 
If Jesus comes down on the side of the Genesis 1 crowd he’s most likely going to get himself arrested and killed by no one less than Herod.
 
But if he comes down on the side of the Deuteronomy crowd he will be seen as supporting Herod, betraying the memory of his cousin, and upholding an interpretation of the law that everyone knows pushes women and children right over the cliff.
 
So what’s a messiah to do?
 
Well, Jesus does what he always does. He finds a third way. 
 
He begins by acknowledging that thanks to Moses there is nothing illegal about divorce – score 1 for the Deuteronomy crowd – but before those folks can get too smug, he follows it up with a stinging rebuke, essentially saying that just because it’s legal for you to treat women this way doesn’t mean it’s right.
 
It’s “Because of your hardness of heart (that) he wrote this commandment for you,” says Jesus.
 
At which point I’m sure many in the crowd nodded and kept nodding as Jesus went on to reference Genesis 1: “ …from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female,’” quotes Jesus, leading everyone to believe he is now going to come down on the side of those who held that the purpose of marriage is procreation.
 
Score 1 for the Genesis crowd and make way for the soldiers because this is about to get ugly…
 
… except that…
 
…. Jesus doesn’t stay with Genesis 1. He skips ahead to Genesis 2, he skips over the line about being fruitful and multiplying, and instead says: 7‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh…’” and then adds for good measure “…what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
 
Friends, this would have given people a lot to think about, because with his words, Jesus has just effectively moved the discussion out of the legal realm into a much more relational one and he’s done it in such a way that no one knows whose side he’s on anymore. 
 
By quoting Genesis 1, Jesus was reminding the Deuteronomists that marriage was not just a legal contract or a business arrangement, but something holy and God given, rooted in the very foundation of creation.
 
And by skipping over the words “be fruitful and multiply,” he was reminding those in the Genesis camp that a woman’s worth was not determined by her ability to produce something, in this case children, but by the fact that she too was made in the image of God.
 
Jesus then jumps to chapter two in order to remind them all that the true purpose of marriage from the very beginning was not wealth, children, or a man’s good pleasure, but love…love and companionship…for both partners (of any gender configuration as far as I am concerned).
 
Jesus point here is that we were made for one another first and foremost because “it is not good for (us) to be alone.” (Which, let me just say, is not a value judgment against singleness so much as simply an acknowledgment of how hard it is to go through this life on your own.)
 
To sum up: these men were arguing about the proper grounds upon which a husband could divorce his wife. “Jesus,” says Russell Rathbun, “turns (the question) around by (reminding them) that it is not (just) the man’s marriage to dissolve” (The Hardest Question, http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org).
 
The marriage involves two people, after all, two who have, thanks be to God’s plan, become one. Jesus is making the case that marriage, at least the way God designed it, was a partnership created for both the husband and the wife.
 
So whenever you talk about marriage or divorce, says Jesus, how about you remember that, and treat both the woman and the God who made her, with a little more respect.
 
That is what this is about. It is about respect, respecting the fact that women are people too.
 
It’s a pretty awesome moment in the gospels. Jesus, having taken everyone to school, walks away clean, evades the trap, and lives to teach another day. 
 
It’s also pretty awesome to see how he comes out in support of women in such a big way here, doing all in his power to catch them and lift them up so that these men - whatever their views on divorce - will start viewing them less like property and more like people.
 
And you need to hold on to that in order to understand the line that comes next, because it is perhaps one of the hardest lines to reckon with in all of scripture, especially for those of us who are trying to follow Jesus now.
 
The Bible tells us that Jesus went into a house and when: “10… the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11(He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery (against him).’
 
Now I don’t have to tell you why that is a hard line and I’m not going to pretend this is easy…because it is not. We hear those lines and our first thought is: what do you mean remarriage is adultery?
 
Though I have to tell you, when the disicples heard those lines, I can almost guarantee you that their first thought was: what do you mean “if she divorces her husband”?
 
Because, you see, there was no provision in Jewish law for a woman to do that.
 
I think Jesus is still focused here more on asserting that women ought to have rights within the context of marriage, than he is on the legalities around divorce and remarriage.
 
Either that, or he’s just really coming down hard on Herod now that they’re in private. That’s also a strong possibility because Herod was a monster and what he did was wrong.  This may have had a lot more to do with him then it does with us.
 
But that was then and this is now and we still have to grapple with these words about adultery. So let me say this: I don’t think God likes divorce. In fact I don’t think anybody does.
 
I’m not saying it isn’t sometimes necessary, or that you can’t have a good divorce, or even that divorce is a sin. Sometimes it is, yes you can, and no it’s not. But that doesn’t change the fact that even the best ones hurt, (unless you’re like a Kardashian or something, right?) and when we hurt, God hurts.
 
In fact, if you take just one step back from this passage, I think it’s pretty clear that Jesus’ primary concern here is in mitigating the hurt that divorce causes by calling for us to give equal consideration to both partners in the marriage, especially if we are one of those partners.
 
I think his point is that something sacred dies when a marriage dies and that affects everyone in the family, but when you go about it treating the other person or people affected as if they aren’t even people at all, well then the damage done is incalculably worse. Don’t do that, says Jesus.
 
Jesus elevates the status of women here, giving them the same rights under the law as their husbands, but in so doing he also reminds them that with those rights comes responsibility.
 
This new-found status that he confers on women not only lifts them up but also finds them equally capable of causing harm, equally capable of mistreating someone they once loved, equally capable of tearing asunder something God has joined together…equally capable of sin…and therefore equally in need of grace (Thanks to Russell Rathbun again).
 
Which brings us back to the beginning, back to the field of Rye, back to the heart of God’s heart.
 
Friends, God may have meant all this for good, but God knows that the perfect world he made got broken and because of this, like I said at the outset, we all fall.  We all fail. We may all start out with good intentions, but there is not a one of us, be we single, married, divorced, or somewhere in between, who gets through this life unscathed and not a one of us who gets through without doing a little scathing.
 
Some of this is us - just us - being our own sad, sinful, selfish selves, but much of it stems as well from living in a fallen world and being born into systems that perpetuate evil and indignity.  Jesus came to save us from our sins and Jesus came to save us from our systems.
 
When the Pharisees came to Jesus that day, he used their question to expose the parts of their belief system that debased women and children, expose them as flawed and destructive.
 
He used their question as an opportunity to call upon both men and women to love, honor, and cherish one another the way God does, because God knows how painful it is when we don’t.
 
But God also knows full well that in spite of our best intentions, sometimes we fail, and that some of those failures end in divorce. That doesn’t mean that God gives up on us. In fact, I think it means that God comes looking for us all the more, looking to catch us as we fall, and hold us close when we fail, the better to whisper just how dearly loved and precious we are in his sight no matter what. 
 
How horribly ironic would it be for the church to take Jesus’ words about divorce and remarriage and codify them into some sort of new law that would create a whole new class of people we felt duty bound to ostracize and demean?
 
Horribly ironic indeed.
 
So let’s not do it. Let’s join with Jesus instead, and do everything in our power to catch those who are falling, hold those who need healing, and bless EVERYONE who comes our way.
 
Amen.
 
 
[1] “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.