By the Rev. Darren Miner
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Today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of San Francisco. And if the truth be known, I would rather be preaching on Francis’ love of creation than on Jesus’ pronouncements on divorce. But the prayer book is clear: the Sunday readings take precedence over a lesser feast. So be it!
Some weeks, you have to search pretty hard to find good news in the Good News. Last week, Jesus spoke hyperbolically about self-mutilation: cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes. This week, we find Jesus teaching about divorce and remarriage. And if understood as a blanket prohibition, this teaching can be a heavy burden on people whose marriages are irretrievably broken. Despite appearances to the contrary, there is good news in Jesus’ words.
The Pharisees come to Jesus in order to test him. But the question they ask him really isn’t a very tricky test question. They ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” I say this question isn’t very tricky, because the answer, given in Deuteronomy, is an unequivocal “Yes.” These Pharisees must have heard that Jesus had a different view, and they wanted to expose him as a heretic. Jesus asks them, “What did Moses command you?” The Pharisees answer that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce his wife. Here, Jesus scores a debate point by getting the Pharisees to admit that this concession derives from Moses, not God. In their response, the Pharisees refer to Deuteronomy. There, Moses states that a man can divorce his wife on the grounds of “an indecent act” by giving her a “certificate of cutting-off.” Now in Jesus’ day, there was a debate among the Pharisees as to what exactly constituted “an indecent act.” One school of thought, associated with the House of Shammai, was that it was limited to sexual misconduct on the part of the woman, whereas the House of Hillel insisted that, if a wife so much as burned her husband’s dinner, it was “an indecent act” and was grounds for divorce.
Jesus sidesteps this whole debate. And he dismisses the divorce law found in Deuteronomy on two grounds: 1) it was written by Moses, not God, and 2) it was no more than a concession to the stubborn sinfulness of Israel. He further argues that God’s perfect will for us as expressed in the Garden of Eden trumps the Law of Moses delivered on Mount Sinai. Jesus explains that, when two people are united in marriage, they become inseparably joined, ontologically fused, if you will, just as if they had become one body, one flesh. It is not the prerogative of human beings to divide what God has yoked together. Jesus then logically concludes that, since marriage is indissoluble, it follows that remarriage when one’s former spouse is still living constitutes a form of adultery.
Jesus’ interpretation is exceptional in a couple of ways. First, by arguing that Eden trumps Sinai, Jesus is advocating a stricter righteousness than was generally practiced by the Jews of his day. The follower of Jesus is being called to obey God’s original will for us, as known in Paradise before the Fall, and to forgo those concessions to sinfulness that the Law of Sinai allows. Second, Jesus deals with the wife as an equal partner in the marriage; she is not treated as the sexual property of her husband. Let me say a bit more about that.
Jesus states that if a man divorces his wife and remarries, he commits adultery against his first wife. To first-century Jews, that was a radical statement! Under Jewish law, a married man who committed adultery did not commit adultery against his wife—he committed adultery against the husband of the woman he slept with. In effect, adultery was a violation of another man’s property. But in Jesus’ view, a married woman is not treated as her husband’s property, and her husband’s adultery is a sin against her. In addition, when Jesus addresses the case of a woman initiating a divorce from her husband, he is dealing with a hypothetical situation. For as a general rule, Jewish women did not initiate divorce. But by extending the prohibition against divorce to women (even if only hypothetically), Jesus is acknowledging the equal status of women in his eyes.
Not surprisingly, Christians throughout the ages have had just as hard a time dealing with divorce as did the children of Israel. In Matthew, written a decade or so after Mark, the evangelist adds one exception to Jesus’ blanket prohibition against divorce, allowing divorce, and presumably remarriage, in the case of sexual misconduct. St. Paul also allows one exception to the Lord’s teaching on divorce—but it’s a different exception! Paul states that it is his own considered opinion that divorce is permissible in mixed-faith marriages, if the divorce is initiated by the non-Christian partner.
Later, the Eastern and Western branches of the Church diverged regarding how to deal with the issue of divorce in the Christian community. The Eastern Church came to teach that the indissolubility of marriage was a desirable goal, but that, for the sake of mercy, the Church could permit a person to divorce and remarry once, or even twice, rather than maintain a marriage that was a fiction. The Western Church took a stricter stance on divorce, forbidding it absolutely. However, this restriction was gotten around in practice by the concept of annulment, a legal fiction by which a marriage is determined on technical grounds never to have been valid in the first place. The canons of the Episcopal Church allow for remarriage after divorce on a case-by-case basis with the permission of the bishop of the diocese. As a result, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Episcopal Church allow the very concession to sinfulness that Jesus asked his followers not to avail themselves of, namely divorce and remarriage! And the Roman Catholic Church’s regulations on annulment are far more complex and legalistic than any Pharisaic ruling on what constitutes “an indecent act.” And so, we have come full circle. Just like the Pharisees in Mark’s Gospel, the Church allows for remarriage after a divorce, and just like the Pharisees, the Church generates rules and regulations to govern and administer the practice.
So how can we be faithful to Jesus’ original teaching and still show mercy? Let me give you my own personal opinion. I think that Jesus is quite clear that Christians should avoid divorce, if at all possible. Severing the union of marriage by presenting a “certificate of cutting off” is like cutting off a part of one’s own body. And it is never a good thing. But is it ever a permissible thing? Despite Jesus’ seemingly blanket prohibition in today’s Gospel reading, I think that, if pressed, even Jesus might say yes in some exceptional circumstances. If we hark back to last week’s Gospel reading, we hear Jesus say, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.” In other words, self-amputation is preferable to eternal death in hell. By this same reasoning, I think, even Jesus would allow a “certificate of cutting off” and the severing of a matrimonial union in cases where the consequence of maintaining the marriage was hell on earth.
Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage is undoubtedly demanding. But that doesn’t make it Bad News. In fact, hiding behind Jesus’ words of prohibition are two items of very Good News. First, life-long union in marriage was willed and blessed by God at Creation, so that we might have joy and companionship in this world and so that we might be schooled in love. For this reason, Christians should strive to maintain the wholeness of their marriage, just as they would strive to maintain the wholeness of their own body. Second, women are, in Jesus’ eyes, equal partners in a marriage—equal in rights and equal in responsibilities. Neither of these positive, life-giving truths should be forgotten when we wrestle with Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce.
Today’s Gospel reading ends with a short postscript on a completely different, and much more pleasant, topic: Jesus’ blessing of children. Jesus tells his disciples: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Well, today we won’t be blessing children, but we will be blessing some animal companions in honor of St. Francis. By way of variation on a theme: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little pug, or a little spaniel, or a little cockatiel, will never enter it.” I hope to see some of you at the blessing of animals later today!
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.