The Elephant in the Sanctuary: Divorce
19 Pentecost B
October 4, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I think we need to begin by naming the big elephant in the sanctuary today. It’s the subject of divorce. Today’s gospel is a hard gospel to hear and a hard gospel to preach. Each one of us has been touched in some way by divorce: some more than others. It causes hurt and grief; but sometimes it may certainly lead to new life.
First of all let’s recognize that the divorce rate in our day is now somewhat less than 50%. Close to half of all marriages fail. But the converse is true—and encouraging: a little more than half of all marriages succeed.
Those of us who are married or who’ve been married know that it’s not always a walk in the park. There’s commitment and compromise; sometimes tears and failure. There may be some betrayals; but there will probably be some deep mutual support, as well. Marriage is an agreement, a covenant, whereby the two spouses promise to support each other for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death. In the best of times that’s asking an awful lot.
Our gospel story has the Pharisees asking Jesus a question about divorce—but look carefully—the question comes “to test him.” The Pharisees are presented to us as a group of smug defenders of their faith who were eager to find a chink in Jesus’ armor—and to take him down. Remember when they asked him about paying taxes to the emperor? Then they asked a strange “what-if” question about a woman who married 7 brothers successively…in heaven who’s wife would she be?
And today they ask him if it’s lawful or not for a man to divorce his wife. This is another of the questions they hope will get an answer from Jesus that will condemn him for heresy. But characteristically he sidesteps their question—and manages to get in some theological reflection as well.
Jesus basically says that Moses allowed men to divorce their wives because of their “hardness of heart.” Note he doesn’t say here that divorce is always wrong. But then he turns the question around to reflect on the purpose of marriage—how it is a gift from God for the two partners to support each other in their lifetimes. He talks about God’s creation of male and female and God’s intention that they unite for life. He ends this part with “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
But we do separate married people, don’t we? // What are some very good reasons for divorce? The old tried and true phrase “irreconcilable differences” for one. If two people grow significantly apart so that they cannot live together peaceably, then we do allow divorce. If one person, woman OR man, abuses or endangers the other, then we do allow divorce. If one person is unfaithful, and the two cannot forgive and reconcile, then we do allow divorce.
It seems to me that the possibility of divorce must have entered the world when Adam and Eve were caught after eating the forbidden fruit. Today’s reading from Genesis gives us the second story of the creation of woman. This one has Eve made from Adam’s rib, after none of the animals was found to be a suitable helpmate for Adam. Now, the first story of the creation of humankind is in the very first chapter of Genesis, where God creates humans both male and female at the same time. This second story about the rib is ever so much more interesting!
And it’s followed, just one chapter later, by the account of the disobedience in the Garden—what we refer to as The Fall, or the Fall from Grace. It’s a movement from Original Blessing to Original Sin—all because of the freedom that God implanted in his creatures to make their own decisions.
And we know that freedom to choose allows us to choose to love God and each other and the entire created order. And that must be of infinite worth to God—our choosing in freedom to Love, to decide to echo God’s character / ourselves.
So we’re living in a Fallen World. And divorce is a human-made way for us to admit error, and move forward as separate people. It is always hard, and it often causes very deep emotional trauma. Divorce always causes grief—because it’s a real loss. And with God’s help sometimes it can lead to resurrection and new life.
The church pastorally allows divorce because the church wants us to be able to learn and grow and move forward, and we believe God wants the same.
Now, Jesus goes on to say that when a divorced person remarries, that remarried one is committing adultery against the first spouse. Our Roman Catholic friends interpret this verse quite literally, and that has led to their unwieldy process of seeking annulments, instead of divorces. I’m happy that the Protestant churches have rejected large-scale annulments and have made peace with the idea that divorce is always difficult, but that it often might lead to good ends.
And behind all this is the firm belief that God’s mercy will trump all our rules. // Thank God for his mercy.
Our gospel concludes with Jesus urging us to receive God’s kingdom, love and mercy as children do—to be trusting, and vulnerable, and open to the movement of the Holy Spirit within us and among us. That vulnerability can bloom only in an environment where God is known and loved as the compassionate Shepherd, who leads us on and urges us to grow through and then beyond our struggles.