Some people may disagree with me and say that it is not difficult to preach on divorce. They may believe the bible is clear on this. However as a divorcee who has since married another man, I recently found it an emotional sermon to preach.
Just before I went to the lectern to read the gospel, and then to deliver the sermon, I hesitated…. Should I do this? I did. And here it is. If you want to watch it, I’ve taken the section from our church service video. Unfortunately the quality isn’t as good as usual as we had a few technical issues. Click here.
DIVORCE is Devastating for some – and for others the best thing that ever happened and a time to rejoice. I must confess I did break open a miniature bottle of bubbles when my decree absolute came through.
For years this gospel reading was very difficult for me – and even now, when I saw it was set for today, my heart sank. Shall I focus on the Hebrews reading instead? But I would still have to READ the gospel and pronounce that Terry and I are committing adultery – which for some Christians will be their opinion of our marriage. We have both been through a divorce.
I could ignore those words of Jesus and pretend they aren’t there. But that wouldn’t be being true to myself, the journey that I have been on and that I am preparing to share with the world – or at least anyone who buys the book that I am waiting to have published.
Deciding to get divorced was the hardest decision I have ever made – actually making the initial step of separation was – and it took many years to finally have the courage to do it. For years I took Jesus’ words literally. As a Christian I should not, indeed, could not, divorce. “What God has joined together, let no one separate”.
I didn’t want to go with society pressures and not take seriously the vows we had made. I knew that Jesus’ words are important, and that marriage is viewed by the church as sacred, to be valued and worked at. And so I worked at it, and I kept it going for the sake of the children and because I believed I should. And actually, because I wanted the marriage to be life-long.
The more understanding I had of the bible, over the years, the more I knew that you can’t just take a single verse out of context. So I think it is worth looking at what was going on when Jesus made that pronouncement.
And what was going on was worthy of an EastEnders script.
John the Baptist who was preparing the way of the Messiah, calling people back to God got put in prison. Do you know WHY he was imprisoned? For criticizing Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s wife.
Herodias had divorced her first husband Philip so that she could marry Herod. In those days Jewish women, if they were from a more conservative background, did not divorce their husbands. So, this and other reasons, made it clear to many that Herod could never be the true king that God intended for Israel.
Now, as Jesus goes to Jerusalem following the disciples’ recognition of him as Messiah, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Pharisees try to trap him. Will he allow himself to say something about divorce which can then be presented as treasonable? We all know that kings don’t like criticism and in those days such treason was not tolerated, hence John’s imprisonment.
Jesus, of course, can spot the trap a mile off and handles the situation by talking in public about the meaning of different scriptures. But then in private, a sharp and direct comment to the disciples – including what amounts to a specific reference to Herodias, since in Jewish law a woman could not normally divorce her husband.
But there is more to it than this, as I discovered yesterday when I read Ian Paul’s blog.
The Pharisees varied in their interpretation of the law. There were the conservatives who understood “unfaithfulness”, “abuse”, or “abandonment” as the only valid grounds for divorce (Deut. 24:1-4; Exod. 21:10-11). St Paul, who was also a Pharisee, wrote about divorce to the Corinthian church (1 Cor 7). He gives permission for divorce under certain circumstances.
Various more progressive interpreters argued that a man had the right to divorce his wife for any reason at all – even for burning the dinner (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 90a).
It is in this divorce-for-any-reason environment Jesus is quoted as saying to his disciples, not publicly: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18, Mark 10:12)
I don’t think this statement can be interpreted as a blanket statement condemning all re-marriage after divorce, but only when illegitimate divorce was involved. Jesus was siding with the more conservative Pharisees, not the progressive ones, which is surprising. He was often accused by the Pharisees of not keeping the law strictly. Now he was siding with those who were lenient and looked for ways around the law.
Well, actually, what Jesus always does is not talk about the law so much as take people back to first principles of what God’s perfect best intentions for people are. Jesus’ words to his disciples, I believe, are a reminder of the ideal that God gave at the beginning of creation, when he instituted marriage.
Jesus’ public discussion with the Pharisees is interesting on several levels. They quote Moses who allows divorce and places strict controls on it. There were proper written procedures which gave protection to vulnerable women, so they weren’t exploited.
But this wasn’t answering Jesus’ actual question, which was ‘What did Moses command?’ Jesus doesn’t say Moses was wrong with the ‘permission’ but he insists that one should go back to Genesis, to the account of creation itself, to discover the creator’s will. And as far as Jesus is concerned, what Genesis says about marriage, God says.
It’s quite clear: the bond of husband and wife creates not merely a partnership or a working agreement but a new entity. It’s not for nothing that we say our ‘other half’. When we marry we become one and so each individual is half of the new whole. 1+1=1
Whenever I conduct a wedding the very special moment for me is when I pronounce them to be married and tie my stole around their hands proclaiming: “those whom God has joined together let no-one put asunder.” And then they kneel for a beautiful prayer of blessing asking God to help them to keep the vows and covenant they’ve made. Marriage is important and marriage is intended to be for life – and woe betide anyone who tries to get between them.
It isn’t easy to keep the marriage vows, that’s why we need God’s help. It isn’t easy to have our hearts and wills directed according to God’s ideals. Jesus refers to this difficulty as being hard hearted.
He says: ‘Moses gave you this rule because of your hardness’; in other words, the people in Moses’ day were not able to fulfil God’s intention and needed laws that would reflect second best reality. God promised through Isaiah to give the cure – a heart of flesh – with the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, helping us to live the way God desires.
The problem was not with the ideal, nor with the law, but with the people: Israel was, when it all came down to it, just like everybody else. Hardhearted.
So, for Jesus’ comment to make sense, he must be offering a cure for hardheartedness. If he is now saying they need to return to the standard of Genesis, to God’s original intention, he is either being hopelessly idealistic or he believes that the coming of the kingdom will bring about a way for hearts to be softened, for people to be able to live up to God’s ideal for human relationships.
The fact that debates about divorce have been in the church ever since indicates that this cure doesn’t work automatically or easily.
Equally, though, the fact that millions of Christians have prayed for grace to remain faithful to their marriage vows, often under great stress, and have found the way not only to survive but to celebrate as ‘one flesh’ indicates that the implicit promise is true.
It IS possible, through prayer, through seeking God’s grace, to have a faithful marriage – to not need divorce.
Indeed, for many years it was God’s grace that kept me going, helping me to stay married until the time was right. My children had left home, and it was just me and him. God had healed and worked in me to the point where I was ready to take that enormous step of asking my husband to leave. I was living in a vicarage so I couldn’t be the one to walk out and leave. I no longer felt I had to keep it going for the children’s sake, nor because of what the bible says, but for the sake of my mental health I had to ask him to go. AND through prayer felt that God was giving
It is always sad when a marriage fails, but sadder still if the couple haven’t tried to make it work, haven’t asked for God’s grace to be at work within their relationship.
Marriage break-up can devastate children, can shake the whole family, with long-lasting effects. I don’t know why Jesus’ words about children are put right after his words about divorce. Perhaps then, like now, divorce was hard on the children and prevented them from knowing God’s love through their parents.
God can heal the hurt of anyone who has been affected by divorce – their own or that of their parents – or that of their children. I came across this image that has some good advice. I’m glad I trusted in God for my future – I became Mrs Jones.
I’d like to end by praying with words adapted from the prayer I offer to couples who are marrying again after one or both of them have been divorced.
But instead of it being directed to a particular couple, I’d like to pray it for us all – single, married or divorced…. newly married or long married – first time round or repeat performance….. and I don’t mean that to sound flippant –for those who are married and struggling to remain so and those who are still hurting from a divorce.
God of love, ever present and faithful,
May the promises we make before you
govern our lives,
as your presence surrounds us,
and your Spirit strengthens and guides us.
God of love, ever gracious and kind,
we pray for all couples who have made the promises of marriage.
May your grace be poured into their marriages
for celebration and for joy.
Where there has been separation and divorce,
bring your healing Grace.
Let us all know you
as the God of mercy and new beginnings,
who forgives our failures and renews our hope,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen