Thursday, October 4, 2018

Misunderstanding Jesus on Divorce

Do you remember when 1950s Doc Brown responded to 1980s Marty McFly's use of the word "heavy" to mean "serious" by saying, "There's that word again: heavy. Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the earth's gravitational pull?" It reminds us that language changes.

Language changes. How we use language changes. But the language of the biblical text does not change...much. Yes, there are occasional manuscript discoveries that shift the interpretation or translation of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek biblical text. And translation committees are constantly updating how a word is rendered from one language to another. But Jesus can't go back and change what he said. He can't tap biblical scholars or translation committee members on the shoulder and say, "I didn't mean that." Yesterday, at a ministerial association lunch, someone from the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) tradition, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this week, remarked that they were the only ones at the table who could call up their founder and ask, "What did you mean by that?" How true.

On Sunday morning in Mark 10:2-16, we will hear Jesus say unequivocally, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." We can't ask him what he meant by that. We can't ask whether an eighteen-year-old who got pregnant and was pressured by her parents into marrying a man she did not love should be forced in the name of God to forego any future chance at a loving marital union. We can't ask whether he might modify that language--if not in content at least in tone--if he knew that he was speaking to people whose first spouses were violent and abusive.

Even Matthew, who takes this saying of Jesus and adds the exception for adultery, wants to shift the meaning of the text for the sake of the reader. Some may argue that Matthew had a better memory or report or Holy-Spirit-connection than Mark did, but it seems more likely that the later gospel scribe recognized the scandal that Jesus had caused even in the first century and wanted to give his rabbi a little more wiggle room than he had originally provided for himself.

What would Jesus say about divorce in the 21st century? What would Jesus say about marriage? I suppose that's the question for anyone and everyone who reads the biblical text. Although that job belongs most visibly to preachers, we are all interpreters of scripture--every single one of us who reads or hears it. Instead of asking Jesus what he meant to say--a fruitless and, perhaps, heretical pursuit--I suggest that we ask what the Holy Spirit intends us to hear and understand, and that pursuit feels holy and sacred.

What are we in the 21st century supposed to hear Jesus saying about divorce and marriage when his words are locked two thousand years in the past? As I wrote on Monday in a post that rightly received several strong emotional responses, I think Jesus would stand by his words about the permanence of the spiritual union between those who marry--not because he would say that divorce is wrong in all cases but because it would undermine marriage as a gift of God in the fabric of creation to pretend that any marriage, no matter how unholy or tragic, did not matter. As is so often the case, he was pushing the envelope.

The Pharisees didn't ask him this question because they needed an answer. They were testing him. This was a controversy even in Jesus' day, and, perhaps in a way that surprised them but should not surprise us, he pressed them to an extreme in order to identify and criticize a faithless practice among the presumed faithful. "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote that commandment," Jesus says of Moses, who so often had to bend the rules to accommodate the grumbling people of God. By pressing them to consider their practice of divorce and remarriage as adulterous, Jesus is calling into question the system that allows haphazard divorce. These words are intended to press his audience to faithfulness not guilt, to respect not shame. Anyone who thinks she or he can get a judge to sign a document and then pretend that a marriage didn't really mean anything isn't paying attention to their own spiritual, emotional, and mental health. It isn't the divorce that Jesus is critical of; it's the revolving-door practice of divorce and remarriage that stems from our hardness of heart.

I remember the first time I agreed with someone who believed that the right thing for her to do was get divorced. She was in a loveless marriage that included emotional infidelity, if not a physical affair, and the relationship had long ago stopped imaging God's love for the world. The marriage was over. In that sense, the signing of papers and the judge's signature were only a reflection of the truth that had become clear long ago. Was it good that they had spent time trying to save their relationship? Absolutely. Jesus is very clear that throwing marriage away like tissues is wrong. Should the woman I was with take time to reflect on why her marriage failed, how she contributed to its failure? Absolutely, especially before considering an opportunity to marry again. If she ever meets someone whom she wants to marry, should she be allowed in God's eyes to marry again? As long as she addresses the reality of her previous marriage and understands that that chapter in her life will always be a part of her, I think so, even though Jesus says what he says. It would be adulterous to pretend that previous marriages don't matter. It would dishonor God, not necessarily the previous spouse, to act as if that union never happened. But it isn't contrary to God's will for someone whose marriage was unholy to end it, and I don't think it's ungodly for a thoughtful, faithful individual to get married again.

I don't know the extent to which "the two become one flesh" still operates when one spouse is violent toward the other. Paul asks us to love our spouse as we love our own bodies, suggesting that such violence is itself a denial of the one-fleshment in marriage. The union may have dissolved, but the connection to the past relationship still exists, and to deny it is to deny the sanctity of marriage itself.


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