Monday, 5 October 2015

Mark 10 On Divorce

On Divorce

The first marriage ceremony I ever conducted ended in a divorce a decade later. I have been with couples as they have struggled to save their marriage. Sometimes they sought help when it was already too late. Some were unwilling to give up their pride in order to heal the relationship. Some struggled for years, but they were just such different people it was a constant battle. Some dealt with mental illness. Some had different levels of commitment to the marriage. Some had different levels of emotional maturity. The breakup was always painful. A divorce is like a death. While it might have some sense of release for some, it always comes with grief. Of the dozens of couples I have married I’m na├»ve enough to believe that none of them expected to get divorced as they walked down the aisle. And yet, many couples do.

We hear more uncomfortable words from Jesus this morning. Today we hear his teaching on divorce-
“…what God has joined together, let no one separate. …Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 
This is an uncomfortable teaching to hear in a country with a 40% divorce rate (Alberta is around 46%).[1] Nearly half of all marriages are ending in divorce. I remember reading a sermon by Archbishop Futon Sheen that was preached in 1939 in the United States where he presented the shocking divorce rate at one in four.[2]

I’m not so sure the divorce stats were that different in Jesus’ day. The Law of Moses assumed divorce was a reality (Deut 24:1-4). The rabbis before and during the time of Jesus argued about what was just cause for divorce. Some said that divorce was only justified in the case of sexual infidelity, but that was a minority position. The majority said that a man could divorce his wife if he grew tired of her- even if she cooked him a bad meal. All the husband had to do was give his wife an official certificate of divorce, and to give back the money he originally received as a dowry (unless the divorce was brought about by sexual infidelity). (If she was from a poor family this may not have been much). This left many divorced women in a very difficult economic position, especially if they didn’t have family that were willing to take them in. In the patriarchal Ancient Middle East women were almost property, and divorce was the exclusive right of the husband.

Jesus by-passes the cultural norms of his day. He looks to God’s purposes at the very beginning. He looks to the first human couple in the Genesis story. Jesus looks to God’s original creation and uses that to point to God’s future kingdom. These take priority over the Law of Moses. The Law is often about managing the effects of sin in a broken world. Jesus says the Law of Moses allowing divorce was really adapting to the hard-heartedness of men. It was to manage their sinful brokenness. Jesus is concerned with the future Kingdom of God. It is a restoration and perfection of what has been broken. In this way of thinking, the brokenness of divorce doesn’t make much sense in God’s kingdom of wholeness, unity, and restoration. Divorce speaks about our fallenness rather than about God’s kingdom. It is not God’s original intention for human relationships.

That is a message that might sting for a few of us who have experienced a divorce, either our own or the divorce of someone close to us. We want to say that life is more complicated than that. There is the ideal, but then there is the nitty gritty of life. There are emotionally immature people, abusive people, selfish people, alcoholics, drug addicts, gambling addicts, child abusers, cheaters, manipulators, and workaholics. There are money problems, false expectations, the hum drum boredom of daily routines, lack of wisdom around dealing with conflict, and a million other daily realities that married couples sometimes face that edge them towards divorce. We want to remind Jesus that life is complicated, and that makes it difficult to live up to an ideal.

There are a few aspects of Jesus teaching that are worth pointing out that might soften the blow. 
First, Jesus’ teaching would have likely had the effect of protecting women from being thrown into poverty by men who thought they could divorce their wives for little or no reason. In Jesus’ day, making divorce hard was probably universally good for women’s living conditions, and probably for their children too. 
Second, in Jesus’ teaching on marriage women were elevated to an equal status as men. Jesus says, 
"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (10:11-12).
 In ancient Middle Eastern understanding a man commits adultery primarily against another man. He commits it against a daughter’s father, or a woman’s husband. It is a violation of property in that culture. A man doesn’t commit adultery against his wife. … But, Jesus says a husband can commit adultery against his wife. He makes a parallel statement saying that a woman can commit adultery against her husband and a man can commit adultery against his wife. Jesus elevates the woman’s position in marriage from being property to being an equal, which was unheard of. So originally, Jesus’ teaching on divorce elevated women’s status, and also protected them from a cruel social convention that may have resulted in them being thrown into poverty. … (Upon reflection, we could actually be going against Jesus’ intentions to protect the vulnerable and elevate a woman’s value if we suggest a woman stay with an abusive husband rather than be divorced.)    

As we try to apply this teaching to our lives we also need to look at the Bible as a whole, and in this case the New Testament as a whole. In Matthew, Jesus seems to allow divorce in the case of sexual unfaithfulness (Matt 19:1-12). 

St. Paul teaches that, 
“the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest [Paul says] that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” (1 Cor 7:10-15). 

Like Jesus, Paul elevates the status of women in marriage. Paul also seems to think that divorce is permitted for those who have converted to Christianity and their partner is unwilling to live with them as Christians. He doesn’t seem to think of it as ideal, but he does make allowance for it.

So this is not exactly a black and white issue. The ideal of God’s original creation and for God’s future kingdom is for husband and wife to remain as once flesh. But even in the New Testament there seems to be allowance for divorce. There is concern for the vulnerable, there is recognition of the intense pain and brokenness of an unfaithful spouse, and there is the recognition that we need not remain married to someone who is unwilling to live with us because of our dedication to Christ. We have a high ideal, but we also have a recognition that life is often complicated and full of brokenness.

As we try to determine how to make a decision about divorce, we should also remember that we don’t live under the Law. This is not license to do whatever we want. We live under the direction of the Holy Spirit who inspired the Law and who was and is alive in the Church. We are to take Scripture as a whole and pray as a community for the leading of the Holy Spirit. We should also be aware of our own inner desire to get our own way, which isn’t always in accord with God’s will. We need to place all this in the crucible of prayer. This will not produce an easy set of laws to be obeyed. It will give personal spiritual direction to the couple as they stand before God seeking His will for them.

Rather than thinking of how to avoid the negative of divorce, we should perhaps look to the positive ideal of marriage. (I should also say that singleness is held in very high esteem in the New Testament). In the letter to the Hebrews we read “Let marriage be held in high honour by all” (Heb 13:4). In the letter to the Ephesians marriage is used as an analogy of Christ and his Church (Eph 5). This is an image we see elsewhere in scripture- God sees himself as married to Israel (e.g. Hosea). The loving couple as presented originally in the garden, where two become one flesh, is a beautiful image of intimacy that is analogous to the intimacy God desires to have with us. In the book of Revelation John describes his vision saying, 
“I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’ (Rev 21:2-5). 
That is the desire of God. A deep and intimate marriage between God and His people, but one where divorce is not a thought that enters either of our minds.

[2] The Seven Capital Sins,  Lust, p.26


  1. The author pins much on Jesus' words "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her" as if divorce and adultery are equated here by definition. But these words probably mean: "Whoever divorces his wife [in order to] marr[y] another commits adultery against her." A different claim with different implications.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Nik. Indeed divorce is not equal to adultery. I'm very willing to grant you that. Sorry for not being clearer on that point.
    I wouldn't, however, want to grant that minutia too much weight regarding the overall picture. While the New Testament grants divorce may be permissible/necessary in particular cases, it always seems to be a deviation from the ideal. In my understanding the allowance for divorce seems to be an acknowledgement of the sad reality we find ourselves in that makes it difficult to live up to God's vision.


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