I don’t normally deliver sermons like this. But this sermon is going to be what we call a “topical” sermon. A sermon that has a particular topic that it’s intended to address. This is a topic that I haven’t really addressed before, and a topic that I don’t think many churches address. At least not well.
The topic is divorce. And it’s occasioned by today’s scripture, where Jesus offers his teaching on the subject. Not all of us here have been divorced, or will ever be divorced, nor will ever be married. But since we’re the body of Christ, we are members of one whole. Meaning that even if it isn’t applicable to us directly, it’s applicable to us—the people of Jesus who are empowered to love one another. Especially during difficult times. Divorce being one of them. So regardless of who we are, the topic is worth while.
Before we move further, though, I should probably tell you where you where our church, the United Church of Canada stands on divorce. Where some churches may not allow divorce altogether, or only in certain circumstances, the United Church of Canada permits divorce without any well-defined rules. The 1962 statement Marriage Breakdown, Divorce, Remarriage: A Christian Understanding that informs our basic position on the matter, simply says that there are circumstances in which “the best interests of all persons involved (including children and society) that the marriage be dissolved by divorce.”[i]
Of course, the circumstances we can think of are many. There’s adultery of course, the single time or the serial kind. There’s coercion. There’s abuse—spousal abuse of children or the other spouse. An absent or neglectful parent. Selfish, egotistical personalities. There are what we call irreconcilable differences, differences of faith, philosophy, lifestyle. Ones where one or both sides will no or can not budge towards harmony or compromise. Then there are also the ways that a prohibition on divorce has been used by abusers, usually men over their wives to keep them from leaving. To keep control or avoid consequences for their own abuse.
Nobody says that divorce is a good thing. But we can think of plenty of different, understandable, faithful circumstances where, as hard and painful as it may be, a marriage needs to come to an end.
So that’s where the church stands. So everyone for whom the scripture passage, or content of this sermon, was causing anxiety—you can breathe a sigh of relief. In my own case, I wouldn’t exist if it my mom didn’t divorce her first husband to marry my dad. So it’s where I stand, too. I guess you could say divorce is in my personal best interest.
And yet... in today’s scripture passage, Jesus doesn’t seem to be so open to the idea. In fact, it represents one of Jesus’ clearest teachings.
Some Pharisees, a rival group to Jesus’ own group, came to Jesus seeking to trap him. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” It’s a trap because the King, Herod the Great, divorced his wife to marry another woman. And his new wife divorced her previous husband to marry him. John the Baptist, the guy who baptized Jesus criticized the King for this divorce. So he ended up in jail. And lost his head. Jesus’ life actually depends on his answer to this question.
“What’s Moses have to say?” Jesus asks. Basically meaning, “what do the scriptures say?”
“A man can divorce his wife,” say the Pharisees (in unison, I guess). “He can divorce his wife if he provides a certificate, providing the marriage is over and giving her permission to marry someone else.” This is Moses’ teaching from the book of Deuteronomy.
“Moses only made that exception,” Jesus says, “on account of your hard-heartedness.” Basically, “Moses only allowed that because you’re too stubborn, too cruel, and too-thick headed to stay married.” Zing.
And then Jesus kicks it up a notch. He digs even deeper in the Bible, all the way back to the beginning. Back to Genesis, back to the creation of the first human beings. “From the beginning of creation,” he says. “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and join his wife. And the two shall become flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
In Jesus’ view, marriage is a sort of re-uniting, God’s way of re-knitting together humanity. Becoming two separate individuals, but then two individuals bound together as one. To divorce would be like dividing one person into two.
Which is another zinger against Herod, actually. You’ll notice Jesus side-steps the trap. Because instead of answering yes or no to the divorce question, and potentially getting his head chopped off, he answers with a deeper, more rigorous part of scripture. “I’m not saying that this is what Herod’s doing. But hey, shouldn’t we leave the things God has put together intact?
And if he was unclear with the Pharisees, we hear Jesus when he’s alone with the disciples clarify: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. Whoever divorces her husband and marries another: ditto.” Another zing against Herod. This one safely behind closed doors.
It’s clear that Jesus is talking about one particular instance. The issue of a royal divorce, which of course would have plenty of political implications. And of course, you want your rulers to be held to a high moral standard. Maybe even higher than everyone else.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus’ teaching on this can be extrapolated quite easily. “Jesus,” we ask. “Are we permitted to divorce?” And Jesus answers, “let no one separate what God has brought together.”
So with all of that in mind, what are we to do with a text like this? If the church has come to the conclusion that divorce should be permitted. If we can see many good, faithful, reasons to allow it, what should we make of this teaching from Jesus?
We could say that this doesn’t represent a true teaching of Jesus, that it’s somehow inconsistent with the overall message and ministry of Jesus. Or that it’s from a different time, a different, ancient place. That Jesus’ hardline stance on divorce is of a bygone era from ages past… things are just different now.
We could. But one of the marks of the church and disciples of Jesus is that they put Jesus and his teachings above all others. If this teaching is one to simply disregard, what about loving our enemies, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, or turning the other cheek? What makes any of the other hard teachings any different?
The difference, I think, is this. It’s in how we read the Bible. When we go to the Bible, seeking answers, seeking guidance on questions, we tend to think about it in terms of how the Pharisees frame the question to Jesus: “is it lawful to do this, or that?” Give me a rule, a straight yes or no answer. But the Bible isn't meant to work like that. You’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t tend to work like that.
Jesus, instead, is less about which rules we must follow, and more about revealing to us, and pointing us towards the kind of people we are created to be. His teaching on marriage is no different.
First, his comment about the hard-heartedness of the Pharisees not only applies to the Pharisees. It applies to us, and every other human being.
Jesus is right—divorce is the product of human hard-heartedness, selfishness, unkindness or an unwillingness to change. Whether it’s our own hard-heartedness, or that of our spouses. Or even circumstances and situations beyond us both. And we know that the result of a divorce is never clean cut—there’s always an aftermath for us, and especially our children. There’s always wounding. Like the tearing of one flesh in two. It’s the product of human brokenness. Of one kind or another. It’s messy. It’s not good.
Even so, Jesus himself didn’t come only for perfect people. He didn’t come for people who always do the right thing. Nor did he come for people who are able to, with Christ-like ability, hold out and save a marriage of their own strength. No. He came for the hard-hearted. Which isn’t just the Pharisees. It’s us in our human condition, our constant falling short. And our inability to do what’s right. To us, to me and you, he gives mercy and forgiveness. And the promise for a new start and new life to all who seek it.
So Jesus is right... that divorce is not good, even when it’s the right decision. The brokenness of our marriages is a mark of the brokenness of the world. And yet, it’s this broken world that God loves, and is at work healing, redeeming, making new. Grace is always an exception to our hard-heartednesss. And that really is what makes even a rigid teaching like this one good news.
That’s the first point.
And here’s the second. Jesus teaches us that marriage, above all other things, is a spiritual discipline.
I mean, it’s interesting how just about everybody cites this scripture passage to talk about divorce. But few people really use it to talk about marriage, because we all seem to assume we know what marriage means. In our culture, we tend to think of it as a contract between two individuals. Or we tend to think about it primarily in terms of love and feelings for each other. But Jesus frames it differently.
Remember how Jesus says that “in the beginning God made each of them, male and female, so they can leave all others and no longer remain two, but become one flesh.” And then he says that God has joined them together.
As usual, Jesus brings it all back to God. Jesus says that the end, the purpose of marriage, of committed relationships is the holy unity of two human beings, and together their unity with God. And of course, Jesus himself represents the marriage of heaven and earth, God and humanity in one human life.
So the Biblical scholar Pheme Perkins puts it, “Jesus moves marriage from the realm of law by treating marriage as being grounded in God’s creative love… [this is still] crucial for reflection not because we want tough laws against divorce, but because we need to make Christian families what God intended them to be.”[ii] Marriage is a practice, one intended to stabilize us, and to shape us and our families by God’s love.
Not a simple legal contract between two individuals like our contract thinks of it. Not a matter of just feeling affection towards each other (though that helps). But about what kind of world God is creating and what kind of people we are to become. Jesus tells us what marriages should be, and should do for us. One that God uses to draw closer together in mutual love and growing in self-giving, submitting our self-interest to one another. To learn how to be Christ to each other.
Jesus’ answer isn’t if simply if divorce is permitted or not permitted, full stop. Jesus talks about the ends. Jesus doesn’t answer in terms of laws or fixed rules. He answers with Gospel. The meaning, the purpose, promise of marriage as part of God’s design, God’s will, God’s desire for creation. One that, like so much in life, we will inevitably fall short of. But marriage, for Christians, is a spiritual discipline. One for all its difficulty, for all of its pain and failure, marriage itself is one of the ways God uses to make us more like Jesus. To grow so that together we reflect the image of Christ. That our families might be like the Trinity, distinct, but one united in purpose and the unity of love that binds us.
That’s the promise. That’s the vision. That’s the end. That’s the goal. Meaning that potential, and the beauty of marriage can always outweigh the risk of its destruction.
So, friends. This day, this Thanksgiving day, let’s give God thanks for the blessings brought about by the gift of marriage. That it is one of the many ways God uses to craft us, to help us grow further in the image of Christ. But let’s also give God thanks for the good gift of grace. That in marriages that have not lived up to God’s good purposes no matter the reason. That God brings us forgiveness, mercy, and healing for all the ways we fall short.
Thank you God, for your amazing grace.
[i] Marriage Breakdown, Divorce, Remarriage: A Christian Understanding. Approved by the 20th General Council of The United Church of Canada, 1962.
[ii] Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary.