Jesus and Divorce

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was Mark 10:2-16. You may wish to go ahead and read that now — more than usual, this sermon depends on people having just heard it.

This is not an easy gospel passage to hear. It’s tempting for me to just focus on the part of this gospel about children. But you all heard the first part. You all heard what Jesus said about divorce, and some of you probably found those words very hard to hear.

Divorce touches most of us. Perhaps you yourself have gone through a divorce, or perhaps your parents did, or your child, or a close friend. You may know that divorce is painful. That it is not easy. You may also know that it is nevertheless sometimes the best thing to do. And you may know all too well the judgment that so often comes along with divorce. The stares. The whispered words. The assumptions of blame. And you may know all too well the guilt that comes from inside. The questions we ask of ourselves: Was it all my fault? What could I have done differently? Will my friends abandon me? What about the vow I made to God? Will God forgive me? And what if I find true love later? Can I get married again? Can I make those same vows again?

And it sounds like Jesus is just adding to that guilt. “Moses wrote a commandment about divorce because of your hardness of heart,” he says. He says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

But let’s listen closer. The Pharisees asked Jesus a question, and he doesn’t actually answer their question. Jesus actually changes the subject a bit. Let’s listen. The Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” You see, there was a debate going on at the time within Judaism. They all knew divorce was lawful. But the more liberal rabbis said that a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all, even if she burnt dinner. The conservatives taught that you could only divorce your wife if she was unfaithful. Of course, both taught that only men could initiate divorce, because after all, women were considered the property of their husband.

The Pharisees were trying to get Jesus to pick a side. Jesus didn’t do that. He didn’t say, “Here are the circumstances under which a man may divorce his wife.”

Instead, he said, when two people marry, “they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” And because the Pharisees were talking about laws and commandments, it’s easy to hear Jesus’ words as another commandment: thou shalt not get divorced. But that’s not what he said. He said, it is God’s will that people are joined together. It is not God’s will that people separate.

And that’s no surprise if we know the words of Jesus. Jesus said the law and the prophets can be summarized in two commands: love God above all else, and love your neighbor as yourself. We know that it is God’s will to bring us together into communities, into loving relationships. It is God’s will that we are nourished by our relationships, that we find love and strength and inspiration in them. And so God mourns when a marriage falters and fails. Divorce, after all, is a symptom. Divorce is not what breaks marriages apart. Divorce is not what starts the pain. It’s the result of the marriage already falling apart, a symptom of the pain that is already there. And so of course God mourns when divorce happens. Of course divorce is not part of God’s will. Because the already-broken relationship is not part of God’s will.

And God understands what it is to have a broken relationship, because that’s what God has experienced with us all, over and over again, from the earliest Israelites to the church of today. All of God’s people, including you and me, have failed in our relationship with God, and God mourns that. That’s precisely what sin is; sin is anything that takes us from our relationship with God. But we also know what God does with sin. God forgives us. God has forgiven us, forgives us now, and will always forgive us. There is always a second chance with God. Jesus taught us that. Jesus showed us that.

And so when Jesus says that remarriage after divorce is adultery, he’s simply speaking the truth. You made promises to that first spouse that you are no longer honoring. By definition, that is adultery. Now there may be very, very good reasons for that. You may have a deeper love now than you ever had before. And that is good, very good! But the truth remains, you are no longer honoring those original promises. Your life is no longer pristine and perfect. You are a sinner. But guess what? You already were a sinner. And guess what else? You are forgiven, and you are given a new chance, a new life. A new hope. If Jesus’ words here hurt, remember other things that Jesus said. He said, “Father, forgive them,” as the Roman soldiers nailed his hands and feet. And remember other things that Jesus did. On that cross, he provided that forgiveness for us all. And from the empty tomb, he provided new life for us all.

Certainly God wants loving, caring, supportive marriages. God does not want divorce to happen, because God does not want the conditions that lead to divorce to happen. But we live in a broken world, a world not altogether in tune with God’s will. And we have to do the best we can in this broken world. And sometimes, the best we can involves very painful choices. That’s what Martin Luther meant when he wrote, “Sin boldly.” He meant that there are some choices in life that are so difficult because any way we go it seems like we sin. He said, in those times, figure out the best solution among those choices, and do it boldly. “Sin boldly” doesn’t mean proudly do the wrong thing; it means boldly do the best you can do in an impossible situation, knowing that your choice could be wrong. He actually wrote, “Sin boldly, but trust in God more boldly still.” Trust that no matter what choice you make, God’s grace and mercy will be waiting for you on the other side. Divorce is not something to enter into lightly, and neither are marriage, or remarriage. They all should be entered with prayer and thought and humility. We never know for sure if what we do is the right thing, including those huge life choices. But we know, we trust above all else, that God is with us, guiding us, and forgiving us when we fail. And we know that while we all struggle with being faithful to one another, and we all struggle with being faithful to God, God never fails at being faithful with us. We can always, always trust in that.

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