Summary: Jesus said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
Every now and then you find yourself tacking a Bible passage that just doesn’t lend itself to starting your sermon with a joke. Today’s Gospel reading is one such passage.
For divorce is no laughing matter, and of course I know that first-hand. Indeed, not only did I experience the divorce of my parents when I was a boy but I grew up to experience it all myself as an adult.
A wise counsellor once said to me that losing your partner is like losing a limb. Sometimes you have to lose a limb to save a body. Nonetheless, the experience is always devastating and soul-destroying and, in my experience, an inordinate amount of that devastation and soul-destruction tends to be meted out by religious people, speaking and acting on behalf of God.
In the case of my parents, I saw my mother more or less ex-communicated by her church - labelled, maligned and abandoned. And in the case of my father, who was an employee of the Diocese at the time, he lost his reputation, many of his friends, and his job.
In the breakdown of my own first marriage, thankfully I fared somewhat better than did of my parents. Even so, I lost a great number of friends - all good Christians of course - and, if you’ve ever wondered why, after almost 20 years in this parish I am still technically a casual so far as the Diocese is concerned, it is because I have been divorced and (worse still) have remarried!
If you work for other organisations, you might not necessarily get a lot of sympathy if your family falls apart, but you don’t normally get crucified, as happens so often in the church. And in truth, the most horrible treatment I have ever seen divorced and broken people subjected to has always been at the hands of solid members of the church!
Why is it that the most judgemental, self-righteous, intolerant and unsympathetic people always seem to be church members? Well, perhaps it all starts here, in this passage in Mark 10, in the apparently inflexible, intolerant and judgemental statements of Jesus Himself - that marriage is forever and that ’whoever divorces his or her partner and marries another commits adultery against them’!
Could this really be Jesus, the friend of the weak and the marginalised? For it would appear at first glance that Jesus is far less concerned here with the weak than He is with the law - an approach that we would normally associate far more readily with Jesus’ fundamentalist opponents here (the Pharisees) than would with Him!
Yet Jesus, it seems, is laying down the law, and I can almost hear the chorus of Bible-believing fundamentalists crowding in behind this passage now:
’Could Jesus have put it more plainly? Divorce is wrong. It is always wrong! Marriage is forever. There are no escape clauses, and it doesn’t matter what level of immorality or abuse or mutual destruction is taking place in the family home. For indeed, the person who divorces one partner and marries another is in fact not only guilty of violating the created order of relationships but is further guilty of adultery! Why? Well, obviously because the original marriage is still valid in the eyes of God! That’s why! Those whom God has joined together, let not man put asunder! Jesus has spoken!
And yet this all seems so uncharacteristic of Jesus - not only because He seems to be putting the boot in to people who are hurting, but because we are not used to seeing Jesus lay down the law in a way that puts the written code above human need.
Is there another way of understanding this dialogue? I think there is, and I think it begins with taking this dialogue in its context.
As we used to say in Bible college, ’a text without a context is a pretext for a proof-text’. In other words, you can get the Bible to say anything you like if you take isolated verses like this out of context, and the first step we need to take if we are going to take these words of Jesus seriously is to look at them in the context in which they are given, which in this case means seeing them in the context of a dialogue where Jesus’ opponents are trying to trick Him.
Some Pharisees came to him and tried to trap him. "Tell us," they asked, "does our Law allow a man to divorce his wife?" (Mark 10:2)
That’s how our scene opened - with the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus, and if we know the Gospels at all we know that this is not the first time. Indeed, like the wily coyote forever trying to catch the road-runner, the Pharisees were constantly trying to come up with new devices that they could use to ensnare Jesus (and like the coyote, most of their tricks blew up in their faces)!