Nineteenth Weekend After Pentecost (B/RCL)
October 3-4, 2015
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
It’s been quite a wedding season here at Holy Trinity, beginning last April! Last weekend I presided at weddings #10 & 11. At each ceremony, after the exchange of vows and rings, I named the bride and groom and said that they, “by their promises before God and in the presence of this assembly, have joined themselves to one another as husband and wife. What God has joined together let no one separate.” (p. 288, ELW) Those are Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel (Mark 10:9).
In a flash, as I say those words, I wonder what the bride and groom will face in their lives together. I hope that no one will ever drive a wedge between them. We pray throughout the ceremony that God will give the newly married couple grace to honor their vows, love, forgive and support their spouse “till death do them part.”
The divorce rate in the United States is usually quoted as 50%. It has actually declined somewhat, though, since the 1980’s, and some say that if current trends continue, 2/3 of marriages will end up succeeding.1 That would be very good news.
Stable, life-giving marriages are a blessing to the couple, their children, and the community. On the other hand: divorce hurts. I know.
In St. Mark’s Gospel the Pharisees are always gunning for Jesus. In today’s Gospel, they’re trying to trip Him up, get Him to antagonize the powers-that-be, discredit Him with His followers, by asking about – divorce – which was a hot-button issue among Jesus’ fellow Jews. The Pharisees ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2) because a woman didn’t have the option of divorcing her husband except for a few rare circumstances.
Jesus answered a question with a question: “What did Moses command you?” (Mark 10:3) In other words, “What does the Law [with a capital L, given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai] say?” Referring to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which talks about a man finding “some indecency” in his wife, they responded, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to dismiss her.” (Mark 10:4) That divorce decree, which in Jesus’ day also required a lawyer and had to be filed with the Sanhedrin, the Temple Council, freed a woman to marry someone else. This was very important, because a woman and children unhitched from a man were impoverished and highly vulnerable. (That is frequently still the case. If a woman suddenly falls below the poverty line, divorce is often the reason.)
The thing is: then, like now, different people interpreted Scripture differently. In Jesus’ day there were two radically different schools of thought:
· The Shammai school said that adultery was the only form of “indecency” that would warrant a husband divorcing his wife.
· The Hillel school said a husband could have almost any reason under the sun for divorcing his wife. Here’s a set of examples I found:
“…if the wife spoiled a dish of food [burned dinner!], if she spun in the streets, if she talked to a strange man, if she spoke disrespectfully of her husband’s relations in his hearing, if she was a brawling woman (who was defined as a woman whose voice could be heard in the next house). Rabbi Akiba even went the length of saying that it meant if a man found a woman who was fairer [prettier!] in his eyes than his wife was.”2
Not surprisingly, the majority of Jewish men went with the more lenient understanding of the Law.
Jesus wasn’t going to minimize the importance of marriage, trivialize the bond of love and commitment on which it was based, or undermine the foundation of the family by going with the easy answer. Instead, in St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus gave the toughest interpretation of all:
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12)
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives the exception of “unchastity” (adultery – Matthew 19:9). In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul allows divorce when a Christian is married to a pagan (what might be called a “mixed marriage” – 1 Cor. 7:15).
Jesus lets us know in no uncertain terms that our heavenly Father’s perfect plan for creation is that marriages endure and that partners be faithful and that the family be grounded in trust, in love, in permanency. That is the most sacred situation for parents and children alike.
But the unholy reality is that we are sinners living in an imperfect world. It’s obvious to me that it doesn’t glorify God for anyone to stay in an abusive relationship or to maintain a marriage in which adults or children are being brutalized physically or verbally. Destructive behavior divorces a couple as surely as any judge ever could. What happens in court is sometimes as simple as the state recognizing what has already happened in the home.
Uncontrolled substance abuse or other addictions or profound and irreversible mental illness can render a spouse incapable of participating in the covenant relationship of marriage. The ending of any marriage is not optimal. But sometimes it is the lesser of two evils. Only the two people most intimately involved can be the true judge. So let’s not judge, lest we be judged….
Our Lutheran Christian tradition holds marriage to be sacred. But we also acknowledge the reality of sin, the brokenness of creation, and our God’s unending ability to forgive, to heal, to bestow new beginnings even in the wake of devastating endings. The Gospel-welcome that Lutherans give to those who have suffered divorce is one of the primary reasons I became Lutheran. The holy hospitality this church extends to those who know the pain of marriage-that-ends-in-divorce is a gift. The spiritual and material support that this church offers men, women, children whose lives and home have been torn apart helps to re-ground them in community, to heal a terrible hurt, to bolster trust in the faithful God who knows our faults and failings and loves us anyway.
Luther said the Law, the commandments, have a couple of different functions. God gives them as a fence to protect us, if we obey them. God gives the commandments as a lens through which to see our sin, since we are unable to keep them as we should. Luther taught that the Law shows us our need of the Gospel: God’s loving mercy in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who gave the greatest commandment of all the night before He died: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
If you are married and rejoicing, give thanks! May our Lord strengthen you in love to fulfill the vows you made on your wedding day, recent or distant. If you are divorced and hurting, may God heal you. If you are widowed, may God soften your sorrow. If you are single, may our Lord’s presence keep you company always. May God make our faith family a blessing to 100% of our families, in all circumstances, now and always. Amen
1Claire Cain Miller, “The Divorce Surge Is Over, but the Myth Lives On,” The New York Times (online, Dec. 2, 2014).
2William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (Daily Study Bible Series, rev. edition), (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 239)
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham