Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus 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 not man put asunder.” 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.”
Every now and then you find yourself tackling a Bible passage that just doesn’t lend itself to starting your sermon with a joke. Today’s Gospel reading is one such passage.
Perhaps it would be different if I weren’t so clearly on the wrong end of this soul-destroying judgement? Perhaps if I was one of those shining examples of marital perfection (such as seem to abound in churches) I could laugh as I wagged my finger at the great unwashed who have failed to live up to the proper standards set by God and by His Christ, but NO – I myself am one who failed miserably in my first marriage, divorced and married again, and so cannot claim even the slightest degree of moral superiority over my fellows.
My personal record has been far from perfect when it comes to marital bliss and relationship breakdown, and my status in the church reflects that. This is why I’ve always been ‘Acting Rector’ or even ‘Acting Curate-in-Charge’ in this place. I will always be a second class cleric in the eyes of the ecclesiastical institution and understandably so, since it was Jesus Himself who delivered this damning condemnation – that all those who divorce and re-marry commit adultery!
It’s harsh, and it seems uncharacteristically harsh for Jesus, most especially when you put this condemnation alongside the scene that immediately follows it, where Jesus welcomes all the little children. “Let the children come to me” he says, and he takes them in his arms and lays hands on them and blesses them.
And that’s such a beautiful closing scene, and the tenderness expressed there seems to be in such stark contrast with the harsh and legalistic ruling that precedes it, but then it occurred to me that maybe these children that Jesus welcomes are the damaged progeny of those who were busy divorcing and remarrying!
It’s possible, isn’t it? After all, we know that those who suffer most during relationship breakdown always tend to be the children. No wonder Jesus, after condemning those who destroy their families takes the wounded little ones in his arms and gives them comfort.
What God has joined together, let not man put asunder… Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Here endeth the lesson!
In discussion after my sermon last week it was suggested that I base my preaching style on Harry Houdini. My approach is to put myself in a straightjacket, lock myself inside a safe, lower the safe into the water, and then give myself fifteen minutes to get out of the thing!
But in truth, this Bible passage does feel like a straightjacket. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for manoeuvring with Jesus when it comes to marriage options. And in truth this is no laughing matter!
The suffering of children that occurs in relationship breakdown – this is something I am only too well aware of. I experienced it myself as a child when my own parents’ marriage broke down, and I am still aware of the damage that did to me and my two brothers. And then I put my dear eldest daughter through very similar traumas when my relationship with her mother broke down.
There is no way of sugar-coating the pain these things cause. Parents fail, children suffer, and it’s never ideal for anyone. Of course, it also needs to be said that children who grow up in households where the parents stay together aren’t necessarily immune from suffering either. Ange and I are still together but that doesn’t mean our children are living in Disneyland!
And I don’t mean to disparage our family home either by any means, but simply to point out the obvious – that no home environment is perfect and no family is perfect – whether it be an extended family, a same-sex partnership, a relatively stable nuclear-style household or some other variety. No family is perfect, and indeed, whatever individual personality flaws we bring into the family home, they tend to be amplified through the pressures of child-rearing.
It’s never a simple black-and-white picture of happy children vs. sad children, and happy homes vs. broken homes. All of us – both as individuals and as families – are broken to some extent. Families are complex realities. It’s never straightforward, which does make you wonder though how Jesus can be so apparently black-and-white in the way he pontificates on these issues!
I think we get a clue as to what’s really going on here from the introduction to the passage: Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for 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 ask, 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, but 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 may lose a lot of popular support.
Similarly here we are told that they ‘try to trap’ Jesus when they ask 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.
For 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 with a reminder that God designed men and women for relationships of mutual commitment and nurture, and not for abuse. And He goes further and says that whoever uses the law to justify trading partners commits adultery, regardless of whether or not they keep to the letter of the law in the way they conduct their 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 having sex outside of marriage. 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 presumably).
These guys evidently thought they were very clever for they had worked out how to enjoy sex with as many women as they pleased while simultaneously remaining obedient to God’s holy laws that demand chastity and marital fidelity!
Their consciences were clear because they had abided by the letter of the law. They had not slept around. They hadn’t committed adultery. They hadn’t dishonored their original wife or the other woman. They had simply exploited a loophole in the word of God by enjoying a legitimate half-hour marriage. And you can see Jesus shaking his head and saying, “what a load of garbage!”
Brothers (and I am addressing the men here primarily) if you’re going to employ the services of a sex-worker, at least be man enough to admit to yourself what you’re doing. You don’t have to tell me about it and you might not want to tell anybody else about it, but let me encourage you not to bother trying to fool God into believing that you’re actually trying to do something virtuous!
Now … I know the church has had a rather pathetic history when it comes to human sexuality and we are always more-than-ready to condemn anything of a sexual nature that doesn’t fit strictly within the confines of an acceptable union as defined by the church. Even so, I frankly don’t think what Jesus is taking issue with here is sex or infidelity or even adultery as such. It’s more about calling a spade a spade.
Sex is sex. It is what it is. Infidelity is infidelity. Abuse is abuse, and 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 an appeal to the 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 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 do exactly that.
No. “Let the little ones come to me” says Jesus. He is, and He remains, the friend of the weak, the protector of the vulnerable, and the advocate of the sinner. Glory to His name. Amen!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on October 7, 2012. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.