Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Got Adultery?

In today’s gospel lesson (Mark 10:1-16), Jesus is put to the test by the Pharisees, and he responds in a way that tests me and my faith. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they ask him. His reply leaves little room for consolation, and, when he later explains his teaching to his disciples, he speaks in even harsher words: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

This is the kind of passage that preachers love to get. Divorce is a part of life. It’s unfortunate. It’s terrible. It’s representative of our broken humanity. But it’s still something we must deal with. And to those who claim that contemporary society’s devaluation of marriage has resulted in a divorce rate that is skyrocketing out of control I would simply point out that this was a controversy in Jesus’ day. Apparently, people have always thought that there was too much divorce.

And then we get to the end of the lesson and everything gets mixed up. As he finishes explaining how divorce and remarriage are never acceptable, he turns and sees his disciples trying to keep children from bothering him, to which he interjects the famous line, “Let the litter children come to me…whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” In staff meeting today, someone brought up how seemingly opposed those two sentiments are. On the one hand, Jesus suggests that the moral law is unbreakable, but he also says that we must come to the kingdom as children—surely unburdened by such concerns as divorce and remarriage. So which is it?

Poor Jimmy Carter and his Playboy interview. Citing another passage in which Jesus talks about adultery, Carter admitted in the pages of the gentlemen’s magazine that he had committed adultery many times in his heart for having lusted after women. I’m sure the throngs of evangelical Christians who subscribed to Playboy appreciated the nuanced position of his confession. The rest of America didn’t get it. Carter, of course, was right. And I think he was as close to getting into the kingdom as a child as anyone.

We are all adulterers—whether we’re married, divorced, remarried, single, or anything else. We are by our nature betrayers. We betray the love that others (including God) have shown us. We cannot be faithful. Jesus’ teaching on divorce wasn’t intended to tighten the noose around the necks of the divorced. But it also wasn’t an attempt to loosen the noose either. The simple and universal fact of the matter is that we are all adulterers. We are all sinners. The law, Jesus notes, was written so that shallow-minded men could divorce their wives and get away with it. If we, like the Pharisees, are relying on that excuse, there is no getting away with it. That goes for the “Matthean exception,” too. The only way to get out of the hangman’s grasp is to recognize that no matter what our marital status we’re already in it. That's what it means to approach God like a child. Children don't care what the letter of the law says. They are in touch with their need for forgiveness and in touch with their belovedness at the same time.

I remember the first time I advised someone to get divorced. I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my mouth. As they came out, it was as if I could see them and could all but grab them in my hands and stick them back inside, whence they came. But, upon reflection, the counsel I offered was good, Christian counsel. Some people are yoked in a relationship that is anything but holy. In some circumstances, divorce will bring both husband and wife closer to God. Does that mean that they aren’t committing adultery if they remarry? Nope, they are. Just as sure as a no-good, cheating spouse. But does it matter? Not if they realize that their need for forgiveness is just as real either way.

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