Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, "God made them male and female.' "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. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
I wonder how many of you were a little uncomfortable with the Gospel lesson today. I was, I would have preferred a different text, at least for a few months. But here it is – Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce. Jesus is rather blunt about what he says and it’s uncomfortable for us 21st century Christians. Let’s face it – divorce is a part of our culture. There is probably no one here today who has not been touched by divorce in some manner or another. And for the sake of full disclosure – many of you already know that I am divorced, so when I talk about this I am speaking from my own experience as well.
But we can’t get around the text – this is Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce and it appears in Mark, Matthew and Luke. So, as uncomfortable as it might be, we need to look at this text carefully – because there is Gospel here; there is Good news in this text as well as law.
Now, this text from chapter 10 is linked to the texts which we have had in the last few weeks from chapter 9. Most importantly these readings begin with a passion prediction – Jesus tells His disciples that He is on His way to Jerusalem to be crucified and raised again on the 3rd day; and that this is the path to the Kingdom. Now none of Jesus’ disciples understand or accept this. Consequently, Jesus’ teaching gets more and more blunt and stark and uncompromising as a result. Today Jesus is cornered by a group of Pharisees who begin to question Jesus – not because they want answers – but because they want to trap Jesus in some way. And so, they ask Jesus the question about divorce. This is where we often run into difficulty in understanding this text. In our society marriage is about love and relationship. Both men and women choose their partners based on love and compatibility. There is usually some kind of courtship involved and marriage is the culmination of all of that. This is, however, not the experience of men and women at the time of Jesus in 1st century Palestine. For them marriage was essentially a property transaction. Women were the property of their fathers who would determine the marriage partner; then the woman would become the property of the husband. These girls had no choice in the matter. And if a man decided to end a marriage – then it was his call and there was nothing the woman could do about it. And since women had value in that society only on the basis of their relationship to a man – either a father or husband – a divorce would be bad news for the woman because it meant poverty and homelessness. Women who were discarded in this way often would have to turn to begging or prostitution in order to survive.
It is then in this context that Jesus quotes the book of Genesis to these religious men. Now, these Pharisees were men who knew their scripture backward and forward and were very intent on following the law. “For this reason a man shall leave His father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh.” But Moses allowed for divorce, you can hear them arguing back. Jesus is not swayed – marriage knits a man and a woman into one – “Therefore what God has joined together let no one separate.” Here Jesus is deliberately undermining the male prerogative by asserting that in God’s eyes these men do not have the right to just put their wives aside. Jesus appeals to the creation story and asserts that when it comes to marriage both the man and the woman are equal in the relationship. The disciples, as usual, are surprised and confused and they question Jesus about this later – “Can you be serious?” Jesus reiterates this point again for the disciples and makes it even more blunt – what is good for one is good for the other – both the man and the woman are equal in marriage. It is hard for us to understand how radical this would have been to Jesus’ audience at that time.
So, a couple of observations about what Jesus says about divorce: First, Jesus makes it clear that in God’s eyes marriage is not just another property transaction. God takes marriage seriously and both partners are equal in the eyes of God when it comes to marriage. One is not the servant or property of another. When we pray and ask God to join a man and woman and knit them into one in marriage God answers this prayer and husband and wife are knit together. Divorce is thus a ripping of this unity that God has brought about through marriage. Divorce is a sin – in that it is not what God desires and breaks the bonds God is creating. It is a breaking of the vows we have made to each other and before God. Finally, divorce hurts. It is painful – it hurts everyone who is involved. When you rip apart something that has been knit together it is going to hurt. I have never met anyone who said that divorce was no big deal – no matter how necessary and inevitable, it is painful.
But is that it? Should those of us who are divorced just slink away and hide? By no means! Divorce is a sin – but it is not the unforgivable sin. Sometimes divorce is inevitable; sometimes divorce is necessary; sometimes people break their promises, people are unkind, people get themselves into places in their relationships that they’re unable to set right again; they do things they shouldn’t, they hurt each other and themselves, sometimes severely; they misunderstand, misinterpret, misbehave; they’re too self-centered, or they’re too inattentive to their own needs; they give too little or too much; sometimes the trouble in our marriages affect just us; sometimes it extends to our children, our parents, and our wider families. We all recognize ourselves in these patterns of brokenness: we all have lots of experience of falling short of God’s vision for our relationships with each other.
But… Divorce is not the unforgivable sin. It is so common and tempting in our society to extract these passages of scripture – pull them out of their context and make new laws out of them. It is not hard to turn Jesus into a new Moses who brings a new and more severe law. Luther himself warned against this. Luther writes in an essay*: “Be sure, moreover, that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples…. As if the gospel were simply a textbook of teachings and laws.” For Luther, in order to understand the bible and specifically the teachings of Jesus we must always begin with the cross and the resurrection!! In fact, this passage itself is set in the context of Jesus’ 2nd passion prediction. Divorce is a sin; vows are broken. But is divorce the only sin where vows are broken? Is divorce the only sin that separates us from God and others? Is divorce the only sin which causes pain? No, we must guard against the temptation to judge divorce more harshly than we do other sins; we must guard against the temptation to judge ourselves or others. We are not called to judge. Rather, we are all invited to lay our sins – all of them, our divorces, our unfaithfulness, our tendency to judge, our selfishness, our disregard of others – we are invited to bring these sins and lay them at the foot of the cross. And we know that God will grant us all forgiveness; God will be present with us in the midst of our pain and struggle. And because of the resurrection we know that through Christ, God can bring new life out of death; that through forgiveness God will bring us new life, new love, new joy.
In the Gospel of John, a group of men drag in a woman who had been caught in adultery. Now this sin was punishable by death according to Mosaic law. The men are ready to stone her to death, but they ask Jesus what he thinks. After a pause he simply suggests that whoever is without sin in their lives may go ahead and cast the first stone. Slowly the men disappear and leave the woman alone. “Who condemns you?” Jesus asks her eventually. She looks around, “No one, sir.” “Well,” says Jesus, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Let me repeat these words of Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” In these words of Jesus there is forgiveness; there is the promise of renewal and there is a call to responsibility.
We are all sinners. We are all guilty, but because of Jesus we are forgiven and renewed. May we all be able to forgive others, and ourselves – to accept the forgiveness with is ours in Christ and allow God to fill our lives with His love and grace. SBD+
* From A Brief Instruction on What to look for and Expect in the Gospels by Martin Luther
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