Every preacher who follows the weekly readings in the lectionary knows that there are some passages in the Bible that you can’t read in public without preaching on them. Today’s gospel reading is one of those passages. I need to speak about this reading, because for some of us in church today, these words of Jesus will come across as words of condemnation and not words of hope. And while it isn’t part of my job as a preacher to protect you from the words of Jesus, it is part of my job to make sure we’ve heard those words accurately.
So let’s start by acknowledging that, for many of us, Jesus’ words that we heard a moment ago were very painful. For some of us here today, who are living with the pain of very difficult marriages, his words seemed to close a potential escape hatch for us. For some of us who have been divorced and are now remarried, his words seem to condemn us to living in sin for the rest of our lives. Some of us have a different kind of pain; we have been the victims of frivolous divorce. We didn’t abuse our spouses or cheat on them; they simply found someone younger and better looking than us, and so we were traded in for a newer model. And some of us are the children of divorce, grappling with the fact that statistically this increases our chances of through divorce ourselves. I use the word ‘us’ rather than ‘you’, because I don’t want to give anyone the impression that they are being preached at this morning. We are all in this together, trying to understand these words of Jesus and apply them to our lives.
Jesus is wanting to spare us pain by teaching us how to live in accordance with God’s original intention for us. We need to try to find a way to hear this text today as a word of life and grace, not condemnation. So let’s turn in our Bibles to Mark 10:1-12 and take a closer look at it.
First, let’s ask the question ‘whose marriage is in view here?’ In Tom Wright’s book Mark for Today I found this very helpful story:
In Britain during the early 1990’s, from time to time a journalist would telephone a bishop or theologian to ask about divorce. It happened to me once… But of course the journalists weren’t wanting to write a piece about the church’s attitude to divorce in general. They were wanting to write about Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Once it became clear that their marriage was in real trouble the journalists never left it alone for a minute. Anyone trying to pronounce on the broader question of divorce would at once be seized on: ‘Are you then saying that Prince Charles…?’
A similar thing is happening in this Gospel passage. The apparent question is not the real question. Let me point out the clues for you. First, we’re told in verse 2 that the Pharisees came to Jesus ‘to test him’. Usually this phrase is used when Jesus’ enemies are trying to trick him into saying things that will get him into trouble with the authorities. Second, in verse 12 Jesus says ‘if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’. But in Jewish law a woman could not divorce her husband; only the man could initiate a divorce, so why would Jesus even mention it here?
Verse 1 says that this story takes place in ‘the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan’. This was the area where John the Baptist used to work, and if you know the gospel story you’ll remember that John the Baptist had gotten into trouble because of his comments about the adulterous marriage of King Herod Antipas and his wife Herodias. Both Herod and Herodias had been married before – Herodias to Herod’s own brother. But they had met and become infatuated with one another, and so Herodias had left her husband and used the provisions of Roman law to divorce him. Herod had also divorced his wife, and the two had then married each other. This was an enormous issue in Jesus’ time; strict Jews said that Herod could not possibly be God’s anointed king because he had flouted God’s law in this way.
Can you see now what a deadly ‘test’ the Pharisees are placing before Jesus? A negative comment on this situation would not only be a criticism of the King but might also be interpreted as an act of treason, a pronouncement that Herod was not fit to be king. John the Baptist had paid for that kind of statement with his life.
This is the context for Jesus’ remarks here. He isn’t being asked whether a woman who is the victim of repeated abuse should stay in her marriage, or whether a man whose wife has committed adultery against him over and over again should keep on giving her more chances. Rather, he is referring to two married people who divorced their spouses and married each other for no other reason than that they got a better offer. In other words, it’s frivolous divorce and remarriage that Jesus has in view.
Let’s go on to ask the question ‘what is marriage anyway?’ The Pharisees may be testing Jesus, but he turns around and tests them back: ‘What did Moses command you?’. In their answer they refer to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. This is a very obscure text, which basically says that if a man divorces his wife because he finds something unclean about her, and if she then marries someone else and he divorces her as well, the first husband isn’t to take her back. Why, you ask? I’ve no idea!
However, Jesus’ point is that this is an inadequate answer to the question of what Moses had to say about marriage and divorce, because it doesn’t take us back to first principles of what a marriage actually is. For that we need to go back to the first two chapters of Genesis, which Jesus quotes from: “But from the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female’. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (vv.5-6). In Jesus’ view, these verses record God’s original intentions around marriage.
I need to stop at this point and say that I am not going to make any comment today on the topic of gay and lesbian marriages. There are two reasons for this. First, that’s a big subject which would very quickly take up the rest of the sermon and leave no room for a discussion of anything else. And second, that’s not what Jesus was being asked about here. He was being asked about heterosexual divorce, not homosexual marriage. I’m not trying to avoid the question; I’m trying to set the text in its original context, in a society in which, rightly or wrongly, the possibility of gay and lesbian marriages was never contemplated. I hope no one will read into my silence anything more than that.
So, if Jesus is taking us back to God’s original plan, what’s in the plan? First, it is monogamous; despite later Old Testament stories about polygamy, Genesis teaches that God’s original intent was for one man and one woman to form a marriage. Second, it is their primary commitment: they are to leave their parents and be joined to each other, which means that their first loyalty from now on will be to the new family unit they are creating together. Third, it is sacramental, by which I mean that the physical action of the joining of their bodies in sexual union is a symbol of the deeper joining of their lives as ‘one flesh’. Fourth, it is intended to be permanent: ‘What God has joined together, let no one separate’ (v.9).
This is God’s original purpose for us. Jesus’ intent here is to show us that marriage is not just a legal contract that can be revoked at will if you can afford a good lawyer; rather, it is a deep, mystical, sacramental union. That is why a breakup is so painful. The two have become one flesh; a breakup produces, not two people, but two halves which have been painfully ripped apart.
Sometimes if you’re walking through a trackless forest you can get lost. When that happens, a good thing to do is to climb a tall tree, get above the forest cover, and get your bearings again on the sun and the landmarks. That’s what Jesus is doing for us here. It’s easy for us to get lost in the daily little struggles of marriage or the intricacies of divorce law, and to forget what God called us to in the first place. Jesus is giving us an opportunity to climb a tree, get our bearings, and remind ourselves of God’s original plan.
So what about divorce? Where does it fit in to this plan?
Imagine parents trying to teach their children to clean up their rooms. Suppose Mum and Dad establish a rule: ‘If your room has been messy for seven days, your sister can clean it up and then bill you for her services’. A lazy child might seize on this rule, and exclaim “Ah – so it’s okay for me not to clean up my room as long as I pay my sister to do it!” No, the child has missed the point. That provision is not part of the original plan, which is that you learn to clean up your own room! Rather, it’s a concession, added because of your hardness of heart and to avoid fungal growths on your dirty clothing!
This is what biblical divorce law is all about. It’s not describing God’s original intention. Rather, it is a concession to human sinfulness; as Jesus says, ‘Because of your hardness of heart (Moses) wrote this commandment for you’ (v.5). It was a recognition that because of human brokenness, God’s ideal is never fully achieved, and in some cases the situation causes so much harm that dissolution is the only solution. But still, dissolution was not God’s plan; permanent commitment and lifelong faithfulness were what God wanted to see.
Are Jesus’ words here a total ban on divorce and remarriage? Some Christians say so, but I personally have my doubts, for a couple of reasons. First, as we’ve seen, the original context seems to have in mind a particular kind of divorce and remarriage – that which is exemplified in the actions of Herod and Herodias. This is a situation where a husband or wife falls in love with someone else, and divorces his or her partner for no other reason than to be free to marry the object of his or her new infatuation.
Second, the other Gospels record a qualification here. In Matthew 19 the question the Pharisees ask Jesus is ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause’ (v.3), and Jesus says to his disciples ‘Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery’ (v.9). ‘Unchastity’ here refers to sexual immorality. Even the strictest of the Pharisees allowed for divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery, and apparently, according to Matthew, Jesus did too. I suspect he would have allowed for it in cases of abuse as well.
What about us? How do we apply this passage to our lives? Let me conclude with some words of application.
First, this passage is teaching us that the sort of love and intimacy we yearn for is best achieved in a lifelong, faithful, monogamous union with one person. Many people today don’t seem to believe this. We’ve all heard the news about the hundreds of thousands of people who signed up to the Ashley Madison website and its slogan ‘Life is short – have an affair’. To many people whose marriages seem stale and boring to them, the idea of having an affair seems exciting, but the excitement of unfaithfulness is short lived, and the pain that follows lasts forever. Have you read Tolstoi’s brilliant novel Anna Karenina? It’s probably the best novel about marriage and adultery ever written, and in it you’ll see the truth depicted in all its stark reality.
Second, this passage shows us that marriage is a way of discipleship. It’s important to say this, because sometimes in Christian history the church has implied that celibacy, especially in monks and nuns, is a higher way of following Jesus. This section of Mark’s Gospel shows us Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, teaching his disciples about denying themselves, taking up their cross and following him. Marriage requires enormous quantities of this self-denial: we have to die to our own preferences and desires, learn to serve our spouses, and so become more like Jesus. As Gary Thomas says, the purpose of our marriage is not just to make us happy but to make us holy.
Thirdly, this passage challenges us to rule out frivolous divorce as an option for us. Some time ago I sat across the table from a friend of mine; he had left his wife a year or so ago, and had recently moved into a common law relationship with another woman. He told me “The feeling has completely gone from my marriage; there’s nothing left”. Well, I have to tell you that this is not a biblical reason for divorce. In the Bible, marriage is based on service and action, not feelings. In many cases where it looks hopeless, it really isn’t.
But in some cases, as we’ve seen, Scripture does seem to allow for divorce; Jesus specifically names the ground of adultery in Matthew 19:9. These are not frivolous divorces in which I simply trade my partner in for a newer model. Rather, they are serious situations in which the marriage has been broken by unfaithfulness, by violence, or something similar.
What about those of us who are on our second marriages, and who came to them by way of divorce? I think it is important for us to remember the Gospel, which tells us that God starts with us where we are. So our call is to strive to make what Jesus says about marriage here a reality in our lives: to live that committed, lifelong, one flesh union with our spouse as a way of faithful Christian discipleship.
Finally, let me refer you to Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, a passage I often use at weddings:
‘Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken’.
To me it is clear that this ‘threefold cord’ refers to the help of God, and it can be applied to marriage, in which God and the couple are partners together. So let’s not be afraid to call on God’s help. God has a huge stake in the success of marriages. Furthermore, Jesus is able to heal our hard-heartedness and give us strength to serve one another in his name. So for those of us who are married, let us live out our marriages in God’s sight, call on God’s help, strive toward God’s best for us, and look forward to the day when all our brokenness is healed in the Kingdom of God.