Well, we may have dodged a hurricane, but there is a storm brewing in the gospel reading we cannot avoid: the topic of divorce. This can be a sensitive subject in a church setting because for those, like me, who have been divorced, it touches on powerful and (often) painful memories. All things considered, perhaps it would be easier to deal with a hurricane than this text. But let’s throw caution to the wind and set our faces into the stiff gale of Jesus’ words to see what we can learn.
The first thing to notice is Jesus was not teaching a group of students about the theology of marriage. Pharisees seek him out because they want to test him. They don’t want to learn, they want to trick and trap and so they pick one of the thorniest issues they can find – divorce. It is not Jesus’ subject. It is theirs.
Notice next how they phrase their test: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The Pharisees are not interested in the spiritual nature of a marriage relationship. They are not even pondering its social value. They are asking a legal question.
The first four verses of the 24th chapter of Deuteronomy comprise the main Old Testament teaching on divorce, but all they say is if a man divorces his wife for a “great scandal” and she marries a second time and then is divorced again, the first husband cannot remarry her because she has been “defiled”.
Over the centuries different schools of interpretation emerged and by Jesus’ day the issue was deeply polarizing. One school followed the thinking of a rabbi by the name of Shammai, who taught that a man should not divorce his wife, except where he has found her committing a “great scandal”. Another rabbi by the name of Hillel had a different take on the same law. He said a man may divorce his wife for doing something as scandalous as burning his supper. A third rabbi – Aqiba – was even more lenient, teaching a man may divorce his wife if she has “lost favor in his eyes” or if he finds another woman who is “more becoming.”
The Pharisees are not just testing Jesus for his thoughts. They are testing to see which group he supports around this divisive issue. His answer makes clear Jesus adheres to Rabbi Shammai’s teaching, the most conservative of the three positions.
Notice something else about the Pharisees question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The ancient world was patriarchal and wives were regarded to be the property of their husbands. Marriages in these times were based not on a love between two people, but on property, status, and honor considerations between two families. Marriage did not provide a woman with a soul mate, but rather a place to live and a role to play. For women, marriage was little more than a social safety net.
So in this setting, given this understanding of marriage, some Pharisees come to Jesus to test him. He asks them about Moses’ teaching. They note Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal to his wife. We have several examples of these documents. Many are as simple as “This certificate dismisses you and you are free to marry another man.” More typically, after divorce, a woman either returned in shame to her father’s house or became homeless.
Jesus states emphatically that Moses allows for divorce because of our “hardness of heart.” He is saying divorce is a part of the human condition, but not a part of God’s design. God’s intention is for a man to leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and that the two become one flesh. This joining, he holds, happens by an act of God and is not to be undone by humans.
Through his teaching Jesus opens several new doors and possibilities. First, the idea of two people becoming one flesh sounds like something way more significant and much more mystical than a simple legal transaction. It gets at the heart of our humanity. There is incompleteness about us as we exist unto our selves. We need to be in relationship with God to be complete. And we need to be in relationship with others to be complete. And we need to be in a unique, special, life-long relationship with one other person to be complete.
This relationship is a union of two people in heart, mind, and body. It is involves a deep intimacy manifested emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, socially, physically, and sexually. It is a relationship that mirrors the love Jesus has for the Church. Just as his love enables the Church to transform the world, the joining of two in one flesh creates a potency neither person has as an individual. It is a relationship not to be separated.
Does this mean the Church should never allow for divorce? Does it mean that every divorce is wrong? Is every divorce a sin? Here are three typical scenarios. None is fictional. Each describes at least one couple whose marriage I officiated.
Two people come together for reasons that mystify most who know them. Whatever attracts them to each other and whatever they offer to each other and whatever they commit to each other is not at all congruent with Jesus’ thinking of marriage. Their relationship lacks depth and breadth and maturity. One person is physically and emotionally abusive of the other and therefore the marriage lacks the essential element of mutuality. Does God want two people to stay together in a destructive relationship? Does God desire to separate what humans wrongly joined together?
A second scenario involves two people who become one flesh, but over time, through neglect and distraction the marriage dies. There is no longer a flame. There is not even a spark to rekindle what once was. The children are raised and out of the house. Both parties are gainfully employed and can survive without the other. Does God, who desires two people experience fulfillment and completeness by coming together require them to stay together when the only thing left between them is a legal document? What are we to do when a marriage expires long before the two people who entered into it?
A final scenario involves two people who are in a marriage that exhibits all of the characteristics it should, but one person forsakes it. There is a breach of fidelity. That person wants something else, or maybe even want what he/she already has, but with someone else. What should the Church say to this person? And what should the Church say to the person left behind? What if both parties forsake the marriage in lieu of something else?
Here is what I think. Every divorce is a part of the brokenness of the human condition. Some are more egresses than others, to be sure. To label divorce as “wrong” or as a “sin” misses the point that there is life as a God intends and then there is what actually happens (a reality not limited just to marriage). Much of the brokenness that happens in marriage can be healed. Some of it cannot.
There is a tendency by some to look at today’s gospel reading through the lens of reduction. “Jesus says, ‘no one should get divorced.’” “Jesus says a marriage is between a man and woman.” “Jesus says if you remarry you commit adultery.” Yes, these words are there and you can reduce down what Jesus says only to this. But as I read his answer to a very narrow question about divorce rooted in polarizing interpretations of a single Old Testament phrase I hear a very expansive response. Jesus is trying not to narrow down our thinking to a right and wrong, black and white understanding. He is trying to open up our thinking to a much broader subject that revolves around God’s intention for relationships.
It is hardly a secret that the bible does not speak about marriage with one single, coherent voice. Paul, for example, says that marriage is reserved only for the weak who cannot control the burning in their flesh. His thinking is hardly rooted in Jesus’ understanding of “from the beginning of creation God created them male and female so that the two can become one flesh”. Any person – including me – who tells you what the bible says about marriage is only telling you how he/she interprets what the bible says about marriage.
Here is what I see as I survey our congregation. There are some couples who have been married for a long, long time. There are fruits that come from this kind of relationship that can be grown no other way. There are some couples who have come together in a second marriage (or even a third). For some, the first marriage ended with the death of spouse. For most, it came only after the end of a previous marriage. No matter what the circumstances, you find in your new relationship exactly what Jesus describes – one flesh, completeness. And then there are some who are like me – single after a divorce, a death, or the end of a relationship that never attained legal status. While we may not know the joy of “completeness” with another, we find how relationships with family and friends and with God make our lives rich and rewarding.
Whenever we engage in interpreting what the bible says about marriage we must make sense of what we see and know. What I see and know from knowing all of you is that while divorce may not be a part of the world as God intends, like death itself divorce is not a barrier to God’s love and grace. God does not forsake those who are divorced, but rather offers new life. It may be life with another or it may be life on ones own, but the offer is always given abundantly and freely.