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Sermon – October 4, 2009: Divorce

 

Sermon for Sunday, October 4, 2009 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Divorce

Job 1: 1, 2: 1-10; Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2: 5-12; Mark 10: 2-16

There are three readings every week for purposes of preaching, and this week’s

lectionary introduces two interesting and somewhat offbeat books which we have relatively

little chance to address, the Book of Job from the Old Testament and that of Hebrews from

the New. I am not going to get a chance to talk about either of them today, however,

because the gospel lesson given us is the one in which Jesus challenges the acceptability

of divorce, and puts strictures on it in strong language. It, and parallel passages from other

gospels, are the scriptural basis for Christianity’s long-standing antagonism to the dissolution

of marriages, and how can we deal with any of the other topics introduced by the other

scriptures when this matter is so close to our hearts? We have loved ones who have been

divorced, and in many cases we are divorced ourselves, and certainly in some cases we

know people whom we regret haven’t gotten divorced, as well as, perhaps, knowing

people whom we wish had stayed married.

The first thing to say is that religious law, including the one at issue in this dialogue

between Jesus and those testing his religious perspective, is like other law in that it

establishes rigid, universal expectations which it knows will not be able to be met in every

case, and that appropriate response to the law’s not being kept will depend on

circumstances. That sounds like we’re talking out of both sides of our mouth, but law always

does this, and has to: and the reason we don’t always perceive it is that the two messages

are not delivered at the same time. Law couldn’t be law if it weren’t presented as though

there were no room for negotiation; and law couldn’t be applied if there were no way to

take into account the countless and unpredictable factors which undermine its applicability in

the real world. So rules are set and nobody hints that they may be flexible; and when they

fail their end of controlling what happens in human give-and-take, then there is some

judgment made about how strictly to construe any wrongdoing, and how harshly to find fault.

Jesus himself acts this way. He will intensify the demands of religious duty, in for

example saying that calling another a “fool” is liable to judgment, or in his attitude to divorce,

when it is a matter of teaching. In his interactions with people who are publicly identified as

sinners, however, he resists judging them and criticizes others who do, and he is so ready

to offer forgiveness and fresh starts that he scandalizes other religious people.

Ours is a society which has decided to make divorce more easily obtained, and to

remove from its other attendant worries the need to establish guilt. People may divorce

without anyone’s being charged with any misdeed, and so people will divorce in the

absence of anyone’s having done anything particularly wrong, and that’s the way it is. I’m

 

not saying that a particular divorce wasn’t motivated by powerful inducements of

 

 

 

misbehavior, just that no divorce need be based on that. Divorce was likewise accessible

in Jesus’ own day, and the question raised to Jesus is whether its having become

something easy was in accord with God’s will for people.

This gets at what religion is for Jesus. It is possible to conceive religion as primarily

concerned with rituals, observances, matters of purity and impurity, with God’s chief

characteristic a holiness indignant at poor religious practices. That’s how Jesus’ opponents

often seem to regard religion, with their criticism of Jesus’ disciples for eating without

washing their hands, or their suspicion of Jesus’ willingness to risk the contamination of the

company of sinners.

Jesus, instead, regarded religion as the way God wanted human beings, whom

God loves, to live together. He thought food laws insignificant compared with the duty to

be compassionate. He told the story of the Good Samaritan to value kindness over

religious scruples or religious claims, and the story of the Prodigal Son to value mercy and

redemption over even righteous judgment. What God wanted, from Jesus’ perspective,

was for people to care for each other.

Jesus regarded marriage as essentially indissoluble because he believed that God

had created it for the well-being of both parties to it. What divorce meant in his day was a

man’s putting a woman away so that he would have no more responsibility for her. That, in

fact, is what we are told that Jesus’ own father had intended to do about Jesus’ own mother,

when he discovered that she was with child before their marriage. Joseph’s right to do that

would have been because he was being imposed upon, there was evidence of another

man in the picture, and Jesus, in this gospel, allows the same justification. But the

consequences for a woman being abandoned in the first century among the predominant

peasantry were dire. Woman’s work was economically vital within families, but not

commercially viable outside. Single females were at a great disadvantage, which is evident

from the Bible’s constant concern for the well-being of widows. Immoral expedients could

be hard to resist, and doubtless that fact has something to do with the many women Jesus

encounters who are not respectable.

We live in a much more affluent society, and one in which it is far likelier that both

partners to a marriage can make a living. Still there are significant economic disruptions

around divorce, and both the wealth existing within family networks and the social

obligations connected with family networks suffer by divorce. And even with all that being

true, getting a divorce clearly presents itself as the best and usually only choice for millions

of people, because for reasons of personality or circumstance, continuing in the marriage is

impossible. We all know that. But since we also know that our faith takes a stance counter

to the easy availability of divorce, we have to see why.

The one sided, man-favoring reality of divorce in Jesus’ time was one of the

reasons. The lack of social opportunities to replace the security of marriage was another. A

 

third is connected with the first things I said about laws provided for the management of life,

 

 

 

and that is, no matter how sympathetically they may be applied, and what realistic and

practical modifications may be brought to bear on behalf of people for whom they do not

work, it is in the nature of such things that they be deemed absolutes. It is part of their logic

that they admit no alternatives from the start. They are obligations, and can only have the

weight of obligations if they are regarded as nonnegotiable.

Now the situation is that marriage is agreed to as lasting until one of the partners dies,

but sometimes divorce ends the marriage instead, and it is regarded as regrettable. The

premise remains that marriage is a good thing and good for people when it manages to be

what it should be, and so it’s too bad when it doesn’t work out. This makes people have at

least a slightly bad conscience about divorce, even when it seems like it’s not due to them

at all. Christianity is much more about freeing people from guilt than imposing guilt–Jesus,

again, is more criticized for presumptuous generosity with God’s forgiveness than he is

questioned about severity–but postures like the one Jesus has regarding marriage mean

that people are going to at least initially feel bad about divorce.

The alternative, however, has its own problems. The only way to avoid feeling like

one has failed in a marriage is to make marriage less demanding. If marriage were to be

made provisional, if it were defined as lasting only as long as both people should love–

which some couples want to rewrite the words to, in order never to feel any responsibility if

it should falter–then it would make marriage not only less difficult but less rewarding for

people who enter it. The possible and presumed permanence of marriage offers security

emotionally, socially, and economically. When the problems within a marriage are the sort

which can be resolved, the expectation of marriage’s being binding can make persons

endure difficulty long enough to discover a new beginning, and its demands can give

people the opportunity to discover deeper levels of character and contentment than could

be reached otherwise.

We are in this position. We don’t want the people we love who divorce to suffer

religiously along with whatever troubles divorce has meant for them, so we’re glad that the

ordinary means of making our peace with ourselves and our pasts applies here as

elsewhere. On the other hand, we want the people we love who are going to marry to be

marrying someone who will understand marriage as a binding agreement, and feel

constrained by vows and promises to put aside an individual perspective to adopt one

including the well-being both of mate and of the soundness of the marriage. Although it is

hard for marriages to end, most of us, I think, would want for our grandchildren or greatgrandchildren

the possibility of entering the sort of life-defining marriage which, when it can

overcome its obstacles and injuries, makes something of people and well as providing

something for people.