Thinking Theologically About Divorce

Let’s be blunt, divorce happens.  I’ve got parishioners, friends and family members who have experienced it.  And Jesus is pretty direct about divorce.  And that stings, because Jesus sounds very harsh.   I’ve heard plenty of bad sermons on divorce, how it is always wrong or never wrong.  I think it’s in between.

So my thoughts on divorce.  I hope you’ll share yours too.

Based on Mark 10:2-16 

            You may not know this, but I bet you can imagine the level of activity on preaching websites this week given the reading we just heard from Mark.   One blog I visit had a number of responses that said, virtually, “I wouldn’t touch Mark this week with a 10-foot pole, or any sized pole for that matter.”  One online commentator—a professor at a Lutheran seminary—put it this way, “The passage is often listed among the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus. But perhaps ‘painful,’ ‘distressing,’ or ‘agonizing’ would be more like it, as each time this passage is read and heard in a congregation many of us cringe, either feeling assaulted by it directly or worrying that others are.”  He claimed it probably wouldn’t be prudent to preach on this passage, and many a preacher might opt for Hebrews instead. But then he said “preaching the gospel is rarely about being prudent.”

I would venture a guess that all of us have been impacted by divorce, either in our own relationships, in our families or through our close friends.  Most of us have experienced the pain that divorce leaves in its wake.  And, as one commentator put it, nobody is looking for a sermon about the ethical question of divorce, if it is right or wrong; what people really want to know why it hurts so dang much.  The grief is seismic, identities are changed — have you ever noticed that there’s that check box for “divorced” on all of those forms rather than just reverting back to the “single” box—and relationships are forever altered—ask any divorcee about couple friends, never mind the impact on children or extended family.

But before we get there, let’s first look at the text.  There is a verse missing; if you look at that reference you’ll notice that the lectionary lopped off the first verse of chapter 10.  And while it may seem to be unimportant at a quick glance, I am convinced it frames this whole text.  It says, “Jesus left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.” And then continuing with our reading, “Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’”

Let me tell why this is important: the last time we heard about anything in connection with the Jordan was concerning John the Baptizer.  Remember that Herod used to go down and listen to John.  Mark tells us in Chapter 6, that John would rail against Herod because he had married his brother’s wife.  Herod ended up divorcing his wife, and Herodias divorced her husband.  Mark is pretty graphic in describing the events leading to the Baptizer’s beheading.  And now, for the first time in Mark’s narrative since John’s death, Jesus is back in the region around the Jordan, and the Pharisees come to test him, and they ask about divorce.  In other words, this is a set up.  They’re hoping that maybe they could trap Jesus and have Herod take care of him for them.

However, Jesus doesn’t take the bait, instead asking them that question about Moses and the law.  “Moses says it’s okay,” they respond.  Jesus then tells them that it was because of their hard hearts that Moses permitted divorce.  But, Jesus says, God intended something else.  At the beginning, in the Garden of Eden when humankind was created, what God intended was for male and female to come together in marriage, for a man and a woman to leave their families and be joined together, no longer two, but one.  And what God has joined together, let no one separate.  Let no one put it asunder.  Don’t let anyone tear it apart.

This seems to have silenced the Pharisees who head off back to Jerusalem, because in the next verse Mark has the disciples asking the follow-up question back in the house they were staying at.  Jesus response is direct.  “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery.  And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”  Keep in mind Herod’s story.  He divorced his wife because he lusted after his sister-in-law.  And she did the same.  They tried to make it look legal by divorcing their respective spouses and getting married, but Jesus agrees with John.  Herod and Herodias both commit adultery, according to Jesus, and his mention of a woman divorcing her husband tips his hand to show what he is talking about.  Women couldn’t get divorce papers according to Jewish law.  Jesus’ statement about a woman seeking divorce was specifically geared toward the Gentile or Roman understanding, because Roman women could in fact seek divorces.

Yet, even given this contextual analysis, these words from Jesus seem harsh.  I would hazard a guess that those of you who are divorced or are in the midst of separation and divorce feel or have felt a sting in Jesus’ words.  Any attempt to dismiss them casually stating that it was a different time and culture is unfair to the text.  Divorce, as far as we can tell, happened enough during Jesus’ day to merit the question from the Pharisees, and some suggest it was fairly common.  I think what Jesus is getting at is a divorce of convenience.  A divorce, like Herod’s, where one spouse leaves another because they find someone they like better, someone who becomes an infatuation, and they burn with lust.  That is wrong.

A good friend of Melissa’s and mine went through this a few years ago.  During a time when her parents should be enjoying their new grandchildren—three little ones under the age of three—and planning their retirement, this friend’s dad had been leading a double life, dating someone younger than his own children.  Our friend’s parents met their first year of college, and they were active in their church leading Bible studies and youth groups for much of their adult life.  Then this bombshell, a hasty divorce and a quick marriage to this much younger woman.  Our friend and her entire family were devastated.  That, Jesus says, is sinful.  It is not what God intended.

What God intended at the beginning was this: a man and a woman to be together for their entire lives, to be a loving support to one another, mutually sharing in life and giving care to one another.  These two became one, and united they were to live together.  And what God has joined together, let no one separate.  But the Fall changed all of that.  With the entrance of sin into the equation, relationships were strained due to our own selfishness and sinfulness.  And I can say with certainty after 16 years that a marriage relationship takes an enormous amount of work and attention in order for it to become what God intended.  It takes the power of Jesus Christ, and forgiveness and putting aside our own desires and admitting our failings and seeking connections, and loving with all our hearts and having patience and then some.

And sometimes, even in spite of our best efforts and trust in God, marriages break down.  You see, while God didn’t intend for couples to be separated from one another, God also didn’t intend for there to be infidelity.  God didn’t desire for there to be physical or emotional abuse in families.  God didn’t expect couples to face the ravages of alcoholism or substance abuse.  Unfortunately, these things do happen in our world.  And they often lead to divorce.  I don’t think this was the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when he spoke out against divorce.

But why, as that biblical scholar put it, why does divorce, even in those circumstances, why does it hurt so darn much?  Why is there such pain?

I believe it’s revealed in those lines that are mentioned in every marriage that follows the Prayer Book rite.  The celebrant says this: “Now that Tom and Susie have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of rings, I pronounce that they are husband and wife, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”  That’s the same line Jesus mentions to his disciples.

You see, even though we live in fallen world, even though we are no longer in Eden, we are still wired up the way God intended.  When a couple comes together before God and their family and friends, deep inside they hope that their marriage will succeed.  Through those vows and promises, they are joined together; the two become one.  And try as we might to think otherwise, something deep within us longs for the type of relationship God has intended since the beginning of time.  We want the lifelong, life-giving relationship.  We yearn for it.   And when a marriage fails, when that relationship for whatever reason ends, that couple is ripped apart from one another.  There is no clean break.  The tearing hurts deep within.

Especially for children.  I don’t think it’s merely coincidence that Mark’s narrative moves from Jesus’ teaching on divorce to his instructing the reluctant and dismissive disciples to let the children come to him.  Children, even adult children, feel the pain of divorce acutely.  Children should not be the reason a person stays in a destructive relationship, but it should also not be underestimated the impact any divorce has on their lives.  Children are vulnerable in such situations.  Let them come to me, Jesus says.  Let the most vulnerable ones in life come into my presence.

 

Finally, I’d like to return once more to that first verse.  There’s one final thing to note: in coming to the region of Judea, Jesus is nearing Jerusalem.  In fact, the very next chapter of Mark’s gospel begins the narrative of Holy Week.  By coming to this region, Jesus’ death is in view.  Soon Jesus will be accused and strung up on that cross.  He will be broken for us.  And in this loving gesture, he will intensely experience the hurt that comes through the brokenness of life.  Through his woundedness, he offers us life.  Christ’s broken body offers us restoration and wholeness.

That is why we come to this table each week.  Jesus gave himself fully and completely for us to offer his compassion and healing.  No, divorce is not what God intended, but that brokenness, that intense hurt and pain can be healed through the work of Christ.  In the giving of himself on the cross, Jesus offers us his body and blood and his mercy and love.  “By his wounds,” Peter writes, “we are healed.”

In light of this amazing love, I am reminded of that wonderful hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.”  I close with the second verse.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows

are more felt than up in heaven;

there is no place where earth’s failings

have such kindly judgment given.

There is plentiful redemption

in the blood that has been shed;

there is joy for all the members

in the sorrows of the Head.  Amen.