St. John's, Centreville
October 7, 2018
Proper 22 B
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Marriage. Divorce. Relationships. Power. How we treat each other, how we are, or are not, Christ to one another. Today's gospel lesson is like the pink elephant in the middle of the room. You just cannot ignore it and you can't get around it. As much as we would like to hear a different passage this morning, there it is, staring us in the face.
The question about divorce that the Pharisees are asking Jesus is a set up. They want to trap Jesus, get him to say something that will set people against him. They are not really interested in what Jesus has to say about it. They know full well that divorce was commonly allowed. Deuteronomy states that a man may divorce his wife simply by handing her a certificate and sending her on her way. As long as she received the certificate, she could then remarry. If she did not get a certificate of divorce, she could not remarry and that meant a life of abandonment and poverty. She would have no way to make a living and support herself.
There were two different schools of rabbinic thought. For the Jewish followers of Shammai, sexual infidelity was the only acceptable cause for divorce. For the followers of Hillel, even minor provocations could result in divorce. By asking Jesus if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife, the Pharisees hoped to trap Jesus into siding with one group or the other, thus turning the other group against him.
The Pharisees are asking about the letter of the law. But Jesus replies to them in terms of what God intended, in terms of the will of God, in terms of mercy and compassion, in terms of relationships.
Jesus is trying to make things better for those who had no power - particularly women and children. Women were seen as men's possessions and they had no rights. Children had to rely on others for their needs and they were powerless to do anything about their lives.
Only men could divorce, not women. When Jesus responds to the Pharisees, he says, "God made them male and female", quoting from the story of creation. God created both genders, not one better or more important than the other, not one having more God-given rights or privileges than the other, not one being loved by God more than the other. Into this self-indulgent, male-centered world comes this statement by Jesus that a man's wife is not his property and he should not get rid of her on a whim.
One problem with this gospel is that it seems to be very specific. And the more specific things are in the bible, the more difficult they are to deal with because Jesus is talking about situations in a time that is very different from ours. But one thing that is not different between then and now is that we all want things in black and white. Is it right or wrong? Yes or no. No extenuating circumstances, no exceptions. And we must admit that it would be easier to live life if everything was black or white, if there were specific rules to cover every situation, if the ambiguity of life did not exist. Just look it up and there is your answer. No need to think about the problem, ponder the implications, look at the circumstances, think for ourselves.
The Pharisees had laws for everything and it was their duty to enforce them. Jesus did not come to do away with the laws. He came to teach us a better way, a way of compassion and love for others, to govern ourselves and our behavior by an internal Christian code, rather than external laws.
Divorce is a by product of our brokenness and sinfulness. We are not perfect. We fall short of God's intentions for us and for this world. Marital failure is only one of the many ways that we miss the mark in our relationship with God and with each other.
But when we fail, God does not abandon us or exclude us from God's love. God is with those who experience the pain and loneliness and guilt and confusion of divorce. I know. I have been through that. But by God's mercy and grace, through God's reconciliation and healing powers, those experiencing divorce can make it through the pain and grief, particularly if they are surrounded by a supportive and loving community of faith. I have experienced that as well.
Although Jesus' comments on divorce sound very strict, I think Jesus would be the first one to understand the humanity and limitations of each person - the hurts we suffer, the hurts we inflict, the promises that we have broken or have had to break. I think Jesus would be the first one to urge us to pick ourselves up and get on with life, to forgive and seek forgiveness, to do the best we can to reconstruct our lives.
In Jesus' encounters with others, Jesus has a way of helping people pick up the pieces and go on - the woman caught in adultery, the woman who had been married five times and was living with another man, his own friend and disciple Peter who denied him. In each of these encounters, the love and concern of Jesus overrides any other consideration, including betrayal and failure.
Sometimes life events don't work out the way we had hoped, the way we had planned, perhaps even the way we had committed. Sometimes we have to accept the limits of our life and do the best we can. Divorce is like that.
In this age of the "MeToo" movement, women are speaking out against the remnants of a patriarchal society, insisting that men and women are created equal. The cover of TIME magazine this week shows a corrected version of the Declaration of Independence to state that "all men and women are created equal." Many of us have listened to the Judge Kavanaugh hearings and the testimony of Dr. Ford these past two weeks. Women are stepping forward as never before to make claims about harassment and exploitation by men. Perhaps now is the time for all of us to live fully into God's intention for creation that all are equal and to strive for full equality and respect in all parts of our lives.
Jesus spoke up for women and children who were powerless. God made us all in God's image as equal partners in God's creation with no one person better than any other. Race, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation - none of that matters. In God's sight, we are all equal.
No failure to live out God's intention need cut us off from the reconciliation that Christ offers. A broken marriage is a death, a death of a relationship. But death, any kind of death, cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. It cannot separate us from God who is merciful and just and forgiving.
May we strive to live out the intentions God has for us in this life and in the life to come. Amen.