Summary: How to make sense out of ideals that are absolute and forgiveness that is complete when it comes to the issue of divorce.
If you were to go home and sit down to write the last chapter of your life, what would you write? Our lives are full of experiences, some good and some difficult. This morning, we gather as Christians, some having experienced divorce, and most all of us have parents, children, brothers, sisters, or friends who have become divorced. If we were to write a last chapter for our lives, would we write that we or they were divorced?
Why? I think it is because we believe in a God who takes broken lives and, through His mercy and forgiveness, He gives people new lives and new beginnings. In Christ all things are made new and are possible! In Christ we offer our lives to Him, and He can choose to use us to love others, lead others and share our faith stories with others, regardless of our past.
I will not try to assess the history of how Christians and churches have dealt with this passage on divorce. We can take a very hard line becoming judges without grace; we can take a hard line on divorce and then recognize failed relationships and give it another name where there is grace and new beginnings; or we can call divorce a failure of relationships, a failure to fully meet God’s ideal, but still offer complete forgiveness and the possibility of a new life and new relationships. The latter is how I think God relates to us. Total honesty. Total healing. Total forgiveness.
How then do we deal with this very harsh sounding passage from the Gospel of Mark? Is condemnation the only interpretation, or do we dismiss it completely?
Will Willimon comments, "When we think of Jesus, we are conditioned to think of him as loving, by which we mean Jesus is open, warm, and accepting, particularly toward us. In his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom claims that we Americans have one predominant faith and that is that God really, really likes us, that God is thrilled to be with us on any occasion, and that God couldn’t be happier with our moral progress. We’ve come a long way from Jonathan Edward’s sermon, "Sinner In the Hands of an Angry God." We are "basically good people in the embrace of a completely permissive God."(1)
This attitude is obviously a very permissive attitude that says what we do doesn’t matter. I don’t think that is right. On the other extreme is the view that says you break one law or certain laws and you are forever judged and limited in your worth and value to God. I don’t think either of these views represent the way that Jesus dealt with people, forgiveness and what life could become for them.
In our text in this tenth chapter of Mark Jesus voiced his profound concern for stable family life and for children. In Roman society, marriage had one purpose, to provide a legal heir who would inherit a man’s property. In Jewish society, men could divorce their wives for any reason, but wives had no such right without their husband’s consent. It is said that if a woman burned the toast or some other equally nit-picking complaint, that a man could divorce his wife. In vv.10-12, Jesus put women on an equal footing.
How is it that Jesus who seemed to frequently trouble the Pharisees by breaking many laws that they followed now takes the hard line when asked about divorce? Jesus broke their Sabbath laws by healing people or picking grain on the Sabbath. He was the friend of sinners and went to their homes.
In ancient societies marriage meant a guarantee of support for the most vulnerable members of the society, the women and children. Without the protection of the laws against divorce, women and children were totally at the mercy of their husbands and fathers. In criticizing those who advocated easy divorce (and there were many in Israel who did so in his day), Jesus puts himself on the side of the weak and the vulnerable.
Jesus justifies his tough position against divorce and remarriage by an appeal to the creation in Genesis 1. God intends that married people stay together. God is on the side of unity, community, and togetherness. Our world would be a heartless, unstable, and chaotic place without the order and stability of people who show enduring commitment to one another "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, until death do us part." With the rate of marital separation in our society, with poorly enforced child support laws, our world has become unglued for many, and it’s the children who suffer. Jesus reminds us, "From the beginning it was not this way."
Notice that the very next words of Jesus are about the love and care of children. What he says against divorce and what he says for children in today’s Gospel are related. It would be a sad perversion for the church today to take what Jesus said against marital breakup and use it to beat up on those persons who, for various reasons, have decided to end their marriage and separate, as if divorce were the one unforgivable sin. Marital separation hurts people, and hurting, vulnerable people are those who are especially loved by Jesus. I once heard a preacher say in a Mother’s Day sermon that, if a woman in an abusive relationship loved her husband enough, then he wouldn’t continue to abuse her or the children. I was stunned and angry. This text and this sermon should not be used to put guilt on a person who needs to end an abusive relationship that destroys your health, your self-worth and puts you and your children at risk.