On Divorce

Mark 10:2-16

Jeremy Richards 

Every week the lectionary presents us with 4 texts. They usually are: 1 Old Testament/Hebrew Bible reading, 1 Psalm, 1 epistle reading, and 1 Gospel reading. It used to be that every week I would look at all 4 and choose which one to preach on, but after a while this got to be too much. For one, it was too hard for me to read up on all 4 and then decide what to preach on. And, also, it meant there wasn’t a lot of continuity from Sunday to Sunday. So I decided that I wouldn’t jump around but would stay in one book for extended periods of time. When I came back from parental leave, the epistle readings were in Ephesians and I decided to stay in Ephesians until the lectionary moved on to a different book. I decided that once we were done with Ephesians I would stick with the Gospel readings from Mark until Advent.

Man, I should have done a better job of looking ahead. The last few weeks have been kind a brutal haven’t they? We’ve been hit again and again with difficult teachings by Jesus. First we had his encounter with a Syrophoenician woman, where Jesus comes off as, basically, a bit of a racist. I shared with you that it’s, in my mind, the most difficult Jesus story we have. Then we had Jesus’ teaching on discipleship in which he tells us that we have to lose our lives to save them, and that we must pick up our crosses and follow him. Then, the next week, Jesus flipped our ideas of greatness on their head and commanded that we become “servants to all,” which led us to the reality that, as a church, we aren’t serving others the way we should. If we had had a sermon last week, the passage was the one where Jesus says if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off and if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, because it’s better to enter life blind and lame than to be thrown into hell. And now we have this passage, Jesus’ teaching on divorce!

I’ve heard many people say, “I don’t like the Old Testament…” or, “I don’t like Paul…”  “…I just like Jesus,” as if Jesus’ teaching are all sunshine and rainbows. At this point, I’d take the Old Testament or Paul over Jesus any day. At least I feel like I can argue with Paul and the Old Testament. But this is Jesus. This is the one we have declared Lord of our lives, the one we have pledged ourselves to.

As we’ve come across these difficult passages the last few weeks, we’ve talked a fair amount about wrestling with Scripture – the idea that we don’t read Scripture in a vacuum, it’s always meant to be read within a context. We bring our own experiences with us as we read these Scriptures while also doing our best to understand the context in which they were written, then we trust that the living God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, will guide us as the stories of Scripture and the experiences of our lives converge – sometimes beautifully and sometimes…not beautifully. And we do all this is as community. We interpret it together.

I would invite us, once again, to wrestle with Scripture this morning. I would invite you to bring your own experiences with you to this text, even if you feel like they run counter to Jesus’ teaching today. I don’t want you to be ashamed of them. They are important. We can’t get to the bottom of this Scripture without bringing our full selves to the text.

There are two tendencies when we read Jesus’ hard words about divorce. The first is to simply ignore them. 40-50% of couples divorce. All of us know couples who have divorced. Some of us here today are divorced. Jesus’ teaching this morning seems too unrealistic and, frankly, too harsh. So the first temptation is to simply ignore it. But this isn’t really an option, is it? As I just mentioned, we’ve committed our lives to the way of Jesus, and simply ignoring those teachings that we don’t like is hardly an option. Besides, what would we be left with if we ignored the teachings of Jesus we don’t like? Most of his teachings are uncomfortable, counter cultural, and difficult, so we can’t really ignore them.

The second tendency is to make Jesus’ words today into a hard and fast rule, where we ignore the reality of unhealthy marriages we see in the world, where we ignore the context in which Jesus lived, and where we ignore the Holy Spirit who continues to guide us and direct us in our day-to-day lives. When we do this we fall into the same trap as the Pharisees from our reading today. As we’ll explore later, they want to reduce divorce to a simple matter of the law, whereas Jesus wants to look at marriage in the context of the entire scope of God’s work in the world, starting way back with creation.

For Jesus, specific questions never exist on their own, isolated from the rest of life. Instead, every aspects of our lives is wrapped up in God’s life. Our stories are swallowed up in God’s story, which is the story of restoration, redemption, and resurrection. So every question is part of a much larger narrative – what we call the Gospel.

Bad teaching and bad preaching on this passage have done so much harm to so many people. It’s my prayer this morning that that won’t be the case today, that we will take Jesus’ words seriously but will do so in a spirit of compassion and with sensitivity to the complicated nature of both marriage and divorce, in our day and in Jesus’. And there are, indeed, some complications.

One complication is that this passage assumes a heteronormative view of marriage. Some of you may hear this passage about marriage being between a man and a woman and recall ways it has been used against you because of your sexuality. Or you may struggle to see how this passage relates to you based on your sexuality and your understanding of marriage. Perhaps you envision marriage differently than what’s implied here. Maybe you don’t ever want to get married. We live in a day where marriage is so different from the marriages of Jesus’ day. Today, the purpose and value of marriage are very much being called into question today.

Another complication is the reality that this passage has been used again and again to trap spouses, usually women, in abusive, unsafe marriages. Maybe some of us here have been in such a relationship, or are currently in such a relationship. We will talk more about this later, but let me say that this should never be used to keep vulnerable people in dangerous marriages. Abusers, not the abused, are the ones who have broken the covenant. They are the ones guilty.

Obviously, to simply say, “Never get divorced,” and fail to address the realities of unhealthy, even dangerous, marriages is irresponsible.

Basically, this passage is a preachers nightmare. It’s a minefield. The possibility that I could do great harm to some of you is very real. And, at the same time, I’m grateful for this passage. I’m thankful that our faith isn’t abstract but is nitty and gritty. God isn’t too transcendent to deal with the mundane day-to-day struggles and concerns that constitute our lives. Instead, God enters into all that messiness in the person of Jesus. Jesus lived this life, and promises to continues to live it with us. Jesus talks about poverty and taxes and money and marriage and divorce and children and food and life and death and work.

In short, Jesus isn’t about rules, he’s about an all-encompassing way of life. That’s what discipleship is. That’s what we are called to: lives utterly shaped by the living God, present in our midst right now, today, and every day. In the mundane, the tedious, the nitty-gritty. People think the book of Leviticus is boring – and they’re right, it is – but it’s also a beautiful picture of how God wants to be involved in every aspect of our lives, from how we worship to how we raise kids to what to do with mold in our houses.

The Pharisees who come to test Jesus, however, aren’t concerned with a way of life. They’re concerned with rules. Or, more accurately, they’re concerned with loopholes in the rules. Their question isn’t, “What does life with God look like?” it’s, “What can we get away with?”

They aren’t really interested in learning from Jesus, they’re interested in trapping him. Mark says they came to “test” him. You might recall that John the Baptist, who proceeded Jesus and proclaimed his coming, was beheaded because he spoke out against King Herod’s wife Herodias’ divorce. She had divorced his brother and married him. Perhaps they’re hoping Jesus will say the wrong thing and end up like John.

Now let’s get into what divorce and marriage were in Jesus’ day. I’m always skeptical of “context” that over-simplifies passages we don’t like and gives us an easy out, so we’re not going to do that. But context does matter, and, in this case, complicates the issue of divorce. It’s not straight-forward.

For starters, only men could divorce women according to the Jewish law. In the Greco-Roman world women could also initiate divorces, which Jesus alludes to when he speaks to his disciples in the house about men and women divorcing their partners, but the Pharisees aren’t concerned with women divorcing men. That isn’t even on their radar. The Pharisees speak twice in this passage and both times they assume that the man is doing the divorcing. First they ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” And when Jesus asks them what Moses commanded they answer, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” So marriage in Jesus’ day was deeply patriarchal. The man had all the power.

While Mark explicitly says the Pharisees are trying to test Jesus, they didn’t fabricate this question just to try and trap him. Outside sources from Jesus’ day show that divorce really was a hot topic of debate among the religious leaders at the time. Some said that a man could dismiss a woman for any “fault” he found in her, which could literally be anything. Others said a man could only divorce his wife in the case of adultery.[1]

What’s shocking, considering Jesus’ upbringing, is that he doesn’t give the man any priority in the marriage. In fact, he goes out of his way to raise the woman up to an equal place with the man. He says that Moses only allowed divorce because of your hardness of heart. Then, the first piece of Scripture Jesus quotes is an egalitarian one: “God made them male and female” (Genesis 1:27). The Pharisees just care about the man, but Jesus immediately brings the woman into the equation. He immediately elevates the woman to an equal place with the man. Both were made by God, together.

Now, let’s be clear that this passage isn’t about gender identity or same-sex marriages. Just because the first two people seem to easily fit into the boxes of “male” and “female” doesn’t mean everyone else does. Adam and Eve were two particular people, and their particulars don’t have to be our particulars. They each had one color of hair, one height, one shape of nose, and one gender. Your gender may fit easily into either male or female, or it may not. In this passage Jesus isn’t interested in questions of gender. Similarly, he isn’t being asked about same-sex marriages. Jesus is being questioned about divorce. Jesus isn’t addressing gender identity and he isn’t addressing same-sex relationships. He’s commenting on divorce. To take this teaching out of context and make it about anything else is to do violence to the text. It’s forcing Jesus’ teaching to fit our agenda.

After making it clear that women are an equal party in marriage, Jesus subverts the man’s authority still further. The Pharisees, quoting Moses, assume that the man can dismiss the woman. But Jesus reminds them that Genesis 2:24, it’s the man who’s supposed to have left what’s familiar to him in order to be joined with his wife. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” The Pharisees’ understanding of marriage, which was consistent with Jewish practice, was that the woman was property of her father, and then her husband. When she was married she was handed over to the man and came under his protection, and moved into his house, with his family. But Jesus reminds them that “in the beginning,” according to Genesis, the man was the one who was supposed leave what was familiar and join the life of the woman. If that were still the case, the man, not the woman, would be dismissed in the event of the divorce because their home would be her and her family’s home, not his. The man would be the one left out in the cold, not the woman.

This, of course, was not the way it really went. In reality the woman moved in with the man, and the man had the power to divorce her, whether she liked it or not. By divorcing her he was no longer bound to protect her. If the woman’s family wouldn’t receive her back into their family, she had few options. To provide for herself she could either beg or prostitute herself.

Now we can see one of the reasons this was such an important issue. Divorce was catastrophic for the woman’s well-being. This is surely playing into Jesus’ response. Divorce didn’t mean “you go your way and I’ll go mine,” it meant a life of hardship and probably trauma for the woman, who was clearly the more vulnerable. Jesus’ hard stance on divorce is has got to be influenced by his concern for the vulnerable women who’s well-being is at the mercy of their sometimes fickle husbands.

There’s something else I also want to point out. Something very interesting happens in this interaction, something we might miss because we’re so intent on what Jesus has to say about divorce. Notice that the Pharisees have a Scripture, what we might call a proof-text, that seems like a trump card. They can say, “The Bible says…” in this case, “The Bible says we can divorce our wives.” How many of us have heard proof-texts used in the same way? We’ve tried to give an explanation as to why we believe what we believe, and someone says, “No, the Bible says…” like that’s the end of discussion. But Jesus doesn’t  seem to think one proof-text ends the conversation. He doesn’t read Scripture that way. Jesus looks at the big picture, at who God is and who we are, and he actually refutes the proof-text. He prioritizes some Scriptures over others. The Pharisees, as I mentioned earlier, are concerned with the law and the loopholes in the law. Jesus is concerned with the will of God.

So what is the will of God, and how does it relate to divorce? If we look at the grand narrative of Scripture, we see that God is always bringing lives together. God unites the people of Israel together. At rare times throughout the Old Testament God brings Gentiles like Rahab and Ruth into the fold. Then, through Jesus, God unites God’s own life with the lives of humankind. After Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit falls like fire on the disciples, the church explodes as new members – Jews and Gentiles alike – join the radical community of Jesus followers, who live life together, break bread together, sell their possessions and share their resources with one another, binding their lives to one another’s. Marriage is one of the most beautiful examples of lives being joined together. It’s often used in Scripture as a metaphor for God’s love for us.

The movement of God is always toward unity, and any breaking of relationship runs counter to that. God desires unity, not division, and divorce is the breaking of a very special, very unique relationship. And this is where we must take Jesus’ words seriously. Divorce has become so common that it’s easy to be nonchalant about it. While I know plenty of people who’ve been divorced, I actually haven’t really been impacted by divorce. Maybe kind of surprisingly, this has made me kind of indifferent to divorce. I haven’t been hurt by it the way many others have.

A few years ago, a childhood friend of mine was going through a divorce. In my mind, the relationship seemed doomed from the start because it never seemed that healthy. Divorce, to me, seemed inevitable. And sure enough, my prediction came true: one day he texted me to tell me he was getting a divorce. After I found out he was divorcing this woman, I asked our church to pray for him that Sunday. I never thought to pray that he wouldn’t get divorced, I thought he should get divorced, I just wanted it to be as smooth and painless as possible. Of course I didn’t say that. I just asked for prayer for my friend who was getting a divorce. To my surprise, and older man in the congregation turned around and looked at me with pain in his eyes. “Divorce is like a death,” he said.

I never thought to stop and lament my friend’s divorce. I had lamented the marriage, but never the divorce.

I never thought about the dreams they had at one time had together, now never to be realized.

I had never thought about the genuine love they must have felt for each other at some point in their relationship, now turned bitter.

I never thought about their kids and the trauma this might cause them.

As many of you know better than me, divorce is ugly. Broken relationships are painful, and none more so than a broken marriage. Divorce is everywhere in our society, and, if we ignore Jesus’ words, we might come to think it’s no big deal, but it is.

At the same time, if we are looking at the big picture, at God’s desire for lives that are vibrant, joyful, hopeful, and full of love, we may see that there are marriages that are damaged beyond repair. We can also see relationships in which the divorce isn’t the severing of the relationship, the actions of one spouse prior to the divorce were. A man who abuses his wife has already broken the covenant. He, not her, is responsible. The same is true of someone who is unfaithful in marriage.

The Pharisees want an easy answer. Divorce is okay or it isn’t. Jesus wants us to live lives where every aspect of life is aimed at wholeness, healing, redemption, and love. We can’t say that divorce is never wrong, or that it’s always wrong. Instead, we must invite God into all of our relationships – family relationships, friendships, marriages, even work relationships, and ask that God will nourish and sustain them. When relationships seem irreparable, we must lean into our community, asking that they walk with us, pray with us, and love us unconditionally, which is what we try to do here at Grant Park. And if we do choose to end our relationship, we must trust in the grace of God, just as we need trust in the grace of God’s in every other area of our lives.

Our passage ends with little children running to Jesus, and Jesus saying that we must receive the kingdom as little children. Little children don’t receive based on what they can or cannot do. They receive only what is given to them freely. In the end, divorce or no divorce, we are all welcomed into the arms of God, held in the hands of the Son, and blessed by the Spirit, like the little children who ran to Jesus.

In the end we can always rest in our relationship with God, which will never be broken, God’s love that will never falter, God’s grace that covers us always, especially in our times of pain.

Thanks be to God. 

[1] James J. Thompson, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, 142.