When I looked at today’s Gospel reading, I was a little bit tempted to call in sick. It’s a tough one, isn’t it? Throughout most of my adult life, whenever this reading would come around in the Lectionary cycle, I’d sit in the pews wondering what the preacher would make of it. Because, as I’m sure most of y’all are aware, I’ve been divorced. Twice. And I know some of you here today have been as well, and are sitting here, looking at me, wondering what I’m going to make of Jesus’ teachings about divorce.
I was twenty-eight years old when I was divorced from my first wife. It wasn’t my idea. My own parents had divorced when I was around seven or eight and I was raised in a single-parent household. And although my childhood was good, on balance, I really missed having my father around on a daily basis, and I had sworn to myself throughout my growing-up years that I would never get divorced. I wouldn’t do that to my kids. But, I guess, sometimes stuff happens that’s beyond our ability to control. I was pretty devastated, and it didn’t help when I was sitting with a couple of friends in a little Mexican cantina one evening discussing the imminent proceedings, and one of them, Joe was his name, looked at me solemnly and pronounced judgement. Or maybe it wasn’t judgement, precisely, just a forecast certainty. He said, “Kemper, man, this is terrible. You’ve got to figure out a way to reconcile with Ann; otherwise, you’re toast!” Those were his exact words. And Joe wasn’t talking about my drawing the short straw when it came to the division of marital assets or having to pay alimony and child support for our two minor children. No. My friend Joe, who was a very recent convert to a pretty conservative, Bible-believing sect of Christianity was telling me I was going to burn in Hell because I was getting divorced. And he hated it for me, but it was what it was. That wasn’t what I needed to hear just then, and so I pretty much shut him out and moved on. “Oh waiter, another margarita please!”
But seriously, after I got over having my feelings hurt, I embarked upon a long (even a life-long) journey of reflection about marriage and divorce, and the Biblical imperatives and temporal realities surrounding each of them, in an effort to reconcile who I am, with who I’m striving to become. On one hand, I was always pretty sure I wasn’t “toast.” That’s not the way any father (certainly not our Heavenly Father!) would treat his children. And everything’s worked out OK… my ex(s) and I have done the best we could to support each other in our parenting and the kids are doing OK. On the other hand, even thirty-plus years after the fact, rarely a day goes by when not reminded, in one way or another, that I’ve experienced divorce. It’s the “gift” that keeps on giving.
So how do we reconcile temporal realities with Jesus’ teachings? There’s a lot to think about. I suppose we could begin with rationalizations. You know the drill: Jesus’ words about divorce aren’t really applicable in this day and age because…
Maybe because, for the Jews back in first-century Palestine, it was all about cultural survival. God’s Chosen People were firmly under the thumb of their Roman occupiers, and pagan norms and practices were beginning to insinuate themselves into the daily lives of the Jews to the point of becoming a threat to their religious identity. And, then as now, religious culture and tradition was handed down primarily through the family unit. Life was tough, and in most cases, it took two parents to keep a family afloat. The mortality rate for newborns was higher than it is today, and the propagation of strong, healthy offspring was critical to the survival of Jewish culture and tradition. So… promoting a stable, nuclear family with a mommy and a daddy and 12.5 kids, all well-steeped in the culture and tradition of their parents, was the best way to ensure the survival of the Jewish ethnos. These days, though, it seems that most of us are less-concerned about cultural survival as we are about being-able-to-do-whatever-we-want-to-do-whenever-we-want-to-do-it. That, and getting sued. Raising kids can be a lot of work and, given the current litigious environment, it can also be a risky business. Better to have a pet. And since we don’t really pass down our cultural identity through our pets… and because pets are less-likely to require a stable, nuclear family to thrive in any case, maybe divorce needn’t be quite the “bugaboo” it was it was in Jesus’ time. What do you think? Or how about this…
Married women in Jewish society were often treated as chattel… not as slaves, precisely, but as a sort of “conjugal property,” and were largely, if not entirely, dependent on their husbands for support. The husband controlled all the marital assets and, in the case of divorce, the only “alimony” a woman would receive was the dowry she had brought into the marriage in the first place, which could be worth as little as a couple of hundred dollars in today’s currency. Certainly, some women might have more coming to them, but it would likely never have been enough to live on for the long haul. Maybe a divorced woman could find a new husband but, as far as society was concerned, she had already failed the matrimonial test once, and was “used goods” to boot! And since her former husband would almost invariably maintain custody of the children of the marriage, a divorced woman was likely to die cold and alone. So, it was right and proper that Jesus should be concerned with the ramifications of divorce, particularly for women in first-century Palestine. But in the twenty-first century, things are different. Now women have far more protections within a marriage than they did back in the day: to own and control personal assets outright… to initiate divorce proceedings on their own… child custody rights, the right to equitable distribution of community property and spousal support in case of divorce… all that stuff. I suppose it’s still possible for a woman to die, cold and alone due to having been divorced, but it’s no longer a likelihood. Not here in the U.S. at any rate. So, maybe Jesus’ teaching on divorce is just a little dated. Maybe we’re all off the hook, right?
Except that… and here’s the place I’ve come to after years of being divorced and reflecting upon what Jesus had to say about divorce: I don’t believe that, in this case, he was speaking, first and foremost, about temporal (worldly) realities and concerns… like the importance of maintaining strong, nuclear families in order to ensure the survival of Judaism, or even about the vulnerability of first-century Jewish women in marriage. Sure, both of those issues are important and bear thoughtful consideration. But if you reread the text of our Gospel passage today, you’ll notice that Jesus “went deep” with the Pharisees from the outset, pronouncing not only the prohibition on divorce, but also commenting on the nature of marriage itself. And he prefaced these comments with, “[F]rom the beginning of creation . . ..” In the Garden… before the Fall… God made them, male and female… to leave their birth families behind and cleave together as one flesh… living together in the Garden, in eternal communion with their Creator. It reminds me of the bride and Bridegroom of the parables—the Creator and the created, God and the church, united and “at-one” forever. What do you think?
But that’s not quite how things worked out, was it? There was a break and an estrangement… a divorce really… something about a snake and an exotic piece of fruit. The Fall. It wasn’t God’s idea; it was ours, and we bear the burden of that estrangement each and every day of our lives. It’s the “gift” that keeps on giving. So I wonder if Jesus was reminding the Pharisees (and us) that the institution of temporal marriage was, and had always been intended to reflect the ideal union between God and humankind, and that Moses had been forced to give the practice of divorce “a pass” (cf. Deut 24:1-4) not because it was OK, but because he recognized that the ideal of marriage can be a little hard to come by in this fallen world. It’s not that it never happens… some of us are the beneficiaries of pure, dumb luck. And between that, and a bunch of hard, hard work, they’re able to set the rest of us an example to which we can aspire. And good on them for that! But it seems sometimes to be the exception, rather than the rule, doesn’t it? So maybe Moses was onto something, and if that’s the case, then maybe the endemic fragility of human relationships stems from the brokenness of Creation, rather than the other way around. Maybe. But even if it’s not our fault, it is our problem.
What to do?
How about this: Keep on loving. God and neighbor. The best we can. And promise-keeping is part of a loving relationship. Certainly, God doesn’t want us to abrogate promises we’ve made. But neither, I believe, does God want us to throw our lives away, or put our bodies or souls at risk, in pursuit of a marriage (or any other endeavor) that doesn’t somehow reflect the ideal, archetypal relationship between the Creator and the created. Think about that for a minute. The reason for our earthly sojourn, the reason we’re here… is to learn how to shape our lives to better reflect the glory of our Creator. Yeah, I know it’s a tall order… but we’d best get to it.
Divorce is not OK. It may be necessary… it may be the only option we can think of in the extremity of our pain and misery. But there’s nothing we can do to make it what it isn’t. Divorce means betrayed trust… wounded hearts… shattered dreams. It is what it is, just like it was at the beginning of creation. And we can’t make it OK. But God can make it OK. God can create something beautiful from dust… just as he did at the dawn of creation… just as he did through the death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah… if we’ll let him. So, maybe we ought to focus more on learning to make better promises to the people we love… and then living out these promises in a way that better reflects the glory of our Creator… than on broken relationships that reflect a fallen world. I’m pretty sure I know what Jesus would say. I believe he’d say: “I love you… anyhow. And be comforted. You’re not toast.”