Mark 10:2-16 October 4, 2015
The Rev. George Glazier
Picture this: Sitting in my office are two people who are in love. They are holding hands and we have gathered for the second session of pre-marital counseling. We have talked about their lives, how they met, how they fell in love and we are beginning to talk about their expectations for their marriage. It is all cozy and soft and romantic up to this point. Then I ask the question: “What could happen that would jeopardize your marriage?” I go on to say: “I am not talking about divorce but I am talking about situations that could lead you to a divorce.”
Their reaction is like someone who has had a cup of cold water thrown in their face. What was cozy, soft, and romantic suddenly turns to uncomfortable, hard, too real. They are shocked. It is much the same way that I react to Jesus’ words about divorce in today’s gospel – shock.
So what is Jesus saying and why is he saying it?
Really I cannot go there yet. This is not an academic question for me. I am a once divorced, happily remarried man. The words of Jesus, even though I have studied them and I understand what he is saying, what I hear and still hear is condemnation. Woe is me.
There are some killer words and phrases in scripture that seem to pronounce a verdict on certain people. Or, they have been taken by the church or the society in such a way as to pronounce a verdict on certain people. Though the gospel is primarily about grace, love and forgiveness, this does not change the fact that for some people what is first heard is judgment. That is the way it is for me when I hear Jesus speak of divorce. So I have to pause.
Divorce in my experience was a kind of hell. I have had worse experiences but not many. It has had a negative impact on me and on my children. So I can understand those who want to take this passage as use it as some kind of firewall to stem tide of divorce. Jesus says NO to divorce. So don’t, ever.
But that does not work.
First, it ignores the fact that that couple in my office, along with all the other divorced people I have ever known, wanted to have a loving, lasting, happy marriage. But some made mistakes and at some point the mistakes overwhelmed the marriage and they had to accept divorce as an unwelcome but real fact of life. I have never met one single person (though I am sure they are out there) who took marriage so lightly that they assumed divorce would happen. To a person they all thought, as I thought, this will never happen to me, to us.
Second, this Jesus-says-NO-to divorce attitude also ignores that after the hell of divorce there can be an experience of grace, of God’s grace, when we enter anew, chastened by sorrow and failure, into a new relationship. I really did not fully understand the overwhelming sense of God’s grace until I met and fell in love with my wife, Pam. The negative impact of divorce was more than mitigated by the her presence in my life and in the lives of my children.
Finally this ignores the fact that adultery, addiction, abuse, and a host of other situations can, untreated or unacknowledged, can put an end to a marriage. There are responsible reasons for a divorce.
So, stuff happens. Grace happens … because God loves us and God, who has promised to never divorce us – though God certain has cause – can enter our lives through just about any experience, even divorce.
So what is Jesus saying? And why is he saying it?
He is saying what all lovers instinctively know whether they stand in the midst of love or in the ruins of marriage gone sour. He is saying that the intention of God, like the intention of all lovers, is to make marriage a joyful, life-long union in which the two people grow in grace and love, becoming fully the people God has created them to be.
This is why straight people marry. This is why gay people want to and should be married. This is why God blesses all those who are willing to make the commitment to be in, grow in and stay in marriage. The intention of people and the intention of God is the same in regard to marriage, at least at the beginning. But life can be hard, marriages can take a beating, some of them fail.
The context of this passage is Jesus answering a question from the Pharisees. Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? Or, I think the better way to frame it would be when is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife. The first question is easily answered by Jesus or anyone quoting Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The process whereby a husband can divorce a wife is laid out in this passage. Yet, one of the most disputed questions among rabbis in Jesus’ day had to do with the legitimate reasons a husband could divorce a wife. Some rabbis held that the only grounds for divorce were adultery. Some held that something as small as disrespect from the wife could justify a divorce.
So this is what the Pharisees are asking. They actually are having an academic discussion about the rules of divorce. The fact of divorce is never disputed. But Jesus will not enter into this academic discussion. He goes off on another tangent altogether. He goes to God’s purposes in marriage – life-long, loving, joyful union.
He then highlights and underscores the male prerogative in divorce as it was practiced in his day. Wives had almost no right to divorce their husbands for any reason. He holds this up and says in effect:
Moses allowed this for the hardness of hearts of you men.
As with other scriptures of condemnation, it is interesting how the church has taken this scripture to persecute those whose life situation was threatening to others. No medieval village wanted a lot of single, unattached divorce people, men or women, in its ranks. In a day when women were seen as property of either fathers or husbands, no place wanted women free and unattached. So, there are clear historical reasons that the church highlighted and underscored these words of Jesus, turning them into a prohibition of divorce rather than encouragement of a life-long union.
So, what about a new understanding in which we agree with the intention of God and the vast majority of those who enter into marriage: That marriage is meant to be life long, happy, and place where the two people can grow in love and grace. But we also agree with the fact of life that some, for many reasons, do not succeed in this. Our response to divorce is not condemnation or judgment but the response that Christians always are enjoined to make: to have mercy on those going through divorce and to assure them of God’s love and ours.
At the time of my divorce I was blessed to be a priest in the Episcopal Church that has been pioneering this attitude to divorce for 50 years. While some other branches of Christianity has stayed mired in a prohibition understanding of Jesus’ teaching, we have taking a more gracious and loving approach. I was blessed to be in a local church that gave me just those things – mercy and love – when I was going through my divorce. I did not expect such a gracious response because I underestimated the love of God and the love of church people. It was transformative for me and my life and I have seen it replayed again and again in lives of others.