With nearly 50% of marriages ending in divorce these days, I am wondering how you heard our gospel text for today. It is not an easy one, that’s for sure. I don’t know if it was painful to hear Jesus say what he does about divorce and remarriage, or if it had no effect on you at all. I imagine there are many reactions to this text within the room. Sometimes we hear things in the Bible and I imagine many of us think, “Ahhh, well, that was a long time ago. Nobody thinks that way today.” And perhaps that is true, but what I know for sure, is that over the years, Jesus’ words about divorce have kept people in bad marriages they should have left. But they didn’t because of this passage. God doesn’t allow for it, they thought. I also know that in the past people have not been allowed in the church because they were divorced, and as a result many left not only the church, but the faith as well. So no matter what you think about this passage, there is no doubt that it has caused a lot of pain for people. And that it has been used as a sword to condemn certain people. And so we can’t skip over this text, or else we run the risk of it continuing to inflict pain. I am willing to bet that everyone in this room has been impacted by divorce in one way or another. Whether you yourself have been divorced, or your parents, or a sibling, a friend’s parents. It has impacted us all.
We’ve got our work cut out for us and our hands full today, don’t we? So what are we to do with this text? At first glance, it seems pretty clear. That if a man divorces his wife and marries another, he has committed adultery. He has broken the 6th commandment. So what are we going to do with this Holy Scripture? I don’t believe that it is that cut and dry or that simple. I think something else is going on here.
Let me begin by saying that I speak cautiously this morning, because of how sensitive the subject matter of divorce can be. I don’t assume that I have the correct answers, but I seek to explore the text with you in love and so I mean no harm.
A place for us to start is to talk about marriage and divorce in the bible. Marriage and divorce are not the same in the Bible as they are today. Do any of you know how women were viewed in Biblical times? They were viewed as property. So to marry is to acquire property. For a man to marry a woman was for there to be an exchange of property between the woman’s father, who owned her, and the man who was going to marry her. Do you remember the story of Jacob? When he first saw Rachel, he loved her. But in order to marry her, he had to work for 7 years for her father Laban. Why? Because it was an exchange of property. And then when those 7 years were up, Laban gives Jacob his other daughter Leah, instead. And Jacob had to work another 7 years in order to marry Rachel. Jacob got to marry two women, sisters, after buying them for 7 years of work each. Does that sound anything like marriage today?
We can still see remnants of this today in our traditional wedding ceremony. A father walks the bride down the aisle, correct? Why? To give her away. And what side does he stand on? He stands on the right, so that he can keep his right hand free – his weapon hand. Just incase he need to protect his property.
So marriage was very different in the bible because women didn’t have any rights. They were property. And because they were property, the man is the one who had the power to divorce. Notice the Pharisees questions, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Back then some said that a man could divorce his wife if she displeased him in any way. If she burnt the man’s toast, that could be grounds for divorce. And divorce was devastating. Which it still is today, but it was particularly devastating for the woman because it meant public disgrace, grave financial struggles, and a severely limited future for her and her children. She was an outcast and her survival was much more difficult.
So all of this is background around about marriage and divorce back then. Now watch what Jesus does with it. Watch how he turns it on its head.
The Pharisees ask him a simple yes-or-no question – Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? And the simple answer is yes. It is legal. Moses said so. But you see, Jesus doesn’t want this question to be a legal question. Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is right. I mean it is legal for CEOs to be paid millions and millions of dollars in bonuses at the end of the year, but is it a good idea? I don’t think so. Is it legal for Joe Mauer to get paid $60,000 dollars a day? Yes. But is it a good idea, is it ethical when people are starving on the streets? No.
Jesus doesn’t simply want divorce to be a cold, legal question. He wants it to be a relational question. What impact does it have on the people involved? Is it good for everyone or does it leave someone out on the streets and hungry? Notice what Jesus says to his disciples. He says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” If a woman was just property back then, when a man committed adultery, he didn’t commit it against his wife. He committed it against his wife’s father. But Jesus says it is committed against her. It is about the impact on the relationship, not about whether it is legal or not, or it being an exchange of property. Jesus is lifting the woman out of the status of property to the status of person. And then Jesus says, “If a woman divorces her husband…” Could women divorce their husbands? No, they were just property! But Jesus says, “Oh yes they can. They are a person too.”
Jesus wants to take divorce out of the legal realm, outside of a property transaction, and make it relational. He wants to convey the seriousness of it. That it is something that impacts two persons. Two families. And any time a marriage ends in divorce, it isn’t simply breaking a legal contract. It breaks the very heart of God, because of the damage it does to hearts of God’s beloved children.
Now, let me be very clear. I think it is okay for someone to get a divorce and remarry. Now, I am not so narcissistic as to think that you need to hear that from me. But I don’t want to take the chance of this text causing more pain than anyone has already been through. I believe that there are times when divorce is necessary and best for everyone involved. Especially in cases of abuse. It is just that…no one likes divorce. It is no one wish for a relationship. Especially not God’s because of how painful it is. But sometimes it is necessary. Yes, divorce breaks God’s heart because it shatters community – but this does not mean God that God doesn’t have compassion and care for those going through it. God redeems, God heals, God puts families back together, God creates new ones.
At the same time, we don’t just laugh off this Scripture, we contextualize it. I do not think Jesus is giving a law to live by, in which people cannot get divorced and they cannot get remarried. I don’t think that is what he is saying. I think Jesus is once again turning our focus away from following the rules and towards being concerned for the most vulnerable among us. Jesus is always on the side of those who are most vulnerable, seeking to give them back their humanity. In this text, Jesus raises up women as human beings, not property to be passed around. And we can see this in the story that follows this one. People were bringing their children to Jesus, but the disciples didn’t let them. Because back then children weren’t viewed as cute, innocent and angelic. They were viewed as animals that were not fully human. They were often unwanted and viewed as useless. But then Jesus takes these children and puts his arms around them, blesses them, and says that the kingdom of God belongs to them.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus is not concerned with following the rules or what is legal. He is always concerned for the most vulnerable. Which means we need to be careful with how we use Scripture. Because for too long this text has been used as a rule and as a sword against those who have ended their marriages and that is not its intent. It is never the intent of Scripture to be used as a weapon. Instead, I think it calls us to a much greater and more difficult task of lifting up those who have been pushed down and empowering those who have had their power taken away. So who are they? Who are the ones who are stepped on in our community? Who are the powerless? And are we lifting them up? Are we giving power back to them? And if we aren’t, then maybe now is a good time to start. AMEN