PROPER 22, B
In the 20 years I’ve been preaching, I’ve never had to preach on this lesson – and, when I read it this week, I considered many possible ways of avoiding it today. Instead, I’ll just preface what I have to say by reminding you that I cannot approach this in an unbiased way. I married at 24, divorced at 36, and remarried at 70. Thus, if we read this text in a literal way, I am both a priest and an adulterer – simultaneously. Not a pretty picture!
So How are we to understand Jesus this week? The basic setup is a familiar one. Someone asks Jesus a question to test him – that is, to try to trick him into saying something “wrong.” “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
As usual, Jesus answers their question with a question. “What did Moses command you?” They answer him. “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce her.” That was the Jewish law. Notice that only men could dismiss their spouse, not women.
As David B. Howell notes: “In Jesus’ day, when a woman received a "certificate of divorce," she lost most of her rights (like the right to own property). She could easily find herself begging for food on the street or prostituting herself for income. Clearly, Jesus had a pastoral concern for women who could have their lives torn apart by a signature on a piece of paper. In the kingdom of God, there should be mutual respect and concern for each other, not a quick certificate of divorce or a call to a lawyer to ‘take her (or him) for everything I can.’" (Feasting)
Jesus then tells the questioner that Moses made this rule because of people’s hardness of heart. And then Jesus quotes from Genesis, “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. . .therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Later, when the disciples ask him about this he goes further. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Notice that Jesus is now applying the rules to both genders equally.
One way of seeing this passage is that it creates a new law concerning marriage and divorce. Many Christians see it this way. The Bible says— therefore it must be so. When I confront this understanding, I have to ask, if Jesus believed this to be a new law, why would he have even talked to the woman at the well? He knew she had had multiple husbands, and been with some who were not her husband, and besides, she was a Samaritan. Why wouldn’t he have scolded her for that? Or condemned her?
This understanding would label me as an adulterer, but I sure don’t feel like I am. It just doesn’t ring true to me.
Another way of understanding what Jesus is saying is this: divorce is not something that God intends for us. Men and women who marry should love and cherish each other, support and respect each other, all the things that are in our marriage vows. Sadly, that doesn’t always happen, but it is what God intends for us.
As C.Clifton Beach puts it, “The point is clear: while dissolution of marriage is permissible, owing to human incompetence in sustaining their vows, God’s intent at creation is wholeness, including oneness of flesh. Normatively speaking, human beings should not rupture what God unites (v. 9).
What may sound to our ears as relentlessly harsh assumes a different tenor when we understand that Jesus’ intent is the protection and honor of the spouse as a child created in God’s image, not as chattel to be discarded on selfish whim.” (Feasting)
I know you have heard stories or known people who have experienced abuse within a marriage, whether physical abuse or emotional abuse – either of which contravenes the marriage vows. You may also know people in that situation who have gone to their priest or pastor and been told, “You just have to make the best of it” or even, “if you can be a better spouse, this won’t happen any more” thus further abusing the victim.
Can you imagine Jesus saying such things to an abused spouse? It seems to me that Jesus always takes the point of view that pastoral concerns are more important than the law. The Sabbath is made for people, not the other way around. It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out of the mouth. Think of the shepherd who leaves the whole flock to its own devices just to find the one who is lost.
Clearly, all churches operate on a certain set of rules, but we have to remember that Jesus was a Jew and did not seem to believe he was founding a new religion. He came to fulfill the law. Clearly he respected the law, but he did not respect the people who put the law before kindness and loving their neighbor, who used the law to put others down, or used the law to elevate themselves or to win arguments!
The last part of today’s lesson seems unconnected to the marriage issue. But in suffering the little children to come to him, Jesus is reinforcing all his pronouncements about who is IN rather than OUT in the Kingdom of God. Charles Campbell connects this to the marriage discussion in this way: “Jesus here reminds the disciples that one enters the kingdom only by receiving it in complete dependence on God. One does not enter the kingdom through the fulfillment of any abstract legal principles, including those related to divorce and remarriage. The affirmation in the second pericope thus forestalls any attempt to set up Jesus’ earlier teaching as a timeless law, obedience to which is requisite for entering into God’s reign. . . .Indeed, those suffering the pain and brokenness of divorce may be precisely the ‘least of these’ who can receive the kingdom in dependence on God’s love.”
AMEN to that.