August 24, 2018

It is difficult to preach on topics like Divorce.  Pastor Colleen Hurley-Bates does so eloquently as she teaches the clear affirmation of Jesus’ view of marriage while emphasizing also the grace and forgiveness of his love and ours. This is an example of excellence in preaching and pastoral guidance in sexuality.  If you would like to listen instead of read, click here.

Rev. Colleen Hurley-Bates, August 19, 2018

Today we study a teaching of Jesus about divorce, which is a painful topic because most of us have lived with it’s effects in various ways. When we stop and think about those in our lives, maybe we ourselves who have been part of the breakdown of a marriage, it brings up strong feelings and difficult memories. To have people start out being so full of love that they want to commit their whole lives to another person, only to find themselves later in a place they never thought was possible, is a surreal experience. Most people never imagine something so beautiful could end that badly or think they themselves would be sunk in the mire of despair, anger, and regret made all the worse by legal maneuvering, custody battles, family drama and changing friendships.

Most people do not go into marriage intending to ever separate. There are circumstances which make it nearly impossible to stay together, especially what is called the 4 A’s: abuse, adultery, abandonment, and addiction. Although these issues can be healed and God can mend the impossible, once trust has been broken in such a manner, one or the other spouse may not want to move forward. They may decide to call it quits, either because of betrayal or because they don’t want to end the behavior which brought them there.

For Christians, divorce is just as painful as it is for everyone else, and because it is spoken against in scripture, as we see by Jesus today, there is an aspect of shame which is carried, even after the proceedings have long since ended. This is because the church, in various times and places, has spoken about divorce as if it is something from which there is no coming back from, a failure so awful, a sin God does not forgive. Divorce is a wrenching away of those who have made a covenant before God and witnesses to stay together, no matter what. To love someone deeply, to build a life, to promise to cherish the other and then to no longer be living that reality means a part of one’s self is missing. The majority of those who are in the middle of divorce feel it acutely and don’t need more judgment added on. Yet, where should the church be in all of this?

Full disclosure, I do not come to this topic unbiased. My parents had a bitter divorce, born out of addiction, infidelity and a complex relationship over twenty five years by two people who had separated a few times, only to come back together. In the end it all became too much. This tore apart the fabric of our family, yet divorce was not the main cause of the problems. They split up because of their sin and pain which they could not or would not deal with any longer. The church they were ingrained in told them, above all else, they should not divorce. This directive, which may have been the standard answer of most faith communities in 1970, had the effect of not really offering practical or biblical counsel, but communicating how wrong they were. For decades after the divorce, my father still received giving envelopes addressed to them as a couple. Sadly, this then became a wall in his walk with God, which had once been vibrant, as no door of grace was offered.

Jesus’ words today do not offer a complete teaching on divorce, because He is addressing certain questions being asked of Him in His specific cultural context, yet there are ideas here for today’s church to face and think about as we live in the truth as well as the mercy of God. Hear the word of the Lord from Mark 10:1-12

He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and,as was his custom, he again taught them.

2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Marriages in the first century were not usually love matches between two people. They were based on agreements between families based on property, social status, and mutually beneficial arrangements which created stability for both. Because of this, divorce could be complicated. The thinking in the Jewish community came mostly from Deuteronomy 24 where it said a divorce could be granted if there was a problem related to indecency, which was widely interpreted, depending on which teaching you followed. The more strict viewpoint allowed for divorce only for adultery. In the liberal school of thought, which was more prevalent, a man could divorce his wife for any reason he found indecent. It could be because she made a bad meal, she spoke to a strange man, she was too loud, he found her less attractive than someone else, or really for any grounds the husband wanted. By law, the woman did not have legal rights or status because she was the property of the male head of house. Only the husband had the right to divorce. If a woman wanted to be free of the marriage, she needed to ask her husband to divorce her.

What Jesus is trying to communicate here is what is lawful is not always what is best. What should be considered before human interpretation of the law is what God Himself intends. We are going to look at the two queries Jesus answers in this passage. In these words from the Lord, we want to be careful to not be black and white with them; either disregarding them as being too harsh or holding on to them as an ironclad rule. They are meant to uphold the importance of marriage itself, not to be prescriptive for every situation.

First, the Pharisees came to test Him, asking if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Notice how they frame the question already to their advantage, asking it from their position of power. It is not obvious how they are hoping to trap Him, although if He contradicts the law or answers in a way that leans either to one side or the other, they might think they have him pinned. This reminded me of a nominee for the Supreme Court going before Congress. They are grilled on how they judge, how they would rule on cases, what they think about legal precedents which have been set in the past and especially what they think about hot button topics important to those asking the questions. Divorce was one of those issues here and Jesus is being treated as the adversary they believe He is as a nominee for some post they think He is hoping to have. They want to get Him to say something contrary in public so they can get a win over Him. It takes a lot of courage to face opposition like this. Jesus shows us how to do it, by taking questions head on and focusing on what is really the issue.

Jesus redirects the line of questioning to what is more helpful for them to consider. He asks, “What did Moses command YOU? He takes it out of the hypothetical by making them think about what they themselves know to be true from scripture, what they have been taught. The answer they give comes from Deuteronomy 24, and maybe they are hoping to hear his interpretation of it. But, Jesus shows how they are asking the wrong question. He does not want to argue the law; He wants to point them to God’s design. Often when we come to places of debate about what is or is not sin, we are trying to figure out what we can get away with. There is a feel of that here. Jesus wants them to think about who God has made them to be, and the purpose He has for the spiritual union of marriage.

Jesus tells them that Moses only allowed divorce because of hearts which were unrelenting and hard. One thing I read this week said here we see God’s intention and Moses’ concession for the people. We can’t focus on what was allowed by Moses to be the standard; we must think of the law here as being the exception to what is meant by God to be lifelong faithfulness between a man and a woman. Jesus takes them back to Genesis to show the sanctity of marriage. He quotes how two people come together to make one flesh and how it was God’s intention for them never to separate in this lifetime.

Then, as is often the case today, divorce becomes an injustice against one of the spouses, mostly the woman. To send a wife away for no good reason was not moral. To cause her to be cast out with no resources or dependent upon another marriage was not God’s will. The Pharisees neglect to mention that the certificate of divorce has to physically be given to the woman so she can authenticate it in order to marry again. In this way, the law was meant to protect the woman, as the first husband cannot try to take her back if she has the decree. Jesus is emphasizing equality by saying God made man and woman. They are equally joined together as one in Him. Jesus is speaking against male dominance which treated women as property, and He is giving a new ideal that women are equal with men in the sight of God.

You will recognize words from the marriage ceremony here: “what God has brought together, let no one separate.” The bonds of marriage, with God at the center is not one which can be broken by any human regulation. Jesus is saying the issue is not the commands of Moses, but rather what God originally designed. He does not condemn the law, but makes it clear it is not the ideal. Jesus brings it back to the heart. When we harden our hearts and ask for laws to go along with how we want to live our lives, it does not reflect God’s will and it causes grief in our primary relationships. This is the main problem and why Jesus is trying to explain to the teachers why their question is not the correct one. Marriage is a foundational relationship for society and God uses it often as a metaphor for the covenant between He and His people. As those who proclaim Christ, we must look to the principles He has given, seeking Him for what He wants.

The second query comes from the disciples, which Jesus answers in verses 10-12. We don’t know exactly what they asked, but the response is strong: whoever divorces their spouse for the purpose of marrying someone else commits adultery. Jesus is reaffirming with the disciples that people who might use the laws of divorce and marriage as a loophole for adultery will be seen by God. Just because an action is legal in the eyes of the government doesn’t make it moral in the eyes of God. This again is emphasizing the condition of the heart before God who has shown us how to live.

There is a larger context for us to remember. What Jesus is speaking about is exactly what the Jewish ruler Herod did, which we previously studied a few months ago. Herod divorced his wife so he could marry Herodias, who also had left her husband and John the Baptist told them it was wrong. More than once. Because of the truth they did not want to hear, they had John murdered in their home. It may well be that the Pharisees are posing the question so Jesus will take a stand in the matter, with the hope that it will cause problems with Herod. Publicly, Jesus did not wade into the mess, but privately, this teaching is the exact same which John prophetically spoke.

Getting married to the person one leaves their spouse for does not nullify the wrongness of the original action. Spouses are not something we can dispose of so we can have one we want more. Jesus is making a statement here on loose sexual morals which we can attempt to cover up with the respectability of marriage. God’s design in marriage is to learn how to become more like Christ in our relationships because we are called to love one another as Christ has loved the church, giving up our selfish desires when they conflict with the vows we have made. This is true for men and women, as Jesus agains affirms how they are equal before Him. Each of us is accountable to the Lord for our motivations, our attitudes, our thought life, our actions, our sexuality, and what we have committed unto Him. This is a call to holiness.

Jesus is very serious here about marriage. This relationship, as God ordained, becomes part of who we are. As such, these words are a warning to those who view marriage as temporary or merely a convenience. His words here are meant as a reminder of how important God takes the matrimonial vows made solemnly before Him. Even if a marriage is not dissolved for the purpose of remarrying right away, Jesus’ words cause us to stop as we consider the weight of what He is saying here.

One of the issues around divorce, however, in the church is how these words have come to mean God will not forgive. There is a verse from Malachi which is quoted about how God hates divorce. His hatred of it is not for divorce itself. It is because of what it does to us and to families who are created from the union of two people. In His love, God wants to shield us and those in our families from the pain which naturally comes when a marriage falls apart. The commandments are made for us to live by because this is God’s best. The command to love each other more than we love ourselves is part of what it means to be made in His image.

For those who have remarried after a divorce, even those who left their spouse for another, Jesus’ words are not meant to forever brand them as an adulterer. Remember, a broken and contrite heart will not be turned away from the Lord. Jesus brought the kingdom to those who would repent, who bring their brokenness to the foot of the cross. There is nothing which is beyond the scope of forgiveness.

Where should the church be in all of this? We should be helping young people prepare for marriage, reminding them what joy there is yet also what a serious commitment it is before God, giving them tools for how to relate to one another in healthy ways, showing them how the Lord is the center of every godly union. We should be coming alongside those who are married, encouraging them in multiple ways, celebrating milestones like anniversaries, inviting them to mentor younger couples, and being available to walk through difficulties and painful seasons. We should prayerfully ask for wisdom for those who are contemplating divorce, offering to listen to those who struggle, not pretending we know what is best, and praying for the Lord to intervene with His miraculous healing and sacrificial love. We should not take sides, but offer love to both parties, keeping our lines clear by not gossiping or slandering either person. Christ’s people should weep with those who are mourning the loss of a marriage because it feels like a death and offer grace to those who have fallen short of God’s glory in this area, trusting He is the authority in their lives. For those who are considering remarriage, the body of Christ should provide counsel to see if this is a step the person is ready to take. We should help them to ascertain if they have sought forgiveness and are healed from their previous union, facilitating a transparent restoration process with them, if that has not been done. The church should surround children who are true victims of divorce, being part of their extended family who is always there for them no matter what.

May the church truly reflect the fullness of God poured out on His people, all of us sinners attempting to live for the glory of He who made us. He is always with us.

If you would like to listen to Pastor Colleen: click here.