Relationships ~ Marriage and Divorce
18th Sunday after Trinity
Genesis 2: 18 -24
Hebrews 1 1-4; 2: 5-12
Mark 10: 2-16
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 have to confess that my heart sank when saw the readings for today. I certainly did not want to preach about divorce, and the Hebrews reading is very difficult to unravel in a short sermon and as for Genesis? After much reading and agonising here we are back with the gospel reading. It is difficult because it has often become an oppressive passage when taken out of context. I also find it difficult because I grew up in a home where divorce had caused much heartache but was also a banned subject and I became aware of the depth of brokenness divorce can cause. Yet, I believe it is very important that we faithfully wrestle with hard, difficult passages in scripture and not avoid them (even though I did try very hard to!)
Today, we have Jesus teaching about relationships, marriage and divorce. However, in order for us to understand what this reading says about divorce, we must first understand what marriage meant in ancient culture.
First of all under normal circumstances in those days individuals really did not get married in the way that we understand married. It was nearly always an arranged affair between families. One family offered a male, the other a female. Their wedding stood for the wedding of the larger extended families and symbolised the joining of both families involved, not just two individuals. It would be arranged with a focus on political and/or economic considerations. Marriage was not a matter of ‘falling in love.’ It was very much a matter of honouring one’s parents. Divorce would entail the breaking up of these extended family ties and often caused family feuds.
Ancient culture also operated under an honour/shame system. Great emphasis was placed on the honour or the shame that one set of actions placed upon the other. So that, when a divorce took place entire families were dishonoured and put to shame. In spite of this, divorce was common and it was a very simple process. Within the patriarchal culture of that time, women and children had virtually no rights and were considered property. A man could simply write on a piece of paper, “She is not my wife and I am not her husband.” He would then give her the paper and put her out of the house. A man could divorce his wife on a whim, but a woman could not initiate a divorce. Think about that for a moment. Husband gets out of bed in the morning, stumbles downstairs to the kitchen, coffee is not made, scrambled eggs aren’t cooked, toast is burnt, and wife is scrambling to get lunches ready for children to take to school. Husband wants breakfast. But there is no breakfast. Husband thinks this is objectionable, I think it is time to find a new wife. Husband writes a note saying, Wife I divorce you. Wife and children have to leave the house, to possibly live in poverty and disgrace on the streets. It sounds unbelievable to us that a man could put his wife out on the street if he didn’t like her cooking, how she looked or dressed or because he wanted a younger model.
There are chapters of instruction regarding divorce in Deuteronomy and if read carefully you will note that Deuteronomy is not recommending this procedure. It is simply acknowledging that these are the marital standards under which men operated in ancient times. In the strongest possible terms Jesus wants to overturn this cavalier attitude towards marriage. He wants to drive home the point that human relationships constitute a sacred bond, and above all, he wants to offer protection to women, who in his day were utterly powerless in the marriage relationship.
In today’s reading we find Jesus facing a test. Mark tells us, Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ The Pharisees knew full-well what the law said about divorce and they did not need to ask Jesus. But, they wanted to trick him. Jesus responds by asking them a question in return. ‘What did Moses command you?’ Then, the Pharisees tell Jesus what Moses allowed. Jesus knew that Moses never commanded,
Moses allowed divorce, then Jesus turns the conversation into a teaching moment talking about God’s ideal for marriage, and relationships from the creation stories in Genesis.
Human beings were created to live in relationship. God’s intention from the beginning is for two people to be faithful, lifelong companions in an intimate, committed relationship. By saying this, Jesus changes the focus of the conversation from divorce to focus on the unity of partners as part of God’s creative design. This is of course the ideal, but we are very aware that it is not always possible for a multitude of reasons.
Jesus is not speaking to a culture in which there are fairly stringent and rigorous divorce proceedings that aim to provide protection for both parties equally that we are familiar with today, and he is certainly not mandating that a woman, or a man should stay bound to each other when they are both being destroyed by the unresolvable breakdown of their relationship. I do not believe that Jesus is advocating that a person whose marriage has died, is condemned to living the rest of their lives without the possibility of ever re-marrying.
What he is doing is overturning the power of men in the marital relationship and elevating those at the bottom of the social ladder, the women, and in verse 12 Jesus asserts the woman’s right to divorce her husband, giving women precisely the same rights and responsibilities as men.
After this discussion about divorce, the gospel immediately moves to the scene where Jesus receives the little children. Little children, in those days were largely seen as a nuisance, like women, they had no rights and were the most vulnerable in that culture – these are the ones the disciples want to send away. But, Jesus refused to send the little children away. Instead, Jesus received them, he hugged them, and he blessed them. In doing so, Jesus shows that all are equally worthy of God’s love including those suffering the pain and brokenness of divorce. The most important lesson is that those who are the least valued and most vulnerable members of society are welcomed and blessed and are those who will receive the kingdom of God. To receive the kingdom of God as a little child’ means to cast ourselves completely upon the grace and mercy of God. It means recognising that none of us really measure up. There are times when we all fail and fall short of God’s standard of love in our lives. We all make a mess of things and ourselves and let each other down. But and it is a huge BUT, it is at that very point of failure that as the writer to the Hebrews (Chapter 2 verse 9) says ‘but we see Jesus made a little lower than the angels .. That same Jesus wants to take you ‘up in his arms,’ lay ‘his hands on’ you, and bless you. There are no irredeemable failures. There is always forgiveness and blessing.
In spite of a difficult text God’s word to us today is still good news. His desire for us is to live in loving relationships and that we have compassion, and mercy for the needs of the ‘little ones’ whether they be children, or the poor, the mentally ill, the disabled, the refugee, the abused, or the divorced. Any who are considered other. In so many ways we fail to love because we are broken people. But, God loves us limited human beings in a limitless and divine way. When we fail, God forgives, loves and blesses us, just as we are. Amen