By Poulson Reed
Today’s gospel reading, from Mark, is not one I look forward to preaching on, when the lectionary brings it around every three years. In fact, I’ve started and restarted this particular sermon much more than usual, trying to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is talking about divorce, a difficult and painful topic, and as usual, he holds out a more rigorous standard than the religious or cultural practices of his day, or ours.
Yes, he admits, the Jewish law allows a man to divorce his wife. But this is only because of their hardness of heart. From the beginning, as described in the book of Genesis, he says, in marriage two people become one flesh. What God has joined together let no one separate. And so, Jesus says, whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery.
Hard words indeed.
We all know that divorce in our day is common: about 50% of marriages end with it, a percentage, by the way, that is no better among Christians.
And we know that divorce is often excruciating, sending ripples of pain and guilt around a family, harming not only the couple but children, extended family, friends, and even churches. When a couple divorces and both are active members of the church, most of the time one leaves, and often, both do, however earnest our pastoral desire to support them.
I get it: sometimes the well-meaning questions, the vivid memories here are just too much to bear. I suspect there is not a person in this church today who has not been hurt, directly or indirectly, by divorce.
And yet, we must also admit that, while there are situations in which one spouse abandons the other, or could have done more to fight for the marriage, there are also broken and even toxic or outright dangerous marriages for whom divorce was the best outcome.
What then are we to make of Jesus’ words?
One place to begin is with some historical context. In Jesus’ time, women were not treated justly. Jewish women were not generally allowed to leave their home except to go to a relative’s home or the synagogue. And in their religious observances, women were limited in their prayers, restricted to certain areas, and not permitted to study the sacred texts.
A Jewish woman in the time of Jesus spent her entire life under the control of a man: her father, then her husband, and if her husband died, a male relative. She had no property of her own, or money. And when it came to divorce, a man could legally divorce his wife for any reason at all, but a woman could not divorce her husband.
A divorced woman, with no money of her own and few prospects for getting any apart from remarriage, was one of the most vulnerable people in Jesus’ culture. And so were her children.
And so when Jesus speaks against divorce, and then takes the children in his arms, he is speaking to men (the only ones who could divorce). This is, for Jesus, not just a moral issue but a justice one. He is rebuking a corrupt and cruel system, run by and for men, that cast women and their children aside and abandoned them to a life of poverty and often death.
So that’s the historical context.
But if we believe that the Bible continues to speak to us today, what then are we to make of Jesus’ words?
The teachings of Jesus on just about everything can be summarized this way: High ideals, wide mercy. High ideals, wide mercy. Whether on divorce, or money, forgiveness, or sin, Jesus seems to ask of us the impossible. Never divorce? Give up all my possessions to the poor? Forgive someone 70 times seven times? Never even desire something or someone else?
True, the saints, like Francis, followed these hard teachings to an extraordinary degree. But what about ordinary folks like you and me?
If we get stuck on the ideal that Jesus has in mind for us, we might give up, discouraged. Or worse yet, decide not even to try to pattern our lives after what he teaches. But Jesus always backs up his high ideals with wide mercy.
As Christians, we can destroy our faith if we forget either of those two halves. If we ignore Jesus’ high ideals for us, we’ve no chance of being like him.
Give MY money to the poor? Forgive someone over and over? Keep my eyes from wandering? Be grateful instead of jealous? That’s just not realistic, we may say. If we decide from the get-go that being a disciple is too hard, we’ll never even start on the path.
And if we forget God’s abundant mercy, God’s love when we fail, in some ways that’s even worse. To set a high ideal in anything and try to achieve it is to fail often. But as the great hymn says: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.”
Yes, Jesus sets a very high ideal for married life in this gospel today, just as he sets a high ideal for his disciples in everything, as we take up our cross and follow him. But he pairs it with mercy.
If only we had a Bible story showing how he would handle a situation when that ideal in relationship has broken down horribly. We do. John 8:3-11:
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.[a] 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.”[b] And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.
My friends in Christ, let us never be discouraged by a passage in Scripture without understanding the whole picture. Scripture interprets Scripture, as iron sharpens iron.
Yes, in romantic relationships, God’s ideal pattern for humanity is laid out in Genesis: mutuality, love, and support, helpers and partners, two becoming one, joined together with solemn vows in the presence of God. And yes, when we fall short of those high standards, God, in God’s mercy will forgive us if we truly repent and seek not to sin again. Jesus came not to condemn, but to save.
Which is why I appreciate the approach that The Episcopal Church takes to marriage and divorce. We offer marriage to everyone and take it seriously. We require preparation over several months with a priest, taking the couple through the major areas of potential conflict. And then they make solemn vows before God and their family and friends in a beautiful liturgy, promising the ideal that Jesus holds up: in sickness and health; for richer, for poorer; until death us do part.
I have never married a couple that did not sincerely mean those vows, and intend, with all their hearts, to keep them. Or I wouldn’t have married them.
And yet, if a marriage does fall apart, if there is betrayal, or inattention, or simply the tragic growing in different directions, with genuine effort given to work through it, let the one without sin cast the first stone. And neither does God condemn.
In the Episcopal Church, we do everything possible to give the wedding vows every opportunity to be lifelong. And yet if the couple divorces, we do not turn them away from our church community, from the sacraments when they need them most. And, after a suitable passage of time, with healing and growth, and lots of preparation, we will bless a second marriage. Ours is a God of second chances, and of repentance.
High ideals, and wide mercy. That is the path of Jesus.
Let us never fail to give our faith our best effort, knowing we have a loving God who will always catch us when we fall.
Before I finish, let me share just one final point.
Jesus’ high ideals and wide mercy do not apply only to individual Christians. They apply to groups and institutions as well. In many ways, now is a much better era to be a woman than Jesus’ time. But there is a lot more work to be done in our nation, in our world, and in our Christian churches, before true justice, God’s justice is achieved.
The high ideals of Genesis and of Jesus too often break down into abusive and sinful nightmares. It is always the calling of Christians to stand with the vulnerable, and to seek out and speak the truth, however uncomfortable it may be.
The Church needs to do a better job of listening and learning from the experiences of women, with humility. As in the time of Jesus, men need to do a better job. We must strive to meet those high ideals of Jesus in our treatment of others, and to seek his forgiveness when we fall short.
Almighty God, pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Poulson Reed is Bishop of Oklahoma.