October 7, 2012
When Jim and I were getting ready to get married, we were starry-eyed. We never expected to bury my little brother; we never expected to be unemployed; we never expected to have a serious or chronic illness; we never expected to get divorced. In fact, we expected a rose garden. But our texts today from Job and Mark prove that life hands us lemons as well as roses.
In the ancient world, most marriages were arranged, for political and financial reasons. The husband and wife might not even like each other, but their marriage brought more land into the household, the wife’s dowry plumped up the savings account, and the alliance between families was strengthened. Until her marriage, the woman belonged to her father.
Once she was married, she belonged to her husband. She was expected to be fruitful and multiply the family. If she failed to please her husband, if she could not produce children, she had not fulfilled her purpose in the relationship and he could get rid of her. It was shameful for her to return to her family, but that was one option. More often, she ended up living on the streets, dependent on the charity of others.
There were two well-known rabbis who lived at about the same time as Jesus: Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. They both had teachings about divorce. Rabbi Hillel said a man could get a divorce for any reason. He simply could give the woman a certificate of divorce and the marriage would be over. The certificate was actually helpful to the woman; it showed that she was legally set aside, not just thrown out of the house. Rabbi Shammai limited the cause for divorce to adultery, specifically for the wife having relations with another man.
It was typical for rabbis to discuss the Torah and its interpretation, just as pastors and lay people discuss the Bible and its interpretation today. On this day the Pharisees have the opinions of Hillel and Shammai in mind, as they ask Jesus what he thinks about divorce.
As usual, Jesus answers the question with another question. Rather than quoting one rabbi or another, Jesus takes the topic back to the Torah, and to God. “What does Moses say?” “Moses allows marriage,” they reply. Jesus snaps back, “Yes, Moses allowed marriage because you have such hard hearts!” Then Jesus takes them back even earlier in the scriptures. Quoting Genesis, Jesus reminds the Pharisees that God creates humans, and puts them together. What God has put together, no one should separate.
Jesus then gives his opinion on divorce. If a woman is divorced and she remarries, she is committing adultery. This would have been in line with the thinking of the men of ancient times. But then Jesus continues: If a man divorces his wife and remarries, he also commits adultery. The Pharisees would have gasped in horror. The reason most men divorced their wives was so they could indeed marry another woman, someone who was perhaps younger, prettier, wealthier, better connected, and hopefully more fruitful.
Jesus has just ruined everything! He has made women and men equal in their relationships. And the next little portion of the text takes that equality even farther. Children, especially girl children, were worthless in those days. Jesus proclaims that children have the special gift of seeing God’s kingdom/reign the way God wants it to be seen. When we think of the unbridled honesty of children, we can understand what Jesus means. It is easier for children to believe in God, and to find God in their lives. In children’s eyes, there are no adult pretenses. Of course, there is no adult politeness either.
… Today, these texts challenge us as much as they challenged the people of their time. Our faith is challenged when we contemplate divorce. What does God really want for us? How do we balance what is going on in our troubled families with the sayings of Jesus about marriage and divorce?
These are questions I was asking myself twenty years ago. I struggled with Jim’s addiction to alcohol, with my inadequate salary which meant it would be hard for me to support myself, and with wanting what was best for my boys and for myself. I heard advice from the friends who knew of my situation. Some said, “Jesus forbids divorce.” Others said, “God wants us to be healthy.” In the meantime, Jim refused to put me before his addiction.
I finally realized that the relationship was broken no matter how hard I tried to keep it together. Jim had already left the relationship because of his addiction. I came to see that I was trying so hard to be perfect for Jim and the boys that my focus was not on pleasing God but on getting Jim to pay attention to me and to being both father and mother to the boys. We got married in a rose garden, but now it was too full of thorns to be healthy for either of us.
In God’s ideal world, relationships are perfect and divorce is not necessary because God has put the people together. But, we humans are not perfect and neither are our relationships. If they can be healed, God will help with the healing. If the relationships are beyond repair, God will help with the healing of the separated individuals and the forming of new relationships.
… I would guess that every person in this room has been involved in a broken relationship. Through the process of deciding to get a divorce, I trusted in God’s presence with me and God’s care for me. When the realities overwhelmed me, I remembered that I had lots of friends praying for me. I won’t claim to be fully healed – we are all works in progress – yet seeking healing through divorce was the right choice for me.
This is not to say that divorce is the right choice for everyone. It is not an easy choice to make, and if both partners are committed to healing the relationship, it could be the wrong choice. The right choice always involves the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the knowledge that God is present with every person in the relationship, even when the relationship is breaking apart.
This week, reflect on the relationships you are in, and the relationships of those you know: between spouses, between parent and child, between co-workers, between classmates, between teacher and student, among friends. Give thanks for the healthy relationships, and pray for the struggling ones.
Please pray with me. Gracious God, you created a garden for us, but we quickly messed it up. Be present with us, in all of our relationships, that we may know the joy of healthy partnerships with each other. Amen