"We See Jesus"
October 7, 2012
The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, pastor
West Walworth: Zion United Methodist Church
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘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.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said 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.”
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Marriage appears to be all the rage these days.
I hear about it all the time;
How one political party wants to define it,
Or one cultural or religious group wants to defend it,
Or how others want to expand it.
Marriage rights amendments are on numerous state ballots this November, though not in New York.
Most of us, myself included, would prefer to let people make up their own minds and not be drawn into a debate.
I so dislike debating, arguing, rude people that, sadly,
I often secede the ground with my silence.
Rarely have we come to think of the Church as the place for
Respectful dialogue on the issue of marriage;
But tell me, where better to discuss this vital issue
Than in the midst of a committed community of faith,
Each of us acknowledged sinners
Working out our salvation?
Where best to discuss healthy marriage
And the wellness that it can bring
Than in the Church?
Our Gospel text this morning is this invitation.
If a discussion about marriage is easy, divorce is not.
Thankfully, our recent elections have not drawn attention to
infidelity and divorce like they had in past election cycles.
Allow me to be so bold as to name it for what it really is:
Divorce is a painful topic.
It hurts husband and spouse.
It hurts children, from infants to adults.
It hurts families, extended families, churches, neighborhoods, and communities.
The last place we want to hear about divorce is from the pulpit of our church,
Yet, here today, we have a Gospel passage where Jesus
Sounds more like the Pharisees he opposes
Than the Son of a loving God,
A gift of grace
To a broken world.
For pastors new to a congregation or inexperienced in preaching
This passage about divorce will raise great anxiety
And lead many to focus on other scripture passages from the lectionary.
Yet, I see our Gospel for today as an invitation
For the Church to be the safe setting
To host Christ centered discussions
About marriage, divorce and all its aspects.
First, let us begin with some historical perspective.
Divorce as we know it today is not the same as it was at the time of Jesus.
Women were considered property, as were children.
Marriage, therefore, was a money and wealth issue.
Thus became the dowry: money paid by the groom’s family to compensate the bride’s family for their loss of property value.
Divorce brought an economic problem:
The husband would have to be paid if the wife left him.
This made it nearly impossible for a woman to leave a marriage,
No matter how troubled or violent it may have become.
This made women doubly vulnerable:
They were treated like property imprisoned in a relationship.
On the other hand, a man of wealth could much more easily leave a marriage
As if he was paying for a service or spending money on a commodity.
At the time of Jesus, not everyone agreed on what constituted a divorce.
A legal divorce, as described in Deuteronomy 24,
Presupposes a man’s point of view,
One that assumes power and authority.
The scribal school of Hillel believed divorce was allowed for any reason,
While the school of Shammai allowed divorce only in the case of adultery.
(Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, as found at WorkingPreacher.org)
It is also important to note that marriage was a tribal issue.
Who you were married to defined
To whom and to which tribe you belonged,
Who your extended family was,
And what cultural characteristics one would assume.
Family and tribe had everything to do with status, position and power in the community.
It defined who your allies were and who your natural enemies were.
So divorcing a spouse was to walk away from the tribe,
To become an outsider, alone, without anyone to whom you could relate.
Into this historical reality steps a group of Pharisees;
Those ultra-conservative lay members of the of organized Judaism
Whose motive was to trap Jesus.
This wasn’t their first attempt, neither would it be their last.
They hoped Jesus would gaff and be exposed as dangerous to families and religion.
Together with scribes and lawyers of their time
These Pharisees desired to pile on the heap of evidence
That Jesus was a dangerous zealot who needed to be culled.
Pharisees had misused scripture in the past to justify their position and consolidate their power,
And they were attempting to do it again.
They asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
The last thing Jesus is going to allow is for him to get sucked into a
Lose / lose debate over the fine points of Law
That even the experts at that time
Failed to agree.
Jesus knew the Law considered women as property;
A means of economics, wealth, and social status.
Written papers of divorce was a halfhearted effort to protect a divorced vulnerable woman.
The Law and its interpretation were unjust.
It was that simple.
This challenge, however, provides Jesus an opportunity to expose injustice and point individuals towards God.
That’s a Win / Win.
Jesus makes the statement: divorce as a means for personal sexual gratification is adultery;
Adultery is sinful because it separates that which God joined together.
While Jesus balances the issue between man and woman
(holding each equally accountable),
Jesus really is calling men to take responsibility for their behavior
- that is, discipline your lust -
And take responsibility for the women and children God has given you.
To a large extent, women and children are vulnerable
Because in a male dominate world,
Men make them vulnerable.
Jesus isn’t holding up the ideal of the perfect relationship.
He is holding up the ideal of being in relationship
“whatever that relationship might look like.
Be one together, because it is God who joins you together.
To be separated is to be marginalized.
To be marginalized is to be alone.”
(Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching, Luther Seminary, as found at WorkingPreacher.org)
Jesus knows alone.
Jesus starts alone and dies alone.
Yet Jesus rises from the dead to be in relationship with all
So that no one needs to be vulnerable, marginalized, left behind.
To be in Christ is to be in relationship
With God and with others.
Some of us, perhaps, even in the covenant of marriage.
To be true,
Each of us will hear this Gospel passage and my proclaimed words differently.
Everyone is shaped by our own unique past experience, personal hurt, or loss:
- People who’ve never been married,
- People who’ve lived the reality,
- People who lost a son-in-law, daughter-in-law, brother or sister-in-law, aunt or uncle,
- People who have been cheated upon, even those who’ve done the cheating,
- People who’ve lost members in the church,
We all hear this passage differently.
We can quickly draw conclusions based on “God’s will” or “God’s condemnation”
But, I’d suggest the marriage and divorce is way more complex.
The message has much more depth than a simple scrape of the scripture.
I’d suggest a different approach,
One that doesn’t conclude with an absolute opinion;
One that places more focus on the journey than the destination.
I’d suggest that when Jesus is speaking of marriage and divorce,
He is drawing us deeper into contemplation and respectful discussion;
To listen for God’s whisper;
To keep an open mind;
To ask questions;
To seek greater knowledge.
In doing so, I’d suggest we, like Jesus,
Pay attention to those who are most vulnerable, and
To build relationship,
With each other,
And with our God.