I’m not quite sure how it happened. I was at a meeting of a wonderful organization about 12 years ago; with people who didn’t know each other well but who were all committed to making a difference in the world.
Sixteen or seventeen of us around tables, and the introductions began. I have no idea why he did it, but the first gentleman said “I’m so-and-so from Denver and I’ve been married to my lovely wife for 35 years.” Not to be outdone, or following a theme, the next woman said “I’m so-and-so from Colorado Springs and I’ve been married for 20 years.” And so it went, around the table, every person, slowly coming to me.
Here’s what you need to know: Not quite a year before that meeting, my then-husband had walked out the door. I was still reeling from the painful emotions, the financial implications and with suddenly becoming a single parent.
Everyone around the table was joyful and honestly, they had no mean intentions, but still, my heart was pounding. I will forever be grateful to the woman next to me who stopped the theme and said “I’m Kate. And I have a cat.” Whew!
Fast-forward to just a couple of weeks ago, a casual conversation about family with someone who doesn’t know me well. “Oh,” she said, pausing. “So, this is your second marriage?”
“Beware!” said one pastor about today’s Gospel. As soon as you read the word ‘divorce,’ out-loud, a whole sermon will be appear in people’s heads. Some of us immediately hear words of condemnation and failure directed at ourselves; others quickly judge people they know or have known, and others relive childhood agony.
“Until death parts us” is a beautiful phrase—but the living out of that promise can be so complicated, can’t it?
That promise and more is what Jesus is talking about today, although when the Pharisees came calling it wasn’t the promises they were interested in, but the judgment of right and wrong
“Is it lawful,” they ask, “for a man to divorce his wife?”
Now, they knew the answer—yes, it was religiously lawful, the book of Deuteronomy said so. But they wanted to trap Jesus: would he stand with the law or teach something different?
Believe it or not, in Jesus’ time, divorce was an easy thing, in fact, much easier than today. A Jewish man—and only the man—simply wrote a paper or had someone write it for him, saying he no longer wanted to be married to his wife, and it was done.
Most of the time, any type of offense could be used as justification, from adultery to serving a bad meal. Afterwards, women were left in horrible and often destitute circumstances—without status, family, or honor. It wasn’t as if she could just go out and get a job to support herself. And any children stayed with the father—because they were his possessions, just as she had once been.
What Jesus says is a response to these realities, but as he always does, Jesus ups the ante with the answer: “Because of your hardness of heart, divorce is legal.”
But…but, he says, with compassion for those discarded and treated as worthless, Jesus says several things:
- People are created by God to love one another
- In marriage, two people become one, a bond that is not lightly broken
- And divorce brings with it consequences that can be hurtful
Jesus’ words make God’s intention for marriage clear: marriage creates a union in which two people participate and are changed, a sacred relationship of love and responsibility to one another. Thankfully, our definition of marriage has changed in the past few years to include same-gender marriages, so that everyone who loves can seek the public recognition and support that comes through marriage, which is to last a lifetime for everyone.
So our ideal is the same as Jesus’, isn’t it?
Yet—we also know reality—the reality behind the old joke that the reason people cry at weddings is because they know what the two people are getting themselves into…
Marriage is hard work—calling from people everything they’ve got and then some
And we know that sometimes terrible things happen in marriages:
abuse—(something no one should be expected to endure; and when the church has used this Gospel to encourage spouses to stay in an abusive marriage it is reprehensible); sometimes there is infidelity; or addictions that tear the bond of marriage in two violently
Or it can be more subtle, can’t it: mistrust, a lack of commitment, a lack of maturity—or something else that slowly damages the relationship day after day until finally there is a canyon between the two people
We can say that sometimes divorce is the best option or the only option
But we also know that, like a rock dropped in a lake, the ripples go out and on: relationships are destroyed, family and friends are polarized, and children suffer
That’s also the reality that Jesus is pointing to here—because of your ‘hardness of heart,’ because of this broken world we are a part of, because of the power of sin, promises are broken and there are consequences.
There is conviction here, there’s no way around it—but Jesus is not holding up divorce as a greater sin than lying or being angry, not loving your neighbor, or anything else that turns us away from God–those sins have consequences too, don’t they—for individuals and families and communities
That’s where the church, that’s where people of faith have elevated this passage of scripture way beyond its bounds, using it as a club to smack those who are already wounded
Because, as always with Jesus, there is grace here—grace for all of God’s people. Hopefully we don’t stop listening with the first sentence of this scripture. Did you hear what else follows the Pharisee’s question?
People are bringing children to be blessed by Jesus…and the disciples get on their high horses and try to block the way After all, children, as you’ve heard these past Sundays, had no status and were really nothing of consequence in the Biblical world
And yet Jesus, once again, embraces them, blesses them, and says that those who want to be part of the reign of God must come as little children, with nothing:
- We don’t bring a scorecard, all marked up with the failings of others
- We don’t bring our self-righteousness, sure that all our own relationships are perfect
- And we don’t come blanketed in our burden of shame or guilt
We come only with an open and trusting heart in this Savior who invites us to live love of God, neighbor, and ourselves above all things; and who embodies that love in his welcome, forgiveness, and healing for the whole world and for each one of us.
No matter what circumstance of life we find ourselves in; whether we have married or not; whether we have succeeded in marriage or failed, or some of each; in the embrace of Christ we know that nothing can separate us from God’s love.