Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon: The Question of Divorce

Sermon for Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

7th of October 2012

Mark 10:2-16

One of the criticisms frequently made of Christianity is that it’s patriarchal, that it perceives women as second-class human beings. I believe that some parts of the Church are guilty of this;[1] but looking at the way Jesus is portrayed in the gospels we can see that that’s not how Christianity started. One of the things that we can be certain we know about Jesus is that he radically challenged the patriarchy of his times. Today’s reading is just one example of that.

The Pharisees who question Jesus about divorce are trying to test him. They probably suspect that Jesus the radical preacher is opposed to divorce, and yet divorce was absolutely taken for granted among the Jews. The only question was on what grounds a husband could divorce his wife (wives rarely or never being permitted to divorce their husbands).[2] For some teachers, the only permissible reason was the wife’s adultery. For others, a husband could divorce his wife for any reason: ‘Even if she spoiled a dish for him’ said one teacher, and ‘Even if he found another more beautiful that she’, said another.[3] If Jesus says divorce isn’t permitted he overturns centuries of Jewish law. If Jesus does agree that divorce is permissible in some circumstances, he is going to anger one or another group depending on the grounds he thinks are acceptable.

Jesus, as usual, avoids the trap by turning the question back on his testers. He asks them: ‘What did Moses command you?’ Moses didn’t actually command anything, and the Pharisees have to acknowledge this. They answer that: ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ The certificate of divorce, the get, was to protect a woman once she’d been cast off by her husband for being in some way objectionable. It allowed her to lawfully marry again without the fear of being accused of adultery.

This is divorce as Jesus’ world knew it. It was a world in which marriage was arranged between the groom and the bride’s father, and in which divorce was a unilateral decision made by the husband. It was a world in which women had little, if any, say in whom they married or if even they remained married. In the absence of any sort of alternative means of support, divorced women could easily find themselves begging on the streets or prostituting themselves.[4] Their best hope was remarriage, hence the importance of the certificate of divorce. It is in this context that Jesus condemns divorce.

He tells the Pharisees that Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of their hearts. If men were going to dismiss their wives, better that the wife be given the possibility of remarrying. But that was not what God intended at the beginning. Jesus turns to Genesis to describe a state in which men and women become one flesh. ‘So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

The idea of husband and wife being one has not always been a positive one for women. For centuries marriage in the British legal system meant that: ‘my wife and I are one and I am he’; the wife lost all legal personhood on her marriage, being subsumed under her husband’s identity, so that she couldn’t, for example, own property, or have custody of her own children. Legally, it’s usually better for women to be individuals rather than part of their husbands. But theologically, in a world in which men could unilaterally dismiss their wives because they found something objectionable in them, leaving them destitute, the idea that on marriage man and woman became one was a huge source of protection for women.

Jesus expands on this in the private conversation he has with his disciples afterwards. He tells them that: ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’ Both parts of that statement are extraordinary. The idea that a man could commit adultery against his wife was shocking. Adultery was the act of one man sleeping with another man’s woman; it was a crime that men and women committed against men. Jesus’ statement that a man could commit adultery against a woman was a remarkable suggestion of equality. As was his second statement, that a woman who divorced her husband was as guilty as a man who divorced his wife. There is very little evidence that Jewish women ever divorced their husbands, although Roman women could. Possibly the author Mark has added the second statement to address the situation of his own community. Or maybe Jesus did say it as a way to highlight his point. To his hearers the suggestion that women could divorce their husbands would be detestable. Jesus’ argument for equality would suggest that if a wife divorcing her husband was abhorrent, so too was a husband divorcing his wife.

Having talked about the context in which Jesus made these statements, what do we, living in our very different context, do with them? They were already being watered down as the Scriptures were written. Matthew’s version of the saying softens Jesus’ final statement to bring it into line with some Jewish practice: ‘And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’[5] The Catholic Church held that marriage was indissoluble; but the Protestant Reformers, who saw marriage as a contract rather than a sacrament, agreed that it could be dissolved in some circumstances. For centuries we’ve been debating what those circumstances might be. Today, secular society accepts no-fault divorce, dissoluble on the single ground of the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage relationship, and the Uniting Church says that: ‘In cases of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage, the Church acknowledges that divorce may be the only creative and life giving direction to take.’[6] Are we just ignoring a plain command of Jesus?

No matter how plainly Jesus may have said it, none of us sell all our possessions and give our money to the poor. We see that as an aspiration; a description of what the kingdom of God is like; a counter-cultural challenge to our comfortable way of doing things; but not a legalistic demand. In the same way, the description of husband and wife becoming one flesh is also an aspiration; a description of what the kingdom of God is like; a counter-cultural challenge to our comfortable way of doing things; it is not a legalistic demand. Sometimes marriages do break down and divorce does happen.

Jesus’ concern when talking about divorce and marriage was the situation of women dismissed by their hard-of-heart husbands. Interestingly, one of the aims of the way we do divorce today is to address exactly that question. Roderick Phillips, who wrote thedefinitive history of divorce in the Western world, points out that whenever men and women have had equal access to divorce, women have outnumbered men in seeking it. He writes that this is because of the frequent power imbalance between women and men: ‘In traditional society, and even in the twentieth century, men tended to react to marriage breakdown by informal means, by violence and desertion. Women, possessed of less social and domestic power, turned to an external agency, the law, for assistance’.[7] The concerns Jesus addressed by forbidding divorce are now addressed by permitting it.

I was a bit nervous about reading my biblical commentaries this week. Three of the commentaries that I turn to most often are written by Catholics; between them the three commentaries are written by three Jesuits and a Salesian of Don Bosco. The Catholic Church does not recognise divorce, but I found that these Catholic authors recognise that the pastoral question isn’t answered by taking Jesus’ statement as law. Francis J. Moloney writes: ‘Christians are called to stand by those whose attempts to live the [dream of an undivided love between a man and a woman] have been challenged’.[8] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington write that: ‘Within the Christian churches there is a wide spectrum of approaches to marriage and divorce. Divorce and remarriage remains a complex and difficult pastoral issue. All the churches need to face it courageously if they wish to move forward the cause of church unity.’[9] And Brendan Byrne writes: ‘the reality is that people make mistakes and relationships fail – something that longer lifespan and the high premium currently placed on personal freedom and development make more prevalent. While remaining faithful to the ideal taught by Jesus in the name of the Kingdom, the church has to find a way to help people grow through failure, to find in it an experience of grace and deepened knowledge of God’.[10]

As a good Reformed Protestant, I’m going to let my Catholic brothers have the last word and end our discussion of divorce here.

[1] No matter how they justify it, I do not believe that churches that refuse to ordain women see men and women as equals.

[2] On women being allowed to initiate divorce, see William Loader, Sexuality in the New Testament, p. 83.

[3] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington,  The Gospel of Mark, p. 296

[4] Howell, p. 142.

[5] Matthew 19:9.

[6] Assembly minute 97.31.12)

[7] Roderick Phillips, Untying the Knot: A Short History of Divorce, p. 232.

[8] Francis J. Moloney, This is the Gospel of the Lord: Year B, p. 189.

[9] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington,  The Gospel of Mark, p. 298.

[10] Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom, p. 160.


October 10, 2012 - Posted by | Ministry | , ,

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