Sermon for Pentecost 17, Year B
Based on Mk. 10:2-12
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
I want to preface my sermon today with ‘a preacher’s confession.’ As I read and studied the lessons in preparation for today; I must confess that I was immediately inclined to preach a sermon on our passage from Job! I regard the book of Job as one of my favourites. Therefore, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to preach a sermon on the sufferings of Job, our sufferings, and the meaning of suffering in God’s overall purposes of our lives.
After all, who really wants to hear ~ or for that matter preach! ~ a sermon on divorce? Not me! And probably not you either! At least that’s what I initially thought. It’s downright hard to preach on such a difficult message. It produces considerable Kierkegaardian existential angst of the fear and trembling variety for this preacher anyway. I’m sure it must be equally as tough for some of you to hear a message on the topic of divorce. Let’s not rock the boat and avoid the gospel passage. It is too hot of a topic to deal with ~ it will disturb and provoke too many people. Why do that?
Well folks, guess what? I’m preaching a sermon on divorce! Even though it’s not an easy topic for me or for many of you I suspect. The Spirit does move in mysterious ways! But if Jesus could address this matter, why shouldn’t we too? So, here goes!
According to Statistics Canada, in 1994, (I haven’t came across more recent stats, but I suspect the 94 figures haven’t changed that significantly since then) just under half of all the marriages in Canada ended in divorce. The statistics for Alberta that year were about the same.
Out of a total of 18,096 marriages, there were 8,174 divorces. Anthropologist Nancy Gibson claims that one of the factors contributing to high divorce rates is the high mobility of our nation. Marriages are less likely to remain healthy when couples move far away from family and friends. Dr. Frank Trovato, a University of Alberta sociologist also believes that divorces increase when marriages go through troubled economic times. He said: “If people can’t provide the material things that they’re accustomed to, there may be a certain amount of stress which could possibly lead to conflict in the family and divorce.”1
However, as a pastor, I believe that the high divorce rates are also due to a lack of spiritual commitment on the part of one or both spouses. A lot of people today live in kind of a spiritual void or vacuum. Many would even say that they are not interested in things spiritual. Yet, in my view, all of life is spiritual.
As Christians, we believe that the institution of marriage and the family is rooted in God and thus, divinely ordained. But, be that as it may, how do we as Christians deal with this thorny issue of divorce in our society today? Even closer to home, how do we deal with Christians, members of our own family, our friends, and members of our congregation who are divorced?
In one sense, nobody is “the winner” when a marriage ends in divorce. People who’ve talked with me about divorce often say things like: “Pastor, this is like living in hell;” or: “Pastor, going through divorce is like dying.” The fall-out of divorce has many tragic consequences in our society today. Everything from higher rates of motor vehicle accidents among divorced people; to higher rates of suicide and homicide; to higher rates of crime among youth of divorced parents.
In a lot of cases, the negative experiences: the hurt, the abuse, the anger, the guilt and shame, the feeling of failure, the suffering ~ leave such deep wounds and scars upon divorced persons and their families. In a lot of cases, these deep wounds and scars are not healed for many years. Sometimes the wounds and scars remain for life. For some people, the fall-out from divorce is so devastating that they are never again able to be in a caring, loving, trusting relationship. They become dysfunctional people, unable to cope with the stresses and strains of life.
Now that I’ve given you this rather depressing scenario of divorce in today’s society; what “Good News” might Jesus give us concerning divorce? If we are going to understand our gospel passage today, then it’s necessary to look at some historical background of divorce in biblical times. For centuries, the Jews followed the law of Moses recorded in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. This law allowed a husband to divorce his wife but not a wife to divorce her husband. It was not permissible in Israelite society for a woman to initiate a divorce. However, the Deuteronomic law, interestingly enough, did permit a divorced woman to remarry. But there were limits as to whom she could remarry. For example, she was not permitted to remarry her first husband again if her second husband divorced her or if he died. The original reason for divorce—as Jesus points out—was only on the grounds of adultery. Moses, very insightful about human weaknesses and basic human needs, was more lenient, allowing it due to hardness of heart.
In Jesus’ day, the Jews interpreted this passage from Deuteronomy in at least two quite differing ways. The so-called school of Shammai interpreted it in a very strict, narrow, conservative way. For them, a husband could divorce his wife for one reason alone, only if she was guilty of adultery. The so-called school of Hillel interpreted it in a more open-minded, liberal way. For them, a husband could divorce his wife not only for adultery, but also for a host of trivial reasons. For example, if a wife burnt her husband’s supper, he could divorce his wife. If a wife spoke too loud to her husband and their neighbours heard her, he could divorce her. Rabbi Akiba even said that it was okay for a husband to divorce his wife if he found a more beautiful woman than his wife.
Of course, given the male capacity for lusting after the flesh, it is not too surprising that the school of Hillel became the most popular interpretation. This practice of divorce for trivial reasons led to the abuse of women. Women were reduced to being treated like property that could be disposed of at the whims of men. They were not treated like human beings and certainly not as equals. Jesus knew this and was deeply concerned about the unfair, unjust, abusive practices towards women. It is in this historical context that we need to interpret Christ’s words in our gospel today, which clearly speak against divorce and remarriage. He is not, I don’t believe, speaking against divorce and remarriage to be overly harsh and legalistic. If we think that to be the case, then we misunderstand Jesus and his teaching.
Rather, Jesus approaches this whole issue of divorce and remarriage from a totally different perspective. He was not really focusing on the reasons for divorcing someone. Instead, he goes beyond the Deuteronomic law of Moses ~ back to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24; back to God’s original intention (the ideal) of marriage before the fall in the garden of Eden. This original intention/ideal of God for marriage is nothing but sheer grace. He speaks of the God-intended permanence when two become one flesh, created in God’s image to live together. The unity of the marriage bond was meant to be a God-given gift of grace, which lasted a lifetime. Set in this context, Jesus views marriage not from a human, legal standpoint, which is always looking for loopholes to avoid unpleasant situations. Rather, Jesus views marriage as the grace of God designed to protect both husband and wife from abuses and injustices.
That is all Jesus said about divorce. He does not, I believe, give us easy answers to other thorny questions related to marriage and divorce. He does not specifically address issues like wife or child abuse, verbal-psychological abuse, or alcohol, drug and other addictions. Where then does that leave us? How do church people like us cope and deal with divorce and remarriage? Do we come down on the side of the law or of the gospel? If we’re going to err or sin, I believe that the Spirit of Jesus would have us err or sin on the side of love and mercy, not on the side of judgement and condemnation. I, for one, do not believe that divorce is the unforgivable sin.
From a pastoral perspective, we all need to realize that none of us are above and beyond the tragic possibility of divorce. Moreover, we also all need to realize that in some—not all—cases, divorce in the lesser of sins and evils; in fact it may even turn out to be a blessing for those who have suffered horrific abuses. William Neil once observed:
Christ held up the ideal of companionship for life. It is no longer companionship if there is constant wrangling and bitterness for one reason or another. Things do not always turn out as we hope and plan, and if a marriage has reached the point of no return, common humanity, let alone Christian compassion, would leave the door open for a second chance—which is what the Bible tells us is God’s way with his children.2
I also believe that Jesus’ hard teaching in verses eleven and twelve: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery”: were spoken not to condemn people who divorce and remarry forever. Rather, I interpret these words as an admonition to slow people down. Instead of jumping out of one marriage quickly into another without thinking much about one’s previous marriage; without taking a close look at what went wrong; Jesus wants us to carefully examine our past marriage; to ask ourselves where did I go wrong? He wants us to learn from our past mistakes and yes, our past sins—so that we don’t have to repeat them again.
If we do go through a process of grieving a failed marriage; if we do carefully examine ourselves and learn from our mistakes and come to a point of repentance; then we shall be able to come to peace with the past and move into a future with a fresh, new beginning. It is not the job of the church to judge and condemn divorced and remarried people. We are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. We all make mistakes of one kind or another. Let’s learn and grow from them, do the necessary grieving over the hurts, wounds and scars of a broken marriage, confess and repent where that is appropriate, and make a fresh new beginning. For those of us who are married, let’s always remember our spiritual roots, which nurture and sustain our marriage relationship.
According to R.E. Lybrand: Recent statistics have shown that in homes where husbands and wives read the Bible, pray, and worship together, there is only one divorce in four hundred marriages! Our Christian faith is a firm foundation upon which we are able to build an enduring healthy marriage.3
May we, in the true Spirit of Jesus, seek to build one another up in love and mercy rather than tear them down—especially those among us who are suffering because of divorce or abusive relationships.