Monday, October 1, 2018
I've only preached on Jesus' prohibition on divorce in Mark 10:2-16 once or twice, and I've always been surprised at the strong negative reaction I get. Jesus says it pretty clearly: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." He says this to the disciples after offering a public teaching on the matter, which underscores his commitment to it. He hadn't been trying to push the crowd with a hyperbolic statement. Jesus, it seems, really believed that divorce and remarriage was adultery.
Maybe I should say that I'm not surprised that individuals react strongly to a sermon on the sinfulness of divorce and remarriage. Instead, I'm surprised that they react strongly to that sermon but not as strongly to a sermon on selling all that you have and giving it to the poor or hating mother and father or losing one's life for the sake of the gospel. For some reason, we hear Jesus' teaching on divorce and take it seriously and literally but find a way to wiggle out of many of his other difficult teachings. Why is that?
Partly, it's because the church took this teaching seriously for most of its existence. Famously, the Roman Catholic takes a fairly hard line on divorce, requiring that a marriage be annulled before remarriage is allowed and excluding from Communion those who have skipped the official process. But they aren't the only hardliners. In the Episcopal Church, we did not allow remarriage of divorced persons until the middle of the twentieth century, and the Church of England, despite becoming a distinct church after Henry VIII was not permitted to remarry, continues to have strict policies. I've heard stories of individuals from other denominations who, upon getting divorced, were brought before an official church tribunal and then excommunicated from the congregation. Maybe a better question is to ask why the church seems to care so much about marriage and not as much about voluntary poverty or pursuing martyrdom.
I'm sure the church's motives need scrutiny, but for this post I'm interested in looking at the theology of marriage and how Jesus uses that as the foundation of his teaching on the subject. The Pharisees, who were strict observers of the religious laws, ask Jesus about divorce. It seems likely that they, too, were split on the issue. "Moses says that a man can write a certificate of divorce," they say, "but what do you think?" Mark tells us that they wanted to test him--to find out his true feelings on an issue of moral importance. Jesus wants nothing to do with such matters of convenience. Pointing to creation, he replies, "But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female...' So they are no longer two but one flesh." In Jesus' interpretation, when two people get married, they are united to each other, and that union is fundamentally inseparable. That's why he calls divorce and remarriage adultery.
With the bishop's permission, I am allowed to officiate at the marriage of divorced persons. But, before the bishop will give permission (and before I would do the marriage anyway), I must talk with the individuals about their previous marriages and why they failed. We have a difficult--for them and for me--conversation about the earlier union, how both persons contributed to its failure, and why this new proposed marriage will succeed. Perhaps there's an integrity to bringing the reality of the previous marriage into the new union instead of annulling or expunging it as if it had never happened. Maybe adultery is a good word to describe what it means to be separated from a spouse and marry another--not because adulterers should stand condemned in the eyes of the church but because we should remember that marital unions can't really ever be dissolved. Sure, they stop functioning. Yes, remaining together can often cause more harm than good, can actually undermining the holiness of marriage itself. Divorce is often the right option. But what God has joined together no one can really put asunder.
Even though there is a break, the identity of an individual as married cannot be undone. The two become one flesh. Finding a theology of divorce may be an important development for the church as it seeks to honor the sanctity of marriage and the sanctity of remarriage. I'm not preaching on Sunday, and maybe it's a good thing, but I'll be wrestling with this text and will continue to wrestle with it every time I sit with a person or a couple who is experiencing brokenness in a marriage or is seeking to marry again. I have to. Otherwise marriage means nothing.