Jesus on Marriage and Divorce
Today’s sermon is based on the Gospel lesson just read. To start us out, I’d like to tell you about an article I read last week. Perhaps you saw it too as it circled around the internet.
The article tells about the decline in divorce rates in this country. According to the author’s research, the big drivers of this decline are the millennials—those people who grew up around the time of our entrance into the 21st century.
“The change among young people is particularly striking,” said Susan Brown, a sociology professor at Bowling Green University. The evidence, she says, shows that marriages today have a greater chance of lasting than marriages did ten years ago.
This is good news, for we all know how painful divorce can be.
However, not all the news is good. One of the reasons for the decline in divorce rates is that fewer people are getting married. “Marriage is more and more an achievement of status, rather than something that people do regardless of how they’re doing,” says the article. The married population is getting older and more highly educated. “Many poorer and less educated Americans are opting not to get married at all. They’re living together, and often raising kids together, but deciding not to tie the knot. And studies have shown these cohabiting relationships are less stable than they used to be.”
It seems to me that behind these trends is an element of fear. People are afraid to get married because they’ve seen so many failed marriages.
On the one hand, it’s good that people aren’t rushing in to get married before they are ready. As we say in our wedding liturgy: “Marriage is not to be entered upon lightly or unadvisedly, but thoughtfully, reverently, and in the fear of God, with due consideration of the purposes for which it was ordained.”
On the other hand, we don’t want people to be so afraid of marriage that they shun it. And we don’t want people to fear that they’ll be missing out by making that commitment either. Marriage is a good gift, given by God. The wedding liturgy goes on to say: “It pleases God that a couple fulfill the purposes of marriage without fear and in God’s kind of peace and happiness.” God moves us to be people of faith. Faith, in turn, allows us to make commitments of love and care.
Through the commitment of marriage God promises great blessings. These blessings come to the couple themselves, but also the generations before and after. These blessings even extend to all of society, which, as the wedding liturgy also says, “can be strong and healthy only where the marriage bond is strong and held in highest regard and honor.” When I read those words at a wedding I find them to be some of the most emotional words said—for we all know the poor state of marriage in our country right now, and we are saddened by what it means for us.
Our first reading today, from Genesis 2, is the Bible’s foundational teaching on marriage. In this text we see many blessings of marriage illustrated for us. For instance, we see that God recognizes the pain and danger of loneliness— “it’s not good,” he says—so he provides a partner to help.
We see, too, that men and women are complementary—a fit for one another designed by God. Sometimes we may think our differences are too great to overcome. But God’s Word reminds us—with details such as a shared rib—that we are made to be together. The fit is so surprisingly good, in fact, that we hear Adam cry: “this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”
Also, we see that marriage gives guidance and structure as a new relationship is formed and the generations go forward. The man is to leave his father and mother. He is to hold fast to his wife. The two of them will form a primary bond—a “one flesh” bond—and this will allow the next generation to be secure and to flourish.
Finally, we see that husband and wife can live with an openness and intimacy that is freeing for them—a nakedness that leads not to shame but to trust.
Many of us here have experienced the joys and blessings of a long, fruitful marriage.
Unfortunately, many of us here have also felt the pain of divorce.
Today’s Gospel lesson, and this sermon, is not intended to drudge up the pain of past divorces. It is meant to have us hear Jesus’ strong warnings in this text, and to hear them in the context of his grace-filled words of encouragement and promise.
All marriages experience struggles. Some experience a lot. In the course of marriage one person might change, or one person might cheat, or both husband and wife might discover that they no longer have the same values or goals. They might find that they are continually fighting and can’t rediscover their love. They might conclude—one or both of them, rightly or wrongly—that their relationship is unhealthy and doomed.
Ancient Israel, which lifted up the beauty and importance of marriage in the Genesis text we just considered, also acknowledged that sometimes there was a need to end a marriage. We know this because of multiple references to the existence of divorce, a few references to a “certificate of divorce” and one passage that speaks to possible justification for it.
That one passage of possible justification, found in Deuteronomy 24, told of men who divorced their wives because they “found some indecency in them.” The rabbis debated this phase, with some claiming it meant that a man could only divorce his wife when she was being unfaithful, and others claiming it meant a man could divorce his wife for any old reason—such as overcooking his supper.
It was only natural, therefore, that when Jesus came on the scene people would want to know his views on the subject. Our Gospel text today is Mark’s version of a conversation that took place between Jesus, some local Pharisees and Jesus’ disciples. The conversation begins with the Pharisees asking Jesus about the legality of divorce. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” We’re told that their question was a “test.” They wanted to know if Jesus knew his scriptures. Even more, they wanted to see if Jesus would say something they could use against him.
Jesus responds by asking them what Moses said. The Pharisees were happy to answer. “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.”
Their statement certainly fit the view that had prevailed among Israel through many centuries. However, it was only partly true. Moses did indeed refer to the practice of writing a woman a certificate of divorce and sending her out of his house. He did this in the Deuteronomy 24 passage mentioned earlier. But Moses did not say that he “allowed” this. The passage may infer that divorce was permitted, but it does not explicitly establish this as a right.
The commandment given in this passage actually says that a man cannot take back a wife he divorced, once she has married someone else, even if that second marriage of hers has ended. The command surely was a way of making the man think twice before divorcing. The certificate was a way of ensuring that a divorced woman could remarry and that she was not seen as an adulteress. These were the days, you recall, when a man had many more rights than a woman did. The certificate was a way of affording the woman some protections too.
Jesus correctly labels this later word from Moses as something given only in response to the hardness of people’s hearts. He tells them it is only a follow-up kind of message dealing with the reality of sinful situations, rather than a loophole or an exception, and certainly not granting a privilege.
Jesus tells them that the real word from Moses that the people should be considering is what was said at the beginning. “God made them male and female. Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother, and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Jesus then reinforces the “holding fast” aspect of this text by saying: “What therefore God has joined together, let man not separate.”
Jesus’ words highlight God’s intention for marriage—that it be permanent, life-long, till death do them part. The man and the woman are to “hold fast” to one another. They are to keep their vows of commitment to one another, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health. That’s the goal and intention of marriage.
Later, when the disciples were with Jesus in private, they asked him some follow up questions. Jesus then adds: “whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Here Jesus speaks to what is a very common scenario—a husband or a wife finds themselves attracted to another person and decides on a course of divorce and remarriage. That, says Jesus, is not to be. His words take on extra significance when we note that they are spoken in the region of “Judea beyond the Jordan,” as stated in v. 1 of this chapter. This is the region where John the Baptist was killed for criticizing Herod and Herodias, who did this very thing—divorcing their spouses so that they could have each other.
The words of Jesus in this Gospel account give a strong endorsement of permanent, life-long marriage as directed in the earliest Scriptures. They also give a strong criticism of the understanding and practice of divorce in Jesus’ day.
That being said, is Jesus in his words here establishing some kind of new or clarified law for his followers? Are the words of Jesus which Mark records here intended as case law to be used in determining a practice for regulating marriage and divorce by the church?
In answering this question, we should note that Matthew, Luke and Paul also address issues of marriage and divorce in their writings—each doing so in slightly different ways. Matthew is obviously concerned about teaching that divorce is allowable in cases of unfaithfulness. Paul is concerned about teaching that divorce is allowable in cases of abandonment. Luke just gives brief statements condemning the practice of divorce where it is done in order to marry another. All of them are eager to show that unjust divorce is akin to adultery, but they all do this in different ways.
The varying emphases of these writers should signal to us that the issues surrounding marriage and divorce are complex. Unfaithfulness and abandonment are serious issues which must be considered, and certainly there are others too.
Rather than focusing on allowances and rights, as the people of his day were doing, Jesus points us to the sacred intention of God for marriage and the heart problem that can make marriage so difficult. Taking the words of Jesus as our cue, the church does its best to both encourage people in their marriages and to discourage divorce.
In our encouraging and discouraging, it is extremely important that we do both of these with grace. Jesus referred to the hard-heartedness of humanity when he addressed the question of divorce, and by this he certainly means for us to be serious about the sin that is involved. We should acknowledge the inclination of people to do what it takes to get what they want, to arrogantly think they always know what is best, and to stubbornly refuse to submit to God and one another. Hard hearts lead to hard relationships.
However, in bringing up our hard hearts, Jesus is also signaling the kind of help he will bring. For Jesus’ comments here to make sense, he must be offering a cure for hard-heartedness.
We who know the full story of Jesus know that he does indeed bring a cure for hard hearts. We know that the kingdom he ushers in brings about a way for the heart to be softened. It is softened as we learn Jesus’ way of living by grace. It is softened as we hear of our forgiveness. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin, and by this we know that God has forgiven us. All those things we did in the past and that we regret—those things that led to so much pain for ourselves and others—those sins are forgiven. In Christ we have a new start.
The softening of our hearts that Jesus gives leads us, then, to deal softly with others. This doesn’t mean that sin is excused. And it doesn’t mean that if we work hard enough all relationships will succeed. It always takes two. Jesus’ way doesn’t work automatically or even easily, but it does have power. It has the power to heal, and it has the power to help us grow.
It is God’s wish for you that His power be present and known in your relationships. All of them. And it is His desire that this same power be present and known in all marriages.
Knowing this, may God lead us to gracefully encourage and support one another always. And especially in times of divorce. In the name of Jesus. Amen.