Rev. Canon Eugene T. Sutton
Washington National Cathedral
October 8, 2006
Text: Mark 10:2–12
In today’s gospel lesson, leaders of a conservative religious party of his day attempt to trap Jesus with the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” It’s no accident, of course, that the means of entrapment is a question about divorce. It’s a question about women, it’s a question about power, and it’s not a safe question. They knew that speaking out about divorce cost John the Baptist his life. Perhaps only a fool would touch this touchy subject even today, which is probably why I’m going to preach on it this morning.
Notice it’s not the kind of question that springs from pastoral concern. By raising the issue of the lawfulness of a man divorcing his wife, the Pharisees realize that the issue of divorce was a hot topic that might finally get Jesus into trouble. The atmosphere then was roughly analogous to what we experience as a political campaign in which Jesus, the surprise frontrunner in the race to win the hearts and minds of the people, is being tested as a Messianic candidate. So, his political opponents present him with an ethical question designed to trip him up theologically and embarrass him politically.
As to the legal issue, in that theocracy of Israel in the first century, there were two major options in the rabbinic law: the school of Shammai or the school of Hillel. Shammai and his school were very conservative and admitted the legality of divorce only in extreme cases: adultery, and perhaps in some cases complete incompatibility. Hillel and his school were more liberal and allowed legal divorces for offenses such as a wife burning dinner, or insolence. The expectation in today’s gospel episode is that Jesus would also make a similar ruling on particular cases that would inevitably offend one or the other party.
Now I hope that you can readily see that to think of personal moral issues only in terms of the law, and not also in terms of love and discernment, is always a mistake. Yet many still try to do it today. To attempt to answer any ethical question solely on the basis of the law displays not a discerning heart that seeks the will of God in particular situations, but rather a “hardness of heart.” Jesus discerned that his questioners had hardness of heart, and were not really concerned about how to the love of God could best be applied in situations of divorce.
His counter-question to them refers to the Law of Moses in which a man was allowed to give his wife a certificate of divorce. Jesus’ response attributes Moses’ ruling to the people’s hardness of heart. In Exodus, “hard heartedness” is associated with Pharaoh and with resistance to God’s will and purpose. But by then citing two passages from Genesis—“God made them male and female” (1:27) and “a man leaves…and they become one flesh” (2:24)—Jesus is appealing to an earlier legal precedent before Moses. Thus he reframes the issue in relation to God’s original intent and refuses to enter into the specifics of case law.
But here’s the really interesting thing about Jesus’ response. His ruling at first appears to be more conservative than the school of Shammai, but by going deeper into a discernment of that statement “what God has joined together” leaves open the possibility that the more liberal school of Hillel may be more appropriate in some cases. The spiritual issue here is whether God has in effect joined a couple together; that is, whether or not a true marriage had ever taken root in a couple’s relationship.
“What God has joined together, let no one separate.” That speaks to the work of God being always that of reconciliation; reconciling things that are broken, relationships that are sundered, even societies that are divided. That work of God in Christ reconciling all things into the divine life is our work too. The New Testament instructs those who desire to be followers of Jesus to take on “the ministry of reconciliation” as ambassadors, or representatives, of Christ. (2 Cor. 5:17–20)
What we need, then, is a reconciling theology of the union of two persons that avoids the temptations to go to the extremes of an ultra-conservative or an ultra-liberal view of marriage. I want, as you, to uphold, support and celebrate with all those first-married couples who sometimes have had to struggle mightily to stay together no matter what. And I want, as I hope you do, to weep with, uphold and support all those who go through the bitter pain of the dissolution of a marriage. In many cases, these couples are just as loving, caring, religious and ethical as couples who manage to stay together, and yet their marriages simply do not work out.
It does not help them or society to paint divorcees with the bright red brush of “Sinner.” Sin, of course, is always involved in divorce, since it is not God’s will that anyone separate what God has joined together. But beating up on yourselves or (usually more commonly) others, over “who’s the greater sinner” is always fruitless—and completely against the words and compassionate actions of Christ. On the other hand, it also does not help to paint “Saint” on the foreheads of all people trapped in awful marriages, heaping praises on those who “stick it out” in an almost superhuman, joyless way, as if that is a good example of following God’s intention.
Now some of you may have noticed that so far I have dealt only with the first part of Jesus’ response to his opponents. If he had just stopped there, then my job would be easier. But he went on, and so much we. So…
Here’s the really hard part. Jesus conclude his teaching by declaring that if a man or woman divorces and then remarries, he or she is guilty of adultery. Case closed. Did you hear that? According Mark 10, if you divorce someone and then remarry, you are guilty of adultery. Seven years ago I remarried, marrying a divorced woman. Has anyone else here been divorced and remarried? I am so glad I am not the only sinner here!
In Matthew 19, we find a similar passage, but it is significantly softer. That scripture states that a man who divorces and remarries is guilty of causing adultery unless he divorces because his wife was unfaithful to him. At least, then, Matthew’s gospel provides that one exception. But not Mark. In Mark 10, divorcing and remarrying equals adultery.
That is a tough teaching. What do we do with it? Well, one thing we cannot do is throw it out; we don’t do that with the Word of God, the church’s Scripture, especially the ones we don’t like. We cannot ignore it, we cannot press delete. So what do we do? We’re tempted to do what the famed comedian W.C. Fields is reported to have done: when he was very ill in a hospital bed, he started leafing through a Bible. Everyone knew that this was a rare and unlikely thing for W.C. Fields to do, but he explained himself, saying dryly, “I’m looking for loopholes!” So where’s the loophole here?
There are none. But one of the principles of reading the Bible prayerfully and responsibly is to read a passage of Scripture in light of other parts of Scripture. That is, some Scriptures are “illuminating passages” that shed considerable light on the darker, hard-to-understand passages. To use the image of a campsite fire, with the flames representing the central message of the Scriptures, we can say truthfully that some Scripture passages are closer to that fire than other passages whose embers burn dimmer along the edges.
With that common understanding of biblical interpretation in mind, shared by both conservatives and liberals, let’s go back again to today’s gospel lesson. Given what we have seen of Jesus elsewhere in scripture, we know that Jesus does not mean here in Mark 10 that a husband and wife are to remain together no matter what. Surely, if a woman is being physically abused by her husband, Jesus is not saying that she must stay with him no matter what, that she should under no circumstances ever walk out on that marriage, and never look for a more suitable husband who is able to love, respect, and dignify her and make her happy. The kind of Jesus who would demand that simply does not exist in the New Testament.
If a couple find themselves locked in a joyless, rage-filled and completely failed prison of a marriage that does not reflect the intention of God for marital intimacy and communion, then the Jesus of the New Testament is not saying “well, that’s just tough—grin and bear it for God’s sake.” Is Jesus really denying all possibility of remarrying so that you can have that happiness with a life partner that many of us long for, search for, hope for and pray for? It is highly unlikely that this Jesus whom many of have come to know, love and follow, the Jesus who is presented in the Bible as the one most eager to forgive and show mercy and welcome sinners—unlike many of religious leaders in his society—could in the case of divorce become uncharacteristically rigid, uncompassionate and ruthless.
It is unlikely that this same Jesus, who would without reservation break the religious laws governing the Sabbath in order to help a person in need, would in this area assert unconditionally that divorcing and remarrying is always adulterous. And it is unlikely that Jesus, also portrayed in today’s gospel lesson as the one who welcomes children into his arms, could shut out an adult person who after exhausting all other possibilities makes the difficult and agonizing decision to end a bad marriage.
What is likely is that Jesus in Mark 10:2–12 is employing here what one preacher calls a “holy hyperbole”; that is, he is intentionally exaggerating in order to get his hearers to hear a higher spiritual truth. He did this many times in Scripture; putting forth a strong statement in order to make a serious point and underline it. For instance, just last week the assigned gospel reading in the Sunday lectionary was Mark 9:38–48, (the preceding passage to today’s lesson), in which Jesus said, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” (v. 42) Did he mean that literally? A little exaggeration, perhaps? And he went on: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, the unquenchable fire.” Similarly, “if your foot causes you to sin….if your eye causes you to sin…cut them out!” Sounds like a bit of “holy hyperbole” here, doesn’t it? Or else, if he were being literal, then this morning’s congregation would be composed completely of footless, handless and eyeless worshipers!
And, while we are on the subject—that “hell, the unquenchable fire” that he was referring to—why do so many Christians choose to take that one literally, especially in light of the fact that the word we’ve rendered in our English translation as “hell” is literally in Greek “Gehenna,” or the Valley of Hinnom, that area of Jerusalem below Mount Zion that was the site of the burning of the city’s trash, hence the undying “fire.” It never ceases to amaze me that that particular exaggeration of Jesus becomes a literal fact of the afterlife in the consciousness of so many people. I’m afraid it says more about the fear and insecurity of the hearers who are taught to think of God as a vengeful and frightful being, than it does about the Compassionate One who sometimes used “holy hyperbole” in order to get people to rethink their priorities and get their spiritual houses in order before it’s too late.
So, to return then to today’s gospel lesson, when Jesus declares that divorcing and remarrying is adulterous, it is an emphatic way of saying that he is very serious about marriage—much more serious than those pharisaical, condemnatory, so-called spiritual leaders who just wanted to know if he could quote the Torah back to them. He had to shake them up, because things had reached a crisis stage. You see, in Jesus’ day, men—who had all the power of the law behind them when it came to social relations—had grown too casual about divorce, while women—who were basically property in that culture—could by being divorced be in serious financial trouble, not having a husband to support her. In other words, just as Jesus is quick to welcome the children—who had marginal status and who were being rejected by the disciples—so here Jesus is moved to be more strict about divorce in order to protect women, who were also victims of being marginalized and rejected by uncaring but powerful husbands who held all the cards financially, socially and religiously.
Thus, Jesus’ point is not that divorce—although always involving sin and pain—is always wrong. Rather, his point is that we need to get serious about marriage.
Jesus’ point is very relevant today. At a time when fifty percent of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, we need to get real serious as a church and as a society about marriages, and how to save them.
In my twenty-five years of serving as a pastor, teacher, counselor and spiritual guide, I have met with a lot of couples in a lot of different circumstances. And I can tell you with certainty that far too many couples wait far too long to ask for help when their marriages are in trouble. So often by the time they come in to see a marriage counselor or a priest, the relationship is already in its last throes and it is much more difficult to climb out of the difficulty. These same couples, moreover, live in a contemporary culture that one family therapist [William Doherty, in Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World that Pulls Us Apart (New York: Guilford Press, 2001)] describes well, saying that “in a me-first world, marriage is a we-first contradiction.” He suggests that many marriages are really “consumer marriages” in which spouses are prone to ask questions like: “Could I do better?” “What am I getting out of this relationship?” It’s not that these questions are always inappropriate to ask, especially in abusive relationships, but many consumer marriages could be saved if measures were taken sooner to revitalize the commitment.
So, here’s one concrete suggestion: seek help! For my wife and me, we try to check in with each other—on occasion with a marriage therapist—to see what we can do to improve our union. And, we try to bind the commitment of our marriage by saying to each other (and sometimes publicly) these words:
“Divorce is not an option!”
Of course divorce is an option, but we do not say it, and we refuse to believe it. Why? Holy hyperbole!