Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
We’ve just heard two texts read aloud, each of which cry out for some serious reflection. Yet they are so different one from the other—in genre and in the issues they raise—that you wonder how they ended up on the same Sunday in the lectionary cycle of readings. To presume to preach one seamless sermon that does anything even close to justice to both would be at least presumptuous, and probably in the end misguided. I’m going to set the Job text to one side, as we will be revisiting this great and unsettling book over the next three Sundays when I will be working with it in some detail.
- To listen to the sermon simply press play:
In the three year cycle of readings, Jesus’ words on divorce come up twice; once in the year in which we work our way through the Gospel according to Matthew, and once when we’re working in Mark. It would have been about eighteen months ago that we hit the point in which we read Matthew’s version (5:21-37), and that evening someone from this community who has lived through a divorce and is now very happily remarried said to me, “It seems like we just had that reading… I can’t believe it came up again…”
And to be honest, I always feel the same way. Every eighteen months a version of the same dialogue with the Pharisees is read— “to test Jesus they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’”—and every eighteen months the same bottom line is stated. Yes, the law of Moses permits divorce as a way of working with what Jesus calls the “hardness of the [human] heart,” and yet there is a higher law or a more ancient standard located in the created order. “But from the beginning of creation,” Jesus says to them, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” These are citations from the opening chapters of the book of Genesis which Jesus is quoting here, which give authority to what then follows: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
That final line is pronounced as part of the sealing of a marriage covenant in the wedding liturgy of this church, at which I have presided many, many times: “Those whom God has joined together let no on put asunder.” At that point in the liturgy the couple is standing facing each other, with their hands linked and wrapped with my stole to signify the binding; the marriage has been pronounced—“I declare that they are husband and wife, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”—and those words are proclaimed… “let no on put asunder.” I have learned to say these words boldly, without letting them catch in my throat. But I never say them lightly or without a deep awareness of their force, because as many of you are aware, part of the story of my own life involved “putting asunder” a marriage bond.
I’ve learned that I can’t dance around that truth: I am divorced. Yes, remarried for coming on fifteen years, but divorced all the same.
I can get behind the text and do some thinking about what informed Jesus in this teaching. As Larry Hurtado notes, “The effect of Jesus’ position forbidding divorce was to reject the notion that the wife was the man’s property and to insist upon recognition of the woman’s rights in marriage based upon the original creation pattern.” For a woman to receive “a certificate of dismissal” from her husband was tantamount to being sentenced to a life of poverty and shame, and here Jesus effectively prohibits that from happening. And he does it by appealing to the authority of the very created order.
Then there is the matter of this being a test that the Pharisees were putting before him. In the immediate background was the case of Herod, who had married his brother’s wife while the brother was still alive. John the Baptist had spoken publically against that, and had ended up jailed and then executed for his pronouncements. Maybe the Pharisees can back Jesus into a similar corner, which would be a good way of getting rid of him. His response to their test was to press behind the law of Moses and move into the order of creation; quite frankly a brilliant rhetorical move.
Yet Jesus doesn’t stop there, for once out of the public limelight the disciples ask him for a bit more detail, and so he says to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Now the commentators sometimes observe that in even raising the idea that a wife—“she”—could divorce her husband and then marry another man, Jesus is pointing directly to the case of Herod’s marriage to his divorced sister-in-law. Jewish law, you see, had no provision at all for a woman to initiate divorce.
But even if it is Herod’s illicit marriage that is in view, the words remain very, very strong. That “the two shall become one” is offered as being of the very stuff of the order of creation, and to separate that—to put it asunder—is to violate the way things are intended to be. Not only that, but remarriage seems forever tainted by a stain of adultery. What do we do with all of that? What do I do with it?
The worst thing we can do is to act like either Jesus never said any of this, or to suggest that he didn’t really mean it. That’s always a problem, whether dealing with this passage on divorce and remarriage, his words from the Sermon on the Mount about daring to forgive one’s enemies, or any of the other texts that we find hard to integrate into our systems, our thought worlds. The only Jesus we can really know is the Jesus of the four gospels, and according to the accounts of three of the four this was part of what he left to us.
So I think where this leaves us is in the hard place of radical honesty. Sure, our social world is constructed differently from that of the Judea of two thousand years ago, but the claim Jesus is making about relationships and the order of creation seems to suggest that social context is only so important. When our marriages are “put asunder” it marks a break in the intended order of things. It is just not the way it was supposed to have worked out, it was not what was hoped for on that wedding day, and when all the finger pointing and blaming ceases, there is a loss, a cost, a deep wounding, for all involved. And there needs to be an acknowledgment of sin. As I suggested last week, sin generally has little to do with moral failing and much to do with the decisions and default settings that keep us from being what we were created to be, and that is just so often what is at the heart of failed relationships. I suspect everyone who is married knows something of this… we might not have put the whole works asunder, but in the course of day to day life we’ve popped lots of stitches and seams, and if we don’t go back and attend to them… well, you get the picture.
We have to take these texts very, very seriously. For those of us who are married, we have to take not only our vows but also our day-to-day way of being in relationship very, very seriously. And we have to admit that in all likelihood we will with some regularity manage to pop a relational stitch or two, which is all the more reason to not take any of this for granted.
But thanks be to God, haven’t we also got text after text after text in which Jesus looks at the most broken, vulnerable and (yes…) sinful people, and his response is this abundant and overflowing grace and mercy. A Samaritan woman who has had a string of husbands; a tax-collecting collaborator with the occupying enemy army; a woman caught in the very act of adultery; a best friend who in the panic of the moment denies even knowing him; it seems that such things will not keep Jesus away. And according to John, it was at a wedding feast that Jesus offered his first miracle, that of turning water to wine. Lots and lots and lots of really good wine. This suggests that not only did he see wedding feasts as good and live-giving symbols of abundant possibility, but also that by grace plain old water is liable to become the best of wine. In Christ, the deepest of wounds and the most painful failures can be reconciled.
We need not fear even the hardest of gospel texts.