I’ve spent this week seeking what to say in response to the passage from Mark that we will read Sunday in worship. In the sermon, I plan to acknowledge the hard words Jesus has about divorce and set them in a more gracious context with the Hebrews passage. Here, I think it’s fair that I should take on this difficult subject more directly.

Jesus’ words, equating divorce/remarriage with adultery, come at many of us in a very personal way. Having experienced my own parents’ divorce and remarriages, I feel a need to justify them somehow (as if that were my job). Others who have endured their own divorces often hear these words as yet more condemnation, on top of much they’ve already suffered. As with much of what Jesus says, this teaching says less about modern-day divorce and more about relationships in general than first appearances suggest.

First, of course, we have to acknowledge what Jesus says about divorce in his context: the relationship between two people in a marriage is something profound, and it should not be lightly dispensed with. However, the church’s long-time response to that knowledge – prohibiting or otherwise condemning divorce – misses the point. Nobody knows the depth of pain and sorrow surrounding divorce more than those who have experienced one, nor does anyone else better understand that the fracture of the relationship comes long before the filing of legal papers. We may lament that such a tragic end of relationship should come about, but prohibiting a last resort is a poor way to prevent it from becoming necessary.

Jesus responded to a question about whether it was lawful for a man to divorce (literally “dismiss”) his wife. The law in question didn’t allow for the reverse; women couldn’t apply for divorce at all. In fact, the whole idea of a legal divorce process was likely developed as a way to protect women from the arbitrary abuses of men. Jesus simply took that protection to a higher level, thinking in terms of the powerful relationship that develops between two people. I think it’s possible to acknowledge that relationship, to affirm that it’s not lightly to be dispensed with, and to remain truly compassionate toward those who have experienced that truth in the breakdown of their own marriages.

I plan to preach on this text Sunday, not just because the church owes this conversation to those who have experienced divorce, but because it’s about more than the permissibility or effects of divorce. It’s about how we relate to each other in general. It’s as much about my own marriage, my relationships with my family of origin and strangers on the street, all our willingness to ignore or acknowledge the people with whom we share this world. We are all brothers and sisters of Christ, children of one God; what that God has drawn together, let none of us lightly dismiss.

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