Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Some subjects have been controversial, and yet unavoidable since the beginning of time.
What I would like to do this morning is put this text in context and also compare it with some other biblical passages concerning marriage and finally speak about what it means for marriage to be a sacramental act.
Jesus and his disciples have been slowly making their way toward Jerusalem, where Jesus knows he will be crucified. I keep repeating this statement every week, but I think it must have been constantly on Jesus’ mind by this time as he tries to explain it to the disciples who are apparently oblivious. We must not be too hard on them. We live after the fact. They are like people who on a beautiful sunny day are told where they are standing will soon be devastated by a terrible storm. Until you live through it, it is hard to comprehend.
The significance of what Jesus is telling them is that all their expectations are incorrect. They expected him to be a glorious warrior who would overthrow Rome and re-instate Jewish control of the region. They wanted to be his top advisors who sat in seats of honor and would be respected by everyone in the community. He knows that his moment of victory will begin in what looks like defeat, public humiliation and crucifixion between two criminals. His ultimate victory will not be in defeating the Roman army, but in reversing what we call “The Fall”. Sin, death, and all the evil that accompany those two actions will begin to be reversed when he is resurrected.
The Pharisee’s are trying to force Jesus to align himself with one political party or another. How one interpreted the laws concerning divorce was a litmus test question which identified you with one or other of the various parties or sub-parties of the time.
Jesus sidesteps all their political games. First he asks them to answer their own question. They say, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” Jesus acknowledges that this is correct, but comments that it was an accommodation made because of the human’s “hardness of heart.” One should never enter marriage with the idea that divorce is always a way out if you change your mind. Sometimes it is the best of the possible bad solutions, but it is never the ideal.
Jesus demonstrates this by going back to what God intended in the marriage relationship at the time of humanity’s innocence and before humanity’s rebellion and rejection of God’s will.
Augustine described the Trinity as the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love between them – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Genesis says we are created in the image of God. Part of that image is the need for relationships. I know people who prefer the company of their animals over the company of humans, but Genesis says that God determined that the animals were not sufficient to meet man’s need for relationship and so he created woman from one of his ribs to be his helper. While this story is mythological rather than scientific, the theological point is that couples somehow complete by complementing one another and that this relationship is natural. It should be holy and is God ordained. It is intended for mutual support.
After the Fall, everything, including that relationship gets distorted. The distortion is the consequence of sin, not what God initially intended. Jesus is restoring, much slower than most of us would like, the world to the way it was in the Garden of Eden before the fall, including the marital relationship and we are called to be part of that restoration.
When Jesus gets back home, his disciples question him further. They had expected something along the lines of “only if she has been unfaithful” to “as long as you give her a letter of divorce it is ok.” Instead Jesus tells them “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” In Mark it is pretty cut and dry.
Matthew softens it a bit by making the exception for unchastity on the part of the spouse – but the disciples in Matthew comment that if that is the case, one is better off never marrying and Jesus begins talking about celibacy. Earlier in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus comments that to lust after someone is the same as having committed adultery, and adds that to marry someone who is divorced is to commit adultery.
So how do we put this in perspective and offer a pastoral word for those who have already been divorced, or who are currently in destructive relationships?
First we must remember who Jesus was speaking with. Those who initially asked the question considered themselves righteous because they followed a complicated system of laws and rituals. Jesus says you missed the point. He points to the Garden of Eden and to children and says you must come to God in simplicity and in the relationship of a child to a parent. God desires what is best for us and that is holy relationships.
Second, I think we must look at the story in John of the woman caught in adultery. Those who wanted to stone her were within their rights according to the laws of Moses, but Jesus turned the tables on them. I don’t know what he wrote in the dirt. Perhaps it was the Ten Commandments. Perhaps he wrote names and places that reminded her accusers of their own guilt, but he did not attack the woman, physically or verbally. He did not tell her she was going to hell. He did not ask her to justify her behavior. He skillfully caused her accusers to withdraw and then asked her who was left to accuser her. When she said “No one, sir.” His response was “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
We cannot always undo the consequences of poor decisions we have made in the past, but we have the assurance of God’s mercy, through Christ, and we have a new day every morning to try to live more fully in to the kingdom of God.
Christian marriage is a sacramental act. In it we embrace the icon of relationship – God’s love for his chosen people and Christ’s love of the church. We declare to our intended spouse to keep that a pure and holy relationship. We as a congregation promise to uphold the couple in that relationship. It is not something to be entered into lightly. That is why the Episcopal church requires you have an ongoing relationship with a parish, that you prepare by going through pre-marital counseling with your priest, if this is not your first marriage, you declare to the bishop that you are not abandoning your previous family to take on another and that you have seriously considered what when wrong the first time, to avoid repeating your mistakes.
All our lives are held in tension between acknowledging on one hand that we are broken and sinful, unable to do what we should on our own strength, often failing and having to ask for a do-over and on the other hand embracing the strength to live into the kingdom of God though the mercy of Christ, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the supporting arms of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Those of you who are married, I pray that God may strengthen your relationship and draw you closer to one another through your mutual love of Christ. Those of you who have chosen to remain single to dedicate your time and energy to serving others, know that God honors that, as he did with Jesus, and Paul, and a great many of the saints. Those who hope to marry sometime in the future. I would encourage you to be intentional in your choice of a spouse, keeping God and the church as a pillar to help stabilize your relationship and keep it holy.