Marriage and Divorce

This is a sermon I wrote last time this passage came up in the lectionary – I’m posting it here in case anyone finds it useful for this Sunday (7th October 2012). I believe that it owes rather a lot to the very helpful, erudite, and generally fab Tom Wright.   And probably some other people too.

During the 1990s it was not uncommon for clergy, and especially bishops, to be contacted by journalists and asked about their view on divorce. Of course, this was not a general hypothetical question, but an extremely loaded one, and no matter how the bishop in question tried to make it clear that what they were saying was a general statement rather than being about a specific situation, the journalist would always end up saying, ‘so you’re saying that in the case of Prince Charles and Diana…’

Similarly when Jesus is asked the question about divorce in today’s gospel reading, it is not, in fact, a general hypothetical question at all.

Consider that the location for this whole argument is just beyond the river Jordan – that’s John the Baptist’s old stamping ground.  And consider that the reason John got into trouble with Herod in the first place, and so ended up being beheaded, was that he had dared to criticize Herod’s marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife.  When  you bear all that in mind, the Pharisees’ question that claims to be a general one about divorce and adultery, is in fact a very specific question, designed to trick Jesus into revealing where he stands on the whole subject of Herod’s marriage, and hence, where he stands on Herod’s viability as a leader of God’s people.

As usual, Jesus is wise to the trick question.  If we needed proof that he understood that the question was really about Herod, then we need look no further than his explanation to the disciples: although it was almost unheard of for a woman to initiate divorce, Jesus includes it as a possibility in his explanation because this is exactly what happened in the case of Herodias.   Jesus undoubtedly knew what the question was about.  So in public he answers just like he did with the question of whether a Jew should pay taxes to the Romans: he widens the question back out again, and (a) asking what he law says, and (b) pointing out what really matters.

So much for the question and what lies behind it.  How about Jesus’ answer?

Well, another thing that’s easy to miss, or misunderstand, with this passage, is Jesus’ reference to Moses.  Jesus asks, ‘What did Moses command you?’  And the Pharisees answer that he permitted divorce, in certain circumstances.

But consider whether this was really what Jesus was asking them.  In Jesus’ day, and indeed for centuries afterwards, everyone believed that Moses was the author of the whole of the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible.  So when Jesus asks ‘what did Moses command?’ and then goes on to and then goes on to talk about the book of Genesis, this is what he really wanted them to think about: the initial command of God to Adam and Eve, as Genesis explains it.

This Genesis passage that Jesus refers to is all about the relationship between human beings, and about our relationship with God and with God’s world. Relationships, and marriages that are loving and committed are one manifestation of the image of God in us.  But it’s not hard to look around and see many, many ways in which we, as a species, have fallen short of God’s perfect creation, and marr that image.  Divorce and indeed any relationship breakdown is but one of those ways.  And indeed, all of us, in all our relationships, even when they are working well, are but imperfect and distorted versions of the divine image.  That’s who we are, we are fallen people, and in a sense, we should not seek for our relationships to be perfect – if we do that, then we set ourselves up to see in every marriage grounds for divorce.

Every broken relationship is a crack in the mirror that we were designed to be, the mirror of God’s love for the world. This is not to lay a huge burden of guilt on divorcing couples, but to ask that the whole Christian community should play its part in supporting marriage, relationships and families, because what they symbolise is so essential to our being.  That’s why in the preface to the marriage service, it talks of marriage enriching society and strengthening community.  But that’s also why later in the service, at the end of the declarations, the family and friends of the couple are asked if they will support and uphold them in their marriage, both now and in the years to come.  This is a serious responsibility, and I do heartily wish that more of the people who come to weddings realized how serious the responsibility is.

What Jesus does in this encounter, is point out, in his usual subtle way, that the Pharisees are asking the wrong question.  Yes, he says, in Deuteronomy there is a permission for divorce to happen, because human beings are not perfect and we do fall short of what God intended for us.  We each, individually and in our relationships, contain the divine image, but imperfectly and in distorted and clouded form.  But to ask whether divorce is lawful betrays an attitude to ethics that approaches all dilemmas with the question, ‘what can we get away with before God will really mind?’ rather than, ‘what is God’s deepest desire for us?  Jesus’ ministry is not characterized by a quest for ‘what people can get away with’, nor with condemning others for doing things that are just the other side of that ‘lawful’ line.

This is where we come to the crux of the problem, whether we’re talking about Jesus’ own time, or our own.  For the fact is that divorce is something that it is almost impossible to talk about in general terms, because it isn’t an abstract idea that one can pronounce upon from the pulpit, or from anywhere else for that matter.  It’s a very human tragedy, that happens one case at a time, to people we know and love, and perhaps even to some of us.  Jesus spent enough time in his ministry with those who had been hurt by life to be very aware of this.  A broken marriage is a tragedy, and causes untold hurt, no matter whose fault it was, and no matter how mutual or otherwise the decision to end the marriage.  And doing it all ‘by the book’ and on the right side of the law can never take away that pain and hurt.

What Jesus says is tough; it’s hugely tough – almost so much so that it makes one want to preach on something other than the gospel!  But I don’t believe it is the sort of tough that we have sometimes believed it to be.  I don’t believe that Jesus is saying that a marriage cannot be ended, that second marriages after divorce are not marriages at all, as in the traditional Roman Catholic position, though of course I know that many do believe that, and that many people who have been left by their husband or wife do not feel in themselves that they are unmarried.  As I read Jesus’ response, it seems to me that he is saying, yes, there is a provision there in the law, but know how serious it is to tear two people apart who have given themselves to each other. Don’t get sucked in to asking merely what is legal.  Don’t let society, or the law, or anyone else, tell you that it doesn’t matter.  It does matter.

Jesus says to them, it’s wrong to ask ourselves how and to what extent we can break and damage the image of God in us without God minding too much, because every way in which that image is marred matters, and it all causes pain to us and to others, and to all of God’s creation, and grieves the heart of God.  Each of us, individually and corporately, break that image again and again, every day.  Our energies would be better spent it we stopped thinking legalistically and working out how to justify ourselves before God, asking ‘is it lawful’, and instead concentrated on coming before God in all our brokenness – with the cracks in the divine image that our own sin has made, and the cracks that have been made in us through the sin of others – and asking for God’s healing.

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