This is my third opportunity to preach, and to be completely honest with you – I haven’t been terribly thrilled about any of the gospel passages I’ve gotten to work with yet!
First, I was given the beheading of John the Baptist. O joy.
Then, there was John’s Bread of Life discourse… which is fantastic, except I got the tail end of it in which the disciples leave Jesus, and after we’d already been studying the darn thing for three weeks, and I’m sitting there wondering what the heck else there is to say about it that hasn’t already been said.
Now, we have today’s reading. Jesus says some wonderful things about the institution of marriage here. There’s actually a good bit of positivity. But, it’s our human nature that, someone could say ninety nine nice things to us, but then offer one negative word of criticism, and we don’t come away remembering the ninety nine but fretting and obsessing about the one.
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Wow. How come I never get water turning into wine, or raising the dead or giving sight to the blind?!
You know what, on second thought, maybe this whole “pastor” thing isn’t for me after all, that’s it, I’m out.
Or, maybe I just need to have a word with Pastor Scott; I think he’s skipping town intentionally on the weeks when he knows the readings are lousy. Yeah, that must be it…
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” This sure feels awfully harsh coming from Jesus, doesn’t it?? He’s the one we usually go to for forgiveness, understanding, acceptance, and second chances when we can’t find those things anywhere else. He’s the one we usually to go, to feel better when life hurts. And it sure feels like he’s coming down awfully hard on those who’ve fallen victim to the tragedy of divorce.
There is not one person in this room, of course, who has not experienced the heartbreak of divorce. We all know someone whose life has been rocked by it. One of them preaches weekly from this very pulpit.
Now I like to think of course that our congregation here is an enlightened enough group, that I certainly don’t need to lecture you about the need to withhold judgment and show love, compassion and empathy for those folks. But nevertheless, this passage exists; Jesus’ words are right here and we need to be able to respond with a proper understanding, don’t we? With our luck, that person that we’ve been inviting to church for a very long time would probably choose to show up today, and this might be the first scripture they’ve heard in years. And if we’re even luckier, they might be divorced themselves. So, we need to be able to respond to this.
Oh, and what’s the deal with this little blurb here at the end about Jesus and the little children? Seems like a bit of an abrupt change of topic, doesn’t it? What does this have to do with the rest of the passage? Well… stay tuned.
Let’s see if we can blunt the effect of Jesus’ seemingly harsh words a bit.
First off – his use of the word “adultery” sounds scandalous and shocking to our ears, but Jesus throws it around a little more casually perhaps than we would. Recall the Sermon on the Mount; as far as Jesus is concerned, we’re all “adulterers” already. (We’re all murderers too, by the way.) I paraphrase for the sake of gender and orientation inclusiveness: “Whomever looks at someone with lust in their eyes, has already committed adultery with them in their heart.”
Quick show of hands: who here, among those who have been married, can look me in the eye and honestly tell me without their nose growing, that they’ve never for even one second found themselves attracted to someone other than their spouse? (By the way, if your hand goes up, I’ll be speaking to you after church about teaching classes on spiritual discipline.) Anyone? Well, as far as Jesus is concerned, you’re already an “adulterer” anyway. And what was Jesus’ attitude towards “adulterers” in John’s gospel? “Let he who is without sin, be the first to cast a stone.”
Secondly – there may have been some first century rabbinical politics at work, here. Jewish teaching on the subject of divorce at this time was divided into two main schools of thought: Rabbi Hillel and his school understood Moses to be permitting divorce for basically any and every reason. A somewhat more conservative Rabbi, Shammai, on the other hand, understood Moses to only be permitting divorce in cases of marital infidelity.
In the parallel version of this story in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus adds additional detail, adding a disclaimer that divorce is permissible in cases of infidelity, and seems to be allying himself with Shammai’s view. It is POSSIBLE, that Jesus was a follower of Shammai and his other teachings. Note, there is no proof of this – it is only a scholarly theory. We will never know for sure. Jesus never mentioned Shammai that we know of. But this statement of his on divorce seems to echo Shammai.
And that segues nicely into my third point – Jesus, himself, was a first century Jewish Rabbi. They spoke in exaggerated hyperbole, using colorful and eccentric language, all the time to make their point. It’s just how they taught back in those days. They knew they weren’t going to be able to email everyone a PDF of their sermons afterwards, with the important points bolded, italicized, underlined, or highlighted. They knew they needed to say things that were a little shocking in order to catch peoples’ attention and get them to remember the key takeaways.
Jesus says everyone who divorces is an adulterer? OK – well, in last week’s Gospel, Jesus also tells us that if we commit sin, we ought to gouge out our eyes and chop off our hands and feet so that we won’t sin again. You all have both eyes, both hands, and both feet, yes? Well… that means one of two things is true: either A., none of you has ever sinned, or B., you understand that not everything Jesus says is meant to be taken in its most literal, oversimplified sense.
Jesus does not like divorce. He sees it as a sad thing to be avoided if possible. But to suggest that those who’ve fallen victim to the tragedy of divorce are literally equal in sin and guilt to an adulterer? I hardly think so. Jesus is more compassionate than that. Logic and common sense demand it. The same Jesus who can accept prostitutes (Mary), those who would deny his name in public (Peter), or even murderers (Saul-slash-Paul) surely has empathy for those who find themselves in an intolerable situation with no other way out.
But… all of that having been said… I’m still not really satisfied, are you? We still haven’t really gotten down to the nitty gritty of what Jesus is really trying to tell us here. Where’s the gospel message in this passage? We’ve managed to soften the impact of Jesus’ seemingly harsh words a bit. But we still haven’t really figured out why he feels so strongly about this. Nor have we explained the significance of the brief “blurb” at the end regarding the little children.
Of course on its face we comprehend the basics of the story. This particular group of Pharisees has heard of the famous Jesus of Nazareth, cris-crossing the land and preaching some things that, to their ears, sound radical, unorthodox and borderline heretical. They’ve heard of his liberal tendency to “ignore” the Law (their interpretation of it, anyway). They’ve heard of this supposedly wise and learned Rabbi who doesn’t even seem to respect the basic Sabbath work laws and the ritual cleansing laws – Jesus touches lepers, he touches the dead, he doesn’t wash before he eats, et cetera.
Upon hearing he’s coming to their town, they want to test him. They want to hear whether he’ll give establishment answers in line with their own understanding of Moses. And of course, Jesus does exactly what we know he’ll do; he does not give them the answer they want to hear as per the letter of the Law, but his answer instead tries to restore the original intended spirit of the Law, which has been lost and corrupted thru man-made tradition and human sinfulness.
And what is that? What is that spirit of the Law that he’s trying to reclaim, that I’ve now spent two pages dancing around?? Just spit it out, what is going on?
Here’s what’s going on: Jesus accuses his opponents, of having de-humanized, objectivized, and exploited people to suit their own purposes. Jesus is condemning those who would use divorce, and by extension their spouse, as a tool to achieve their ends. And in so doing, de-humanizing human beings, beloved children of God for whom he would die.
Abusing their warped interpretation of the Law as their justification, such things happened all the time back in those days. A Jewish man had virtually unlimited power to discard his wife like yesterday’s fish whenever it suited him. And they could and did do so for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with escaping unhappy relationships – they would discard their wives to marry someone younger, someone more attractive, someone whose family had money, or land (which of course would become theirs by default), or someone whose family had power and would increase their status in life. Jesus was condemning this sick, coldhearted practice of using and abusing human beings as disposable means to achieve our goals.
Now, Jesus may have chosen to include women in this responsibility – it was not completely unheard of, in very unusually progressive circles, for Jewish women to divorce men – but don’t be fooled, we know what this practice amounted to about ninety nine percent of the time. It was the men divorcing the women. And you all know enough about the standing of women in that culture to understand why this was far worse.
Women, lest we need to be reminded, had virtually no power and no rights. They were regarded as the property of a man their entire lives – first of their father, then of their husband. Women were not allowed to leave their homes without permission. They were not allowed to hold public office. They could not testify in court. They could not move around in public unaccompanied by a man. They could not speak to strangers. They had to be veiled at all times. You all undoubtedly have heard the prayer sometimes repeated by Jewish men of the day: “Thank you, Lord, that I was not born a Gentile, or a woman.”
In such a misogynist culture, then, divorce could often be a DEATH SENTENCE for women. Their husband discards them to marry the new hottie in the village whose family has some money, or some political influence, and what happens to his ex-wife? She’s not allowed to work or own anything. Her family won’t take her back out of disgrace, believing her to be an adulteress and fearing the judgment of the community. She can expect to be treated the same way when she sits by the roadside attempting to beg. All these reasons, coincidentally, are why the early Church placed such a tremendous import on the need to create a ministry team (see, we weren’t the first ones to have those) dedicated to providing care for widows. Widows and divorced women could fully expect in those days to be simply cast aside like human trash, discarded from society and left to die.
This evil, then, is what Jesus is really concerned with here; not with passing judgment on those consenting adults who mutually agree to withdraw from a loveless situation.
By the way – whatever happened to the blurb about Jesus and the little children at the very end of the passage? When the lectionary was created, surely there was a rhyme and reason as to why this little bit was tacked on – we must presume there was some kind of common theme for the day, right?
Well, as it turns out – children had about as many rights in those days as did women. Jewish boys of course could at least look forward to the day when they’d become a grown man and be acknowledged as a human being, but while they were still children they, also, had no civil rights and were regarded as the property of their parents. It could and did happen that children could be bought, sold and traded as slave labor, as sex slaves, and could be subjected to whatever the parents deemed fit as forms of discipline, and there were no laws and no law enforcement to protect the children from any of this.
In rejecting these little children who want to come to Jesus to have Life, the disciples, without realizing it, are de-humanizing these also. The disciples treat them not as human beings to be respected and treated with dignity, but simply as annoyances to be brushed aside. This is especially frustrating to Jesus when in chapter nine, less than thirty verses ago (our reading from last week), Jesus was just telling them not to cause the little children to stumble, and evidently they’ve already forgotten.
So… while it may have initially seemed like Jesus’ comments about divorce were unusually harsh and judgmental (by his standards), it turns out that in the end, Jesus is watching out for the weakest, most marginalized, exploited, and vulnerable members of society… just like he always does.
Now, does any of this mean anything to us? We’re churchgoers, right? We’re sitting here in worship… I’m pretty sure none of us here engages in slavery or human trafficking… we don’t need to be told any of this, do we? We don’t exploit people, de-humanize people, or use people as tools to achieve our ends, right?
Well, are we so sure about that? Remember, the disciples de-humanized the little children simply by ignoring them. Exploitation of other human beings doesn’t always have to be pathologically extreme.
How about our workplace? We’ve never allowed ourselves to take credit for other people’s work? Allowed others to take the fall for our mistakes because we feared the consequences? We’ve never stood on the backs of others to get ahead? We’ve never manipulated or cheated the system, used underhanded, unethical or even illegal tactics to get an advantage over someone, without caring what happened to them when it was all said and done?
How about our friends and family? We’ve never emotionally manipulated our loved ones? Never used guilt or the withholding of affection as a weapon? Never tried to control others’ feelings to get them to do what we wanted them to do, or give us something we wanted from them, without any regard for how that made them feel or what kind of lasting emotional damage that could do?
What about the social and political sphere? Now, just as a BIG disclaimer here, I am NOT under any circumstances directly referencing any current headlines and trying to tell you how you should feel about them here – as an up and coming preacher I’m not quite that stupid. Not going to commit professional suicide before I’ve even gone to seminary…but that having been said… in the abstract…
A hot button headline begins to rip through the nation like wildfire. People begin to take sides and the rhetoric begins to fly. Do we immediately assume the partisan position with which we’ve always identified, join in the fray, and begin doing our part to make generalizations and start calling names when in reality, we cannot honestly say we’ve spent even five seconds sincerely trying to understand and listen to the other side? Do we allow ourselves to get so carried away, that we forget there are real human beings on the other side? Because we identify them as our “enemy”, do we stop caring about what happens to, not only them, but also to their families, their friends, everyone associated with them, as long as we can advance our agenda?
Think back to the World War II era propaganda posters we studied in school, or, even saw in person if we’re old enough. Think back to the offensive, racist way they portrayed German and Japanese peoples. It’s a lot easier to morally justify treating our enemies however we wish, if we spin them as monsters and take away their humanity, isn’t it?
This may seem like it’s getting pretty far removed from our Scripture today, but it’s really not – it’s easy to treat women and children as property, to dispose of as we please, when we no longer see them as equals. It’s easy to use and manipulate others to get our way, without regard for their well-being, when we do likewise.
There is not one human being on the face of this planet that is not a beloved child of God, for whom Christ died, who is not made in God’s image.
The good news in all this, is that the same thing applies to us. And it is the strength which we draw from that, that allows us to rise above, and be the salt and light of the Earth, treating every human being with the dignity and respect they are owed, as a child of God.