Summary: In a society where half of marriages end in divorce, what do Jesus' words mean for us? And what's heaven going to look like when most have been married multiple times?
A judge was interviewing a woman regarding her pending divorce, and asked, "Ma'am, what are the grounds for your divorce?"
She replied, "About four acres with a nice house in the middle."
"No," he said, "I mean what is the foundation of this case?"
"Concrete, brick and mortar," she responded.
Frustrated, he continued, "I mean, what are your relations like?"
"Well, I have an aunt and uncle living here in town, and my husband’s parents also live here."
Shaking his head, he said, "Do you have a real grudge?"
"No," she replied, "We have a carport and have never really needed one."
"Please," he took a deep breath and tried again, "is there any infidelity in your marriage?"
"Oh, yes, both my son and daughter have stereos. We don’t necessarily like the music, but the answer to your question is yes."
"Ma’am, does your husband ever beat you up?"
"Yes, about twice a week he gets up earlier than I do."
Finally, in frustration, the judge asked, "Lady, why do you want a divorce?"
"Oh, I don’t want a divorce," she replied. "I’ve never wanted a divorce. It's my husband who wants a divorce. He says he can’t communicate with me." (1)
A little levity helps as we struggle with today’s difficult Gospel text.
Unlike most pastors, I love weddings. I officiated at my first wedding when I was an intern in Colton, South Dakota. Even though I was diligent in counseling the couple before the big day, their marriage didn’t even last a year. In fact, almost half of the weddings I have performed did not lead in lifelong marriages. And, in every one of those weddings, I said the words Jesus says in today's text, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”
A few years ago, George Barna’s research group did a lot of research about marriage and divorce. They gathered statistics about all sorts of things (far too many to mention here). Here are a few statistics that may interest us: the divorce rate for Christians is a full 1% lower than it is for non-Christians (and there have been times in recent history when it's actually be higher than it is for non-Christians). Baptists have 4% more divorces than other Protestants. And this one was particularly surprising: there are slightly more divorces in people ages 52-73 than other ages. (2)
So what went wrong? In a word, Sin. Before there was divorce, there was sin. In marriage as in all relationships, there are sins like taking each other for granted, sins like selfishness, arrogance, and pride. And sometimes lust and bearing false witness and hateful words and actions. These sins are part of marriage because they are part of life.
With a divorce rate in our country of almost 50%, many have just thrown up their hands and said, “why even try to fight it.” Others say, “let’s make it harder to get married and easier to get divorced.” Some couples I have talked to actually have the attitude of “I take you to be my spouse until it’s no longer convenient". Others choose to be in relationships that look like marriage, but aren't.
I believe that the words in our Gospel lesson today are meant for us as teaching rather than judgment. That’s important because, then and now, it is more likely that these words are used to condemn rather than to teach. When I was growing up, divorce was something whispered about. Someone who was divorced was often trusted less than someone who wasn’t. Society engaged in shaming the divorced. It may have seemed like it at the time, but divorce is not the unforgivable sin. Historically (then and now), the marriage commitment has been taken too lightly. In the time of Jesus, a man could divorce his wife if he didn’t like what she made for dinner. If she got a few wrinkles or gained some weight she could be cast aside. And, by the way, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, at that time, only wives of nobility could divorce their husbands; most women could not.(3) In this text, Jesus is reminding us that marriage is a triple-braided commitment – two people and God, the commitment referred to in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 – and that commitment is not merely bound by law but, because spouses become one flesh, the commitment is also bound by blood. And blood is stronger than law.
In the big picture, Scripture doesn’t tell us much about this. Divorce is mentioned just 30 times (compared with love – 872 times, fear – 524 times, money – 186 times). (4) The strongest words about divorce are actually in Malachi where God says, “I hate divorce” and encourages the youth to lead lives of faithfulness. Now I think most -- if not all -- of us in this room could say, “I hate divorce,” whether or not we personally have gone through one. Divorce transforms those who promised to love each other forever into adversaries, each trying to get a “fair” portion of the material elements of their life together, not to mention fighting over kids and pets. Some of us have experienced it. Others have watched friends or family members struggle through it. It is not something to be taken lightly. Even when there has been abuse or addiction or infidelity, divorce is never easy or fun. But it is forgivable! Our culture sometimes forgets that, so let me repeat it: the sins leading to divorce are forgivable, and divorce is forgivable.