Jesus 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.”
Every now and then you find yourself tacking a Bible passage that just doesn’t lend itself to starting your sermon with a joke. Today’s Gospel reading is one such passage.
For divorce is no laughing matter, and of course I know that first-hand. Indeed, not only did I experience the divorce of my parents when I was a boy but I grew up to experience it all myself as an adult.
A wise counsellor once said to me that losing your partner is like losing a limb. Sometimes you have to lose a limb to save a body. Nonetheless, the experience is always devastating and soul-destroying and, in my experience, an inordinate amount of that devastation and soul-destruction tends to be meted out by religious people, speaking and acting on behalf of God.
In the case of my parents, I saw my mother more or less ex-communicated by her church – labelled, maligned and abandoned. And in the case of my father, who was an employee of the Diocese at the time, he lost his reputation, many of his friends, and his job.
In the breakdown of my own first marriage, thankfully I fared somewhat better than did of my parents. Even so, I lost a great number of friends – all good Christians of course – and, if you’ve ever wondered why, after almost 20 years in this parish I am still technically a casual so far as the Diocese is concerned, it is because I have been divorced and (worse still) have remarried!
If you work for other organisations, you might not necessarily get a lot of sympathy if your family falls apart, but you don’t normally get crucified, as happens so often in the church. And in truth, the most horrible treatment I have ever seen divorced and broken people subjected to has always been at the hands of solid members of the church!
Why is it that the most judgemental, self-righteous, intolerant and unsympathetic people always seem to be church members? Well, perhaps it all starts here, in this passage in Mark 10, in the apparently inflexible, intolerant and judgemental statements of Jesus Himself – that marriage is forever and that ‘whoever divorces his or her partner and marries another commits adultery against them’!
Could this really be Jesus, the friend of the weak and the marginalised? For it would appear at first glance that Jesus is far less concerned here with the weak than He is with the law – an approach that we would normally associate far more readily with Jesus’ fundamentalist opponents here (the Pharisees) than would with Him!
Yet Jesus, it seems, is laying down the law, and I can almost hear the chorus of Bible-believing fundamentalists crowding in behind this passage now:
‘Could Jesus have put it more plainly? Divorce is wrong. It is always wrong! Marriage is forever. There are no escape clauses, and it doesn’t matter what level of immorality or abuse or mutual destruction is taking place in the family home. For indeed, the person who divorces one partner and marries another is in fact not only guilty of violating the created order of relationships but is further guilty of adultery! Why? Well, obviously because the original marriage is still valid in the eyes of God! That’s why! Those whom God has joined together, let not man put asunder! Jesus has spoken!
And yet this all seems so uncharacteristic of Jesus – not only because He seems to be putting the boot in to people who are hurting, but because we are not used to seeing Jesus lay down the law in a way that puts the written code above human need.
Is there another way of understanding this dialogue? I think there is, and I think it begins with taking this dialogue in its context.
As we used to say in Bible college, ‘a text without a context is a pretext for a proof-text’. In other words, you can get the Bible to say anything you like if you take isolated verses like this out of context, and the first step we need to take if we are going to take these words of Jesus seriously is to look at them in the context in which they are given, which in this case means seeing them in the context of a dialogue where Jesus’ opponents are trying to trick Him.
Some Pharisees came to him and tried to trap him. “Tell us,” they asked, “does our Law allow a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2)
That’s how our scene opened – with the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus, and if we know the Gospels at all we know that this is not the first time. Indeed, like the wily coyote forever trying to catch the road-runner, the Pharisees were constantly trying to come up with new devices that they could use to ensnare Jesus (and like the coyote, most of their tricks blew up in their faces)!
The basic idea of their traps, at any rate, was always pretty much the same. They would try to pose a question to Jesus that He could not answer – a question that would cause Jesus trouble, whatever way He answered.
‘Should we pay taxes to Caesar?’ they asked, trying to trap Him. If Jesus answers ‘no’ to taxes, this will make him a law-breaker and a rebel in the eyes of the government, yet if He answers ‘yes’ and encourages the people to pay taxes to their hated Roman overlords He will make Himself unpopular.
‘Should we stone this woman caught in adultery?’, they ask Jesus. If He answers ‘no’ then He obviously doesn’t take the Bible seriously because the law regarding adulteresses is written in black and white, but if He does support the woman’s stoning, He will lose a lot of popular support.
Similarly here they try to trap Jesus by asking Him, “Does our law allow a man to divorce his wife?” though the trap in this case might not be as obvious to us now as it was to Jesus’ first century contemporaries.
For while, on the one hand, we can appreciate that for Jesus to say ‘no’ to divorce would have made him seem to be at odds with the law of Moses, what we probably don’t appreciate is that for Jesus to have said ‘yes’ to the divorce laws would have meant Him giving His support to an institution that was increasingly being used to abuse the vulnerable.
Marriage and family in the first century was not all it had been in Moses’ day. In terms of the standards set by Greece and Rome, it had apparently become quite the fashion in those days to marry and divorce on a whim!
As the great Roman philosopher and statesman, Seneca, put it, “women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married”. And it wasn’t only the men that carried on like this. While in Rome it was customary to identify the year by the reign of the Consul, apparently amongst the fashionable women of the time it was customary to name the years after your husbands.
Of course in the Hebrew society of the time the women were far less powerful, and while it was possible for a Jewish woman to own land and to have an income, in most cases when a man divorced his wife he would completely disenfranchise her.
Women and children didn’t count for much in Jesus’ community, and so when a man divorced his wife he would be taking away her property, her children, her family and her community. And so it doesn’t take much imagination to see how divorce could be used as a form of abuse, and how the threat of divorce could be used to intimidate an abused partner and keep her quietly subservient.
The law regarding divorce was there for a reason, as Jesus acknowledges, yet the very simplicity of the process as outlined in the Mosaic law, wherein all the divorcing partner had to do was to write a note to the woman he wanted to shed, made it highly accessible as a form of intimidation and violence.
Would we expect Jesus to support an institution of divorce that had become a tool in the hands of the powerful for the exploitation of the weak? Of course not, and so Jesus responds to the trick question of the Pharisees by reminding them that God designed men and women for relationships of mutual commitment and nurture, and not abuse. And He goes further and says that whoever uses the law to justify trading in his old wife for a new one commits adultery, regardless of whether or not he keeps to the letter of the law in the way he conducts his divorce.
Some years ago, when I was in Melbourne for the filming or a TV show, I had the privilege of meeting a rather interesting Iranian woman – a woman who had worked for some years in Tehran as a professional wife. This woman was not a sex-worker. She was a professional wife. And her clients were not sleeping around. They were having half-hour marriages.
In Tehran it is illegal for a man to sleep with a woman who is not his wife, but it is quite legal to have more than one wife. So men would come to this woman’s flat and marry her. Half an hour later they would issue her a certificate of divorce and go home, back to their first wife I suppose
These guys evidently thought they were very clever for they had worked out how to keep to God’s holy law and sleep with whoever they wanted to at the same time!
Their consciences were clear because they had abided by the letter of the law. They hadn’t slept around. They hadn’t committed adultery. They hadn’t dishonoured their original wife or the other woman. They had simply exploited a loophole in the word of God by enjoying an entirely legitimate half-hour marriage. And Jesus says, “what a load of rubbish!”
Adultery is adultery, regardless of whether you have a certificate of divorce to legitimate the shedding of your old wife or a certificate of a half-hour marriage to justify taking on a new one. The laws of marriage and divorce had been put in place for a reason – to protect people and preserve the peace, but that doesn’t mean you can exploit loopholes in those laws to maintain your sanctimonious moral self-righteousness while you abuse your partner.
Adultery is adultery, selfishness is selfishness and sin is sin. And while Jesus’ polemic here is not really aimed at hammering sinners or even adulterers as such, He is targeting those persons who would try to justify their selfish and abusive activities through keeping them within the literal letter of the law It’s all about protecting the vulnerable, and not using the letter of the law as an excuse for abuse.
Doris Mae Golberg wrote:
I have lost my husband, but I am not supposed to mourn.
I have lost my children; they don’t know to whom they belong.
I have lost my relatives; they do not approve.
I have lost his relatives; they blame me.
I have lost my friends; they don’t know how to act.
I feel I have lost my church; do they think I have sinned too much?
I am afraid of the future,
I am ashamed of the past,
I am confused about the present.
I am so alone,
I feel so lost.
God, please stay by me, You are all I have left.
And plenty of us have been there too, and all I really want to say here is that I believe we can be fully confident in these situations that the response of Jesus is not to put the boot in, despite the way some of His people might use passages such as today’s Gospel reading to justify their judgementalism.
No. Yesterday, today, forever, Jesus is the same – the friend of the weak, the protector of the vulnerable and the advocate of the sinner. Glory to His name!
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 2009.