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Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost October 7, 2012

Scarlet Foster’s parents were divorced. I didn’t know it for years. People always told me her father traveled a lot. Divorce was relatively uncommon when I was growing up – or at least the adults in my life didn’t share that topic with me. When I was an adult, my dad told me that our house was built by a man for his second wife, but she wouldn’t live in it because she could see the first wife’s house from it. I knew one of my best friends’ mothers had been divorced, but I didn’t know till later in our relationship that she couldn’t be married in the church because of it. The Episcopal Church had restrictions against remarriage in the church too. It is my understanding that for a long time, you couldn’t get married in the church after a divorce unless you were the “wronged” party.

Divorce has “come a long way” since then. Nearly half of Christian marriages end in divorce. I have married people for the third time. We see celebrities getting numerous divorces – Elizabeth Taylor was married nine times. Larry King has been divorced eight times. Divorce is part of our culture. I have heard that some people want to change their marriage vows from “till death do us part” to “for as long as love lasts”. There are pre-nuptial agreements between wealthy people that protect their assets. There is an expectation that a marriage very well might end before death. Many people assume that married love is often conditional and passing. 

Divorce was a part of Jesus’ culture too. Jewish men were allowed to divorce their wives, but wives were not allowed to divorce their husbands. Either party could file for divorce in the Greco-Roman world. The debate at the time in Jewish circles was between the Shammai party, who felt that divorce could only be legitimate on the grounds of adultery, and the Hillel party, which was much more lenient. A man could divorce his wife for anything he found to be objectionable about her. So when the Pharisees tried to lure Jesus into a debate about divorce, he was sure to make one party angry. If he said divorce was not lawful at all, then he was contravening the Law of Moses. 

But Jesus, as usual, does not get drawn into the debate. He answers their question with a question, asking what Moses had commanded. They answered that a man could write a certificate of dismissal and they were divorced. What they didn’t quote was the provision that the man actually had to give his wife the certificate of dismissal. A divorce in the family was a scandal of great proportions for the women who were the victims. If they could not go back to their father’s house, their only options were begging or prostitution. The certificate of divorce a woman carried might provide her with some protection from rumors and gossip (Matt Skinner), but the divorce marginalized her nonetheless. Needless to say, in a patriarchal society, the man was not marginalized, but could marry again. Not many wanted to marry a divorced woman.

Jesus did not agree or disagree with one party or another, nor did he say there could be no divorce. He did say that Moses gave them the law because of their hardness of heart. Some human beings were not able to treat one another with respect and concern and so divorce happened, often for somewhat insignificant reasons from our point of view.

Beyond saying this, Jesus does not say anything about divorce. Instead he turns the topic to marriage and what it should be – the union of two souls in heart and mind and body. He quotes Genesis. God made them male and female. God made humans to be in relationship with one another and in special, intimate, deep relationship with one other person. This relationship is so serious and so binding that a man – note it is the man here – leaves his father and his mother to be joined to his wife and the two become one flesh. They become sexually intimate as the basis of the union, and they do that with only one partner. They are indivisible, sharing everything. In the English marriage service, the couple says (or perhaps used to say) “with my body I thee worship” in addition to the other vows. Human sexuality is a wonderful gift of God, but it is not meant to be shared indiscriminately. Jesus says, “What God has joined together, let no human separate”. Jesus takes marriage very seriously and wants us to do so as well. Later he says more to his disciples about both women and men divorcing and how a remarriage means that they commit adultery against their spouse. Commentators say that Jesus was talking about a man or a woman who divorces in order to remarry. He says nothing about the partners that are the injured parties. And he elevates the position of women to the Greco-Roman reality, that they may divorce their husbands. 

In Jesus’ time, marriages were for economic and social reasons. In our time, marriages are more often for mutual fulfillment. The Book of Common Prayer says “the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation…The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity.” It goes on to talk about the seriousness of entering marriage for the purposes for which it was instituted by God. In our church, counseling is required before marriage to make sure the couple love and respect one another and know how to handle conflict that may arise between them. We do everything possible to make sure marriages succeed.

Yet sometimes, there is no other alternative but divorce. Certainly this passage is not advocating that marriages where abuse or neglect takes place be kept together at all costs. But even when a marriage is entered into with the best of intentions, divorce is sometimes the best option. Everything from adultery to our catchall category called irreconcilable differences can be a reason that the best solution for a marriage is dissolution. 

This passage is not intended to make people feel guilty who are divorced and remarried. Jesus is not laying down a new law. He is speaking a greater reality than the law – that what God intends and what people are capable of is not the same thing. Divorces occur because the world is broken. However, when people who are joined together in one flesh separate from one another, the consequences run deep for the couple and for family and friends as well, and they often continue for years. Studies are showing the deep toll that divorce takes on children. On the other hand, while there is no good time to divorce, sometimes people become better able to handle other relationships because they are apart (Karoline Lewis). In addition, a subsequent remarriage can often provide the wholeness that the first marriage lacked, and Jesus and God are in the business of wholeness and peace for all of God’s people. 

In our time this passage is often used in arguments about gay and lesbian “marriages”. Jesus specifies a man and a woman, and many people say that this means no other configuration can be called a marriage. But since Jesus has nothing at all to say about homosexuality, he does not give a negative rule about their unions. Jesus has just finished talking about divorce, a state in which people show human vulnerability and brokenness, when children come to him to be blessed. Though the disciples try to bar them, Jesus welcomes them and says you have to be like a child to receive and enter the kingdom of God. Children are totally dependent and vulnerable, and we are too. Children need their earthly parents or caregivers to survive into adulthood, and we need the grace and mercy of our heavenly Father in our lives to get through difficult situations including divorce. We need to acknowledge our dependence upon God to make us righteous. 

Divorce is painful. We should not have a cavalier attitude toward it as the Pharisees talking to Jesus did, but we should enter marriage with every intention of having agape love for our partner. We should also try our best to preserve our marriages when they run into difficulties. Marriage is intended for lifetime by God, Jesus says, and this should be our goal. This applies to our first marriages as well as subsequent ones. The good news is that God intends our wholeness, and will work in every situation of our lives to provide that for us and for others to whom our lives are connected. We do not have to meet certain standards of behavior for God to look with love on us. We simply need to open our arms to receive the in-breaking kingdom of God.


      - Rev. Ann Barker


Works cited:
Matt Skinner, Commentary on the Gospel, Working Preacher, 2009
Karoline Lewis, Commentary on the Gospel Working Preacher, 2012