Am I living in sin? Some six years ago, when I arrived in Davenport and at this parish, my first reading dealt with the question of divorce and remarriage. I preached on the subject blissfully unaware of all the spiritual wedgies being handed out that morning. I know I couldn't get Kathleen to stop laughing to tell me what had her so amused when she called that Tuesday or Wednesday. It seems that a number of her former flock had reached out to her to complain. She knew what I was in for, but she also said it was a sermon that needed to be preached and heard. A number of our families are touched by divorce and remarriage, some two or three times. When I arrived six years ago, some had never really considered what they had done in light of God's instructions for us. Others, as is always the case with any subject, could not put it out of their minds. Their adultery was ever on their minds, and it interfered with their relationship with God and, to a degree, with their current spouse or their opportunities to find a new spouse. As with good sermons, that day in July the comfortable were afflicted and the afflicted were comforted. I know a lot of the feeling out process with a new clergy was short circuited. Months of getting to know each other was wiped out in a couple weeks.
I take that stroll down memory lane to remind those of us who participated in those conversations that today's passage from Mark was not our reading that day. I had to remind a number of those who came to see me that Mark's teaching was not the subject that day in 2006. Still, his teaching cast a long shadow over the lives of many of us. As we moved from discussion to discussion this passage became more the subject of our talks than our assigned reading that day. It is no small wonder. It is often used as a blunt instrument. Abusers may not know that they are called to love their wife like Christ loved the Church, but they sure know that "real Christians" cannot divorce. Every now and again I will hear someone from other denominations cite this passage as the reason that God has abandoned us as His chosen nation. The idea is that because we have so much divorce, God had to give up on us. Truthfully, I missed the part where He swore an oath with the United States, and we seem to do a lot of other things which run afoul of His teaching. I love to watch them answer questions about when He chose us (actually, I love to watch the squirming from the spiritual wedgie, but you get the idea), but I am sick like that.
That all being said, there is an elephant in the room. I can choose to ignore that elephant and hope it wanders out without crushing any of you. I could talk about that elephant and focus my time and energies on conversations that, truthfully, are more suited to pastoral conversations than sermonizing. You all know me well enough to know that I will not ignore the elephant. But I do think the elephant needs to be addressed with some sensitivity. This passage is not meant to be a bludgeon. This passage is probably not meant to be read to remind you of the guilt that you bear, the guilt that we should all have at the need for our Lord's atoning death for our sake. Heck, this passage is not about declaring divorce and remarriage to be the greatest of the sins you have ever committed. So what is it about?
First of all, the conversation is thrust upon Jesus. The Pharisees come to Him and to test Him ask Him this question: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" To be clear, the conversation is started by men who wish to test Him, who wish to challenge Him, who view Him as a threat to their power and their authority. Although Jesus answers with the plan that God had for marriage, the bludgeon is really reserved for those who are testing Him. In answer to their question, Jesus asks them what Moses wrote. The reply that a man could write a certificate of divorce and dismiss her. We can almost see the smugness in their voice. Know that one of the theological fights of the day was over the "matter of indecency" found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Some rabbinic traditions emphasized that indecency, a matter of misconduct, was required for their to be a legal divorce. Others taught that any matter could be a just cause for a divorce. Some schools argued that women could be divorced for bad meals, bad appearance, or any number of flimsy excuses. Others held that some sort of major transgression was required. And, to be sure, others were teaching between the two ends of the spectrum. Although we like to think that we have devolved into the "no fault" divorce culture, the Roman world got there long before us. At the time Mark records Hs Gospel, divorce was very easy and very informal. Wives got to keep their dowry in the event of a divorce, but that was it. The kids and business and house stayed with the husband. It was pretty simple. By the time that Mark recorded this Gospel, blended families were pretty common. By way of an aside, think of the man in Corinth sleeping with his mother, a practice not even allowed by the pagans. Chance are, she was a stepmother. But I digress. The certificate of divorce was important as it forced ex-husbands to return the ketuba, the dowry or pledged money. I know this is really going to shock you, but some divorcing couples did not get along well. Some ex-husbands tried to keep everything. They did not want to pay the ex-wife anything. The certificate and ketuba ensured that the Jewish woman had a chance to deal with the evil of divorce. With the certificate, she could prove her right to marry someone else. The ketuba, hopefully, was of sufficient size to keep her from begging or prostituting herself, the all-too-common unfortunate means of support for women in this age when they could not find a husband (or had been widowed or divorced).
The point of Jesus' answer, however, is not to teach the Church how to care for divorced members and those members, such as children, impacted by divorce. His point is to teach God's plan. He tells them that Moses allowed this practice of divorce because of their hardness of heart. The heart, in the ANE, was the very self of any individual. We tend to separate mind and heart (feelings) and compartmentalize ourselves and others. Those in the ANE simply thought of the heart as the place in oneself where one's outlook and determination were located. Scripture often records God as describing us as stiff-necked or hard-hearted. Literally, we are selfish and hard, caring little for the plight of others around us unless it suits us. Jesus then goes on to describe the plan in creation. This description is important for a couple reasons. One, it reminds us that He knows the mind of God. How did marriage come to be? God created it, just as He created us. What did He intend for marriage? That a man and a woman would be joined as one flesh. And notice, too, its indissoluble nature: "What God has joined together, let no one separate." Many of those early conversations when I first arrived revolved around the difficulty of the dissolution of the marriage. They were affected. The former spouse was affected. The current spouse was affected. The kids, if there were any and no matter their age, were affected. The new spouses kids, if there are any, are affected. Even if the former spouses somehow remained civil to each other, as is amazingly often the case around here, still people were affected. And let's face it, our divorces impact others in ways we cannot understand. Maybe your children were younger when you divorced. Ever noticed some hesitancy on the part of teachers? How about your neighbors? Did they treat you and your divorce, as a Christian, as another example of a typical hypocrite? There are consequences to divorce, but that is not the focus of Jesus in this passage. His focus is on the hardness of heart of the Pharisees, our own hardness of heart, and upon the good original plan of God. So how should we read this passage, deal with the elephant, and be heralds of God's grace?
It seems to me that there is some practical advice we can give with respect to this passage. First, Jesus is answering those who have already displayed their hardness of heart and shown a willingness to read Scripture to suit their own needs, to interpret God's will to justify themselves in the eyes of others, and create burdens for others that they themselves would never consent to bear. Think of the hand washing episode from a few chapters earlier, for example. The Pharisees want to be seen as pious (with clean hands), yet Jesus confronts them then with the judgment that they honor God with their lips while dishonoring Him in their behavior. If Jesus is correct in that this is the original plan of God, then any who divorce demonstrate their hardness of heart. Those who wish to teach that marriage is anything but a one man one woman relationship likewise display their hard-heartedness. Those who like to think we need to "test drive" our potential spouses show forth that same hard-heartedness. Those who are now trying to expand marriage to be anything other than what God intended are showing their hard-heartedness. Similarly, those who wish to make divorce less restrictive, less difficult, less significant are likewise showing forth a hardness of heart. If you, sitting here, are seriously contemplating divorce for any reason other than infidelity or physical abuse, then you, too, may well be focusing on your own hardness of heart and not on God’s plan for you and your marriage.
Next, one of Jesus' proclamations is that the kingdom of God is coming near. His way of living and witnessing is breaking into all parts of our lives. The best visible witness of God's kingdom is how we treat others. Can you think of a more challenging place to show that we love others like ourselves than in marriage? We can love others at work, we can respect others in games and competitions, we can even love others in political rallies. But we get to go home and leave those people behind. Spouses are always with us. We never get a break from loving them. That's why marriage is so important in the kingdom. It is the best place to show forth His kingdom, His life of service, in our own lives. When we choose to abandon that responsibility, that obligation, it is no small wonder that the world scoffs. "You who preach love are no different than us. You are just as selfish as we are." It is no wonder that Christ calls the Church, His bride.
Next, this passage teaches us about the need to let Scripture interpret itself. We human beings are experts at looking through Scripture to justify the logs in our own eyes or the motes in the eyes of others. True, we are human and will make mistakes about Scripture from time to time, but more often than not, Scripture will let us know when we have erred. Is the Church today right to teach that God loves the divorced and remarried? Absolutely. Has Jesus already paid the price? We've all bet our eternal lives on it. Does that mean that divorce is not a big deal to God, as some would have us believe? Of course not. The same Jesus who goes willingly to the cross for our sakes is the same Anointed one who lays out what God intended. He tells us that Moses made allowance for sin so as to prevent even greater sin and evil. He tells us what many divorced couples already know: marriage is indissoluble. We might have a certificate or other legal document which says we are free, but there are other ties that are not easily, if ever, undone. Children, shared experiences, laughs, joys, and countless other ties are created which bind a man and a woman to one another. One of the commenters that I read this week likened a marriage to two plants planted in the same pot. They share the same soil, the same water, the same sunlight. If the gardener ever chooses to separate the plants, the roots make it almost impossible without damaging the paired plants. So it is with married couples. Even couples from bad marriages have some ties that are hard to remove. Jesus reminds us that such was His intention in the beginning. Pastors and elders (this would be you all), would do well to remember to teach moonstruck or star-crossed couples about God's plan before they forget His intention. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Jesus teaches us in this passage that marriage is not a "hook up" to be voided whenever one wants. It is lifelong commitment. It is a covenant, meant to reflect the covenant that God has sworn with His people. Have we ever mentioned that God keeps His covenant, even at great cost to Himself? We would do well to share that with those dating and contemplating marriage in our midst.
How do we know that Jesus is not really dealing with the Church's pastoral response to divorce and remarriage in this passage of Mark? Notice the difference in this question and the one recorded in Matthew 19:3. No one is asking Jesus if they can divorce in the case of infidelity? No one is even asking Paul if they can divorce an unbeliever? Those seeking to trap Jesus ask Him if it is lawful for a man to divorce His wife. Jesus answers that provision for the hardness of their heart has been made to prevent even greater sins, but He goes on to remind them that God had a plan when He established marriage between men and women. As Jesus in God's Anointed, the truth of which is demonstrated by His Resurrection, the description of God's ideal is not up for negotiation or redefinition.
Lastly, as much as we might like to downplay the sexual union of the man and woman in a marriage in this hyper-sexual age, we are not entirely unique in our hard hearted approach to defining marriage to suit us rather than to reflect God's glory and intention. Those accusing Jesus in this passage think of marriage as a piece of paper. Their concern is the "certificate of divorce." The Greek word for that certificate is apostasion . The term was a contractual or technical term which designated the relinquishment of property. We might think of it as a kind of quit-claim deed. Literally, a husband issued his ex-wife this piece of paper, and apostasion, to signify that he was giving up all legal claim to ownership of her. Without that piece of paper, no woman could prove that she was not an adulteress. A lack of an apostasion, as was common in many cultures, mean that women were truly at the mercy of men. While the certificate was not what God intended, it did provide a measure of opportunity for those women who followed the torah. Jesus is using this to describe the permanence of marriage in God’s plan. How do we know that? Because He tells us that this certificate exists as a matter of hardness of heart and because of His following discussion. He tells His disciples, us included, that those who remarry commit adultery.
Jesus is telling this plan not to hurt people, but to point out how far people have strayed from God’s plan. From God’s perspective, marriage is a permanent relationship. It cannot be severed. Ever. Nothing can undo that relationship once it is created. The two become one, never ultimately to be two ever again. Legally, they may get to redefine their relationship with one another; never again, however, will they ever be able to think of the spouse in the same way. His grace in choosing them, and their decision to choose their own spouse, will create consequences that last a lifetime.
Of course, those consequences, we hope, are god and glorify God. We hope and pray that marriages will last, will be model marriages which model servant leadership to those around them and children within them, and we hope and pray that marriages will glorify God. Some will, but far more will not. The problem, of course, is that we are more like the Pharisees than we like to admit. Far too often we are hard hearted. Far too often and far too quickly, we like to ignore God’s plan for us and set our own courses. This all too willing embrace of our own hard heartedness is nowhere better reflected than in the marriage. If a husband and wife cannot serve one another and honor God in that service, then they are, according to God’s standard, hard-hearted.
Were the story to end there, we would stand as hopeless as the the Pharisees who challenged Jesus in this passage. Our righteousness would be dependent upon our own actions, actions like the Pharisees which end up creating white washed tombs. And in the end, we are all hard-hearted. We are all sinners before God. Mercifully, Jesus has an answer. His answer for our hard-heartedness will be circumcised hearts. But it will take the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit that is made possible only through His atoning work to circumcise our hard hearts. It will take HIs horrible death and magnificent resurrection to create clean hearts in us and to make us heralds of His Gospel in all parts of our life, even marriage.
In God’s plan for humanity, marriage had a special role. Part of that role was defined in the conversation with the Pharisees who intended to trap Him. A man and a woman were intended to become one flesh. The culture that surrounded the institution of marriage fell short of the glory that our Father intended for it. Women were not meant to be pieces of property to be disposed of by a quit-claim deed. They were daughters, created in His glorious image, called to serve and be served by husbands who would without a moment’s thought lay down their lives in service of them. It is the role of the Church, of all of us, to proclaim what God intended.
Yes, it is also our job to minister to our brothers and sisters who have experienced he consequence of sin. It is our job to remind all people everywhere that their Father loves them, that their Lord died for them, and that they can live forever in Him. But the passage today was about what was intended by God, of the fact that most of us may need to repent with respect to our marriages, that we have created marriages less like what our Father intended and more of our own shaping. Put differently, today we pay attention to the description of the elephant in the room. Another day, we will deal with the consequences of that elephant’s thrashing and stomping.
Much of the world spends its energy trying to subvert what God intended. This is especially true with respect to marriage. Returns to practices in the ANE such as “no fault divorce” and new requirements such as “I will stay with you so long as I fulfill personally fulfilled” work to separate that which God has joined together. Movies full of seduction and the creation of false expectations tear at its foundations. Online pornography and strip clubs try hard to take the mystery out of that mysterious union where two become one flesh. We are reminded this day, brothers and sisters, that part of our job is to proclaim what God intended. We do that proclamation, of course, not just through our words but also by how we live our lives within the covenant of marriage. You and I are called to follow Him, wherever He leads us. If He calls us into marriage then we know that we are called to reflect, however dimly, that wonderful mystery to which He compares our future rapture. Remember, our Father created marriage to bless us. If we intend to draw the world to Him, then it becomes incumbent upon us to reflect that blessing, not only by our words, but in our lives. Will we fall short? Of course, but that leads us to that next great part of His teaching, His mercy for those who repent. Where better than a marriage can that message be modeled? But that is a lesson for another day . . .