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So what about divorce?
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sermon notes for Pentecost 19 (Proper 22B)
Christ Church Andover
October 7, 2012

Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

If you were here at Christ Church for Kit’s wedding yesterday, you heard a wonderful sermon on marriage by my good friend Tad Meyer.  Tad talked about the two different actions that take place in a marriage – the contractual part (the legal aspects of marriage) and the covenantal part (which he defined as a contract of the heart).

This covenant is what we’re talking about when we speak of the sacrament of marriage – an action whereby two people make vows to one another, becoming an outward and visible sign and symbol of God’s eternal, self-giving love.  And Tad was very clear about some of the skills that go along with helping us to do this effectively!

Yesterday’s service of Holy Matrimony was an inspiring experience for all of us who were here.  I always love the prayer we pray at weddings, which says this:  “Grant that all married persons who have witnessed these vows may find their lives strengthened and their loyalties confirmed.”

Today we heard from one of the Genesis creation stories, how man and woman came into being as partners to live together and care for one another.  The story ends by saying, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

Then we heard those words echoed in the Gospel when Jesus is teaching about marriage and divorce.  “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 

And Jesus concludes this teaching with these words, which are not quoted from Genesis:  “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."

This little lesson on marriage comes in the context of the Pharisees asking Jesus whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife or not.  Jesus proves he knows the law, which did in fact include provisions for divorce.  Deuteronomy chapter 24 has this to say:  “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house 2and goes off to become another man’s wife.”

There are a couple of interesting things about this!  First of all, the bar for getting a divorce is pretty low, wouldn’t you say?!  A man has to decide that his wife no longer pleases him because he finds something objectionable about her.  Well my goodness!  And then all he has to do is write out a note saying “I divorce you” and give it to her!  And she is out on her own.  And something else you might have noticed is that there are no such provisions for a woman to divorce a man. 

No wonder Jesus wanted to take issue with the Pharisees on the subject of divorce!

Now when it comes to the Law, we’re used to hearing Jesus soft-pedal things a bit – particularly around the observance of the Sabbath, or some of the purity laws having to do with food and eating and washing of hands.  But in this instance, Jesus does something different.  He makes the law even more demanding, more stringent, going so far as to say that those who divorce and remarry someone else have committed adultery!

And that’s where we start to squirm in our seats.  The church has struggled with this teaching throughout its history.  There seem today to be two primary responses to this teaching:

  1. Ignore it.  Pretend it is not there, or that it doesn’t matter to us.  It’s just another example of Jesus making extreme demands too hard for us to keep.
  2. Or, the other response usually is to interpret it and practice it literally.   And there are, of course, churches that do.

I remember when I was a child learning that my grandfather had been divorced when he was a young man, and that he had later married my grandmother.  He belonged to a church that interpreted this teaching on divorce very literally, and although it was the church he grew up in, he was never until the day he died able to be a full member because when he was a young man, he had been divorced.  He was never able to hold a leadership role in his church, never able to teach a Sunday School class or be an usher.   He was forever branded as a divorced man.

It was not until the 1940s that the Episcopal Church wrestled with this passage in the Gospel and finally changed its prohibitions on remarriage in the church.   There are stories right in this parish (I heard one just this past week) of people who were told, even into the 1950s, that they really didn’t belong here if they were divorced.

But what if there were a third way to deal with this difficult teaching of Jesus – an alternative to ignoring it, or applying it strictly and literally?  What if we were to take it seriously, but not necessarily literally?  After all, there are plenty of times (such as last week, when Jesus talked about cutting off your hand if it offended you…) when we hear a kind of hyperbole in Jesus’ teaching, and don’t take it literally.   We could quote many other examples. 

But let’s ask first of all, what is the intent of this teaching that we can learn and affirm, and then, what can we identify that Jesus was clearly NOT trying to do with this teaching?

Let’s look at what is unique and important for us to hear in these words. 

  1. First of all, patriarchal societies did not give women the same rights as men.  All a man had to do under the law of Moses was to write a certificate of divorce and give it to his wife, and they were divorced.  Women had no such right.  And so, that meant she was without any kind of support apart from what she could beg for; she was a disgrace to her family; and many had to opt for prostitution as a way of life when that happened.  Jesus’ prohibition on divorce in that context was a way to keep men from unscrupulously divorcing their wives, yes, by making it a sin equal to the sin of adultery.  It was a matter of equal justice. 
  2. Something interesting in both Genesis and Mark – when God created man and woman he said, “therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife.”  What’s interesting here is that this is exactly the opposite of the practices in the society at the time, which had the woman leaving her father and mother, and going to live with her husband and his family.  So, both Genesis and the teaching of Jesus seem to be putting forward a counter-cultural alternative to a very patriarchal model of marriage.
  3. The third point I’d like to raise is perhaps a bit more speculative on my part. And it has to do with the sacramental nature of marriage.  Sacraments always take what is common and make them into something that is a reflection and an embodiment of the divine.   That’s true of bread and wine in the Eucharist.  And, I would say, it’s true of the institution of marriage.  God takes what is material and profane (in this case the relationship of two people) and holds it up as an example of what God’s love is like.  And because God’s love is so perfect, and so unconditional, and without impediment of any kind, Jesus was looking to the institution of marriage as a place that held out the greatest hope of giving us a picture of what that kind of love was like in real life!  (Some would cynically say it’s because he wasn’t married that he thought that could be possible!)  It is what those of us who are married strive for in our life together, isn’t it.  Yet we often fail miserably.  I know I very regularly fail miserably!  (Just ask Carolyn!)  But the world desperately need signs of love, signs of GOD’s love!  And when we bless a marriage, we are holding it up as such a sign.  We invest in those being married our hopes and dreams for the breaking in of love in our world!  This, I think, is part of the imperative for the enduring quality of marriage in Jesus’ teaching.

But what happens when two people find that they cannot live up to that goal?  There are circumstances that make it very difficult if not impossible!  Even the New Testament itself (within a generation after the teaching of Jesus) made provisions for divorce in the case of adultery by one spouse.

But it doesn’t necessarily take an incidence of adultery for a couple to find it impossible to live together.  Some of you here today know what I’m talking about.  And some, sadly, even after long struggles, and lots of prayer and counseling, have been through the heartache of broken relationships that ended in divorce.

We’ve heard examples, like my grandfather’s for example, where the church has created a whole new class of outcasts when someone who went through a divorce is not permitted ever to attain a state of grace.  We still see it in the Roman Catholic Church with the prohibition on Communion and re-marriage for the divorced.  And we must ask whether Jesus, the one who always reached out to outcasts and sinners and brought them into his fellowship, would really want us to be creating new categories of outcasts. 

It seems to me that the trajectory of Jesus’ teaching was headed in the exact opposite direction.  Jesus often spoke, after all, of forgiveness.  And perhaps this is the missing ingredient in all of our discussion of marriage and divorce. 

I know a couple who after a lot of counseling eventually decided that they could no longer be married to each other and that they would file for a divorce.  Neither one of them felt good about this.  They both had made vows before God that they had taken very seriously.  And it was painful to them to be breaking those vows.  One of the things they did was to plan a service of confession and forgiveness in which they would ask God’s and each other’s forgiveness for their inability to continue in their marriage.  They confessed to one another that they had failed in their intentions to make this a life-long marriage, and that they each wanted the other’s forgiveness.  They broke the covenant they had made in much the same way as they had initiated it many years before, standing at an altar, this time with tears of confession, and the offer of forgiveness to one another.

Just because we now permit remarriage in the church after a divorce does not mean we do not take marriage vows seriously.   It DOES recognize that we are all sinful creatures who do things that fall short of our highest intentions.  We do things that are hurtful to ourselves and to one another, and we all stand in need of forgiveness. 

So, I don’t think we should be too hard on ourselves for living by the spirit of Jesus’ teaching if not the letter.  We do not condone divorce for frivolous reasons, such as those that Deuteronomy seems to imply.  But neither do we wish to make outcasts of anyone who has already been through the pain of a broken relationship.  We welcome them, just as Jesus did.  It’s a lesson to all of us of the importance of forgiveness in our lives, and it’s a mark of the church’s willingness to offer forgiveness to all who come seeking it. 

And that is a wonderful, sacramental thing for us to hold up as well.

Last Published: October 19, 2012 4:32 PM