May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
This gospel reading comes up everything three years about this time and it makes more people squirm than any other – even the one I shared last week where Jesus encouraged the cutting off of body parts that lead you into sin. Why? It's because if you personally are not a divorced person then certainly you have experienced divorce either within your family or close friends. On the surface, Jesus' teaching here seems to be a condemnation of everyone who is in that situation – that adultery is rampant and event okayed in our world because we have so many people who are divorced and remarried. If you are like me you wonder how Jesus could be so condemning of so many people?
I don't think that he is, and the reason is that the culture in which Jesus lived was so different than ours that these words cannot, on their surface understanding, be applied to many of the divorces and marriages that we experience today. There are four things that you should consider in this matter:
1. The ancient world was extremely patriarchal, and wives were regarded as the property of their husbands. Among Jews, technically only the husband could divorce his wife. In Roman society, a wife could divorce her husband, which explains why Jesus added the admonition to wives who divorce their husbands in verse 12.
2. Marriages were not based on love between two persons but on property, status and honor considerations between two families. Divorce, therefore, could be complicated. A whole section of the rabbinic writings called the “Mishnah” was dedicated to this topic.
3. Jews regarded Romans and other non-Jews as having weaker standards regarding marriage, marital fidelity and divorce. However, the exploits of the line of Herods as kings showed that even the Jews were capable of using marriage, infidelity and divorce to manipulate political and status advantages.
4. The main Old Testament text for Jewish positions on divorce is Deuteronomy 24:1-4. This is what the Pharisees cite when Jesus asks them what Moses teaches about divorce. This text, however, is most concerned that a woman should not remarry her first husband after she has been married to a second man.
Now I don't want to claim that we have the perfect model for marriage in the 21st century, but you can see that it is quite different than the model in the 1st century in the Middle East. Probably the best way to glean something from Jesus' words that is applicable for us here and now is to explore why he shares these thoughts in the first place. He is approached by Pharisees – the religious lawyers of his day – in order to test him. This is not an opportunity to see where a person stands on a controversial issue; this is an out and out attempt to sabotage someone's credibility. They ask Jesus if it is LAWFUL for a MAN to divorce his WIFE. Notice that they don't ask him how he feels about divorce, which camp he is in, whether he leans toward the liberal Hillel rabbinic teachings that say that a man can issue a certificate of divorce to his wife because she has bad cooking skills, or if he identifies more with the conservative Shammai camp which says a man can only divorce a woman in cases of infidelity or other serious immoralities. They merely ask if it is lawful, and there is no way for a person to answer that question without making someone angry with them.
But Jesus refuses to get involved in such a debate, and says that if anything is lawful in divorce it is because the Israelites forced Moses into creating this law. God's laws do not support divorce, separation or the death of anything (including marriages) in any way. God's laws from the very beginning are in support of life and relationship and equality in partnerships between human beings, especially husbands and wives. If we love each other strictly by the rules of law then love ceases to be love! Certainly there is a measure of law in our loving relationships to hold us accountable to each other, but in our love there is present not only law but also the free gift of grace, and speaking personally as an imperfect husband, father and human being, thanks be to God for the presence of grace so that I may be forgiven and restored when I mess up in my relationships!
I think that the harshness of Jesus' words are intended to wake these folks out of their worldview that some people are property, to be legislated, kept or disposed of at the whim of those who are in power over them. Women are not property, and God's intention from Genesis that husband and wife becomes as one flesh, suitable partner in life with the person that they marry, is Jesus' point. And in the last four verses where he welcomes children and encourages others to do the same, Jesus is making the same point. Children are not property, but God's creatures who are to be loved and nurtured, raised and blessed as gifts from God to mothers and fathers and their families.
In considering Jesus' thoughts on divorce and children in the first century and what he might say about these things in today's culture, it is important to consider his life and ministry as a whole. Jesus calls a sin a sin – he knows the law and adheres to it himself as God's son. Separation and death whenever it happens – especially within relationships that God created and blessed – is never the intention or wishes of God, and it always grieves God when it happens. God's law is clear, and divorce is not part of it. We live with the consequences of our decisions – good and bad – everyday, and divorce brings consequences for our selves, our children, our extended families, our finances, etc.
In the midst of that reality, the grace of a loving God confronts us in our guilt and says, “I still desire life for you. I still desire good relationships for you in order to have partners in life suitable for you. I still desire joy for you. I forgive you and all who fell short in this relationship that caused it to die. Now experience the resurrection of Christ and live in love toward others.”
On October 4 of 1226, Francis of Assisi died and every year the church remembers him on this day. He was a child of a very wealthy cloth merchant, but in a public confrontation with his father, he renounced his wealth and future inheritance and devoted himself to serving the poor. Frances described this act as being “wedded to Lady Poverty.” In this marriage, Francis literally took Jesus words seriously about not taking anything with you when you go out on a journey to share the good news of Jesus and to accept no payment for your work. The love that Francis had for Jesus and for his wife, lady poverty, was lived out in his preaching which, as he said, “used words when necessary” – in other words, his message was preached in his actions.
Francis was unlike many of us human beings in that he not only saw others as Jesus calls us to see each other – as partners suitable for living together – but he also lived out a spirit of gladness and gratitude for all of creation as being equal partner with humanity. Hence on this day we take time to bless animals as God's own creatures, suitable for special relationships with us and with God.
Not all of us can be like Jesus or even Francis – we live in the midst of our own sinfulness which often puts strains on our relationships with each other. If we live in these relationships only asking, “Is it lawful…” we are never at peace with one another. We never experience forgiveness when we fall short. But we also live in the midst of God's grace. Knowing this, all of us – single, married, divorced, remarried, however we find ourselves – can experience the blessings of the goodness of sharing life with people around us. May God bless you in your current situation with people who love you and that you can love in return so that you may live in love toward others who God will put in your life – even those who may not seem suitable according to societal standards, but who may need someone like you to make a difference for them. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.