The Dilema of Divorce

First published October 2015 and taken from a sermon given in Church by the Reverend Ray Gibbs, Priest-in-Charge at St. Michael’s.

To understand this sermon, you will need to read Mark 10: 2 – 16 first and ponder it for a minute or two before trying to make sense of what Reverend Ray has written. If you don’t have a Bible, then you can access this particular passage via Bible Gateway by clicking here.

There is a lot to take in on this page, so may we suggest you read it more than once and give yourself plenty of time to reflect on the important message it delivers for us all.

Do you think this Bible reading is about marriage and divorce, and I don’t blame you if you do? It is easy to look at this at face value but it isn’t really about marriage and divorce. Oh that’s part of the story, but it is a story from Jesus’ time, and it is an issue of their time, not ours. It is an issue of their time being used by some very clever and crafty people to try and trap Jesus in to saying something heretical and damning: despite all the appearances, it isn’t really mainly about marriage and divorce.

It's certainly not a list of rules for having a healthy marriage, or for when it's okay to get a divorce. The Bible is very clear that God hates divorce, (that is not to say that there is never reason for it, you’ve only to have met a casualty of a brutal abusive marriage: the cuts, the scars, the missing clumps of hair, the crooked, badly set broken fingers, and the children shaking with fear at the sound of a male voice: oh there are reasons aplenty, outside of betrayal and broken vows). But God doesn’t celebrate when something he designed to last for a lifetime breaks apart. And if you have been through a divorce, you know exactly what God means. You feel God’s pain and heartbreak over something that didn’t turn out the way you had hoped, or prayed, or imagined. And you certainly wouldn’t wish a divorce upon even your worst enemy.

So this sermon isn’t about keys for unlocking a great marriage or anything like that. What we have before us is actually a very basic lesson about two different ways of approaching God. That’s what the Gospel lesson is actually about. And to make the point, God shows us two extremes, two groups of people in the ancient Middle East that couldn’t have been more opposite. In verses 2-12 we have the Pharisees, who were known for their brilliance, their wisdom, and their high and pious way of living. Then in verses 13-16 we have kids, small, not yet educated or wise, and totally dependent. Have you ever wondered why this was tacked on the end of a paragraph about marriage and divorce? Why put that there, if not on purpose?  The contrast between Pharisee and child is there for a reason.

Each of these groups has a way of coming to Jesus. The Pharisees, with a man-made way: rules, and knowledge, and impressive skills, conniving, plots and traps. And the kids, with a Holy-Spirit led way, wild and free, unfettered by conventions, totally reliant upon God, with nothing of any earthly value to offer to him. At that time, children were nobodies, they had no rights, no power, they were the bottom of the pile, with the Pharisees on the other hand at the top, members of the ruling elite who made the rules that kept them there.

So, let’s start with the Pharisees. A group of these learned teachers come out to meet Jesus in Judea. Mark lets us know WHY they are coming: they want to test Jesus, or to trap him in to saying something that will either condemn him as a heretic, or at the very least discredit him. Some of you who come to Church regularly may be thinking: "didn't you just recently preach something like this?" And the answer is YES! The interaction between the Pharisees and Jesus is talked about all the time in the Gospels; it was a constant war of attrition from the moment Jesus rejected them, the Temple and their lifestyle in Jerusalem and set himself up as a wandering rabbi with a rag tag following of peasant scholars; and the Bible talks about it a lot, so it is inevitable that this battle of wills over the souls of God’s people is going to surface time and time again during the three years of Jesus’ ministry.

So what is the killer question they have for Jesus this time? “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Matthew adds the words, “For any and every reason”, but Mark leaves it quite plain). Now, as always, this may seem like a straightforward question, but it isn’t. It is a reference to a well documented debate going on in the Jewish community in Jesus’ day. Mark is careful to point out the Pharisees’ motive for us. They came to test Jesus, and so they selected a very controversial question, the issue of divorce, and they wanted to put Jesus on the spot, and try to get him to make a choice between the two views which were widely held in that day in Israel. 

One was the teaching of the great rabbi, Hillel. Moses, in Deuteronomy 24, had said that a man could divorce his wife if he found any indecency in her. Hillel interpreted ‘indecency’ to mean anything, anything at all which displeased the husband, for example: if the wife made bad coffee, he could divorce her, if she did not keep the house clean, if she got angry or argumentative, or whatever; she could be divorced. This was the easy school of divorce of that day, and in a male dominated world, you can imagine how popular this was. Opposed to that ideology of divorce was the school of Shammai, another great Hebrew rabbi, who taught that divorce was to be strictly limited, that only under certain conditions such as adultery, could divorce ever be granted. So the nation was split between these two schools of thought. 

So, there was a huge argument in Jesus’ day in the Jewish community over how to interpret a rather obscure passage in the Old Testament Law in Deuteronomy 24. So, let’s go back to the question, and why they thought it was an airtight trap. If Jesus answers according to the ruling of the rabbi Shammai, they will come at him with the ruling of the rabbi, Hillel. If he answers with the ruling of the rabbi Hillel, they’ll hammer him with the ruling of Shammai, and if Jesus says: ‘never divorce’, they will hit him with a charge of heresy, because Moses in Deuteronomy 24 says: “You can!”

But these things never quite work out the way the Pharisees picture them working out, because Jesus messes everything up by answering their question with a question: “What did Moses command you?” And they start to fall back on their heels, trapped in their own question, and so wriggling they said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them: “Because of your hardness of heart he (Moses) wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation: ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together let not man separate.”

Jesus says in essence, the discussion isn’t about a divorce certificate. Moses let you issue those so there could be some semblance of order in the community, he didn’t say just because you are allowed to: do it. And secondly, Jesus was offended at the nature of the discussion, because in arguing about the finer points of the Law, and trying to make a case for when it’s okay to get a divorce, and when it’s not okay, they had stopped seeing the big picture. They were lost in 4 verses of Deuteronomy, and had stopped caring about Genesis to Malachi, the bigger picture.

He makes it clear that here you are working so hard, and getting so worked up about the issue of trying to make yourself feel better about divorcing your spouse, or how to make it easier to get a piece of paper that certifies your divorce, that you end up forsaking God’s call to see the blessing of marriage, or to honour marriage, or to work at lifting up marriage and being thankful for it. And instead of being heartbroken about divorce, or working on caring for people who have been hurt by divorce, or loving people who are having trouble in their marriages, you waste your time, by endlessly looking for loopholes, or technicalities, and ways of making yourself feel just fine about breaking this covenant relationship. 

The Pharisees knew what God’s will and plan was for marriage. They knew that divorce should be a serious matter, but instead of working to honour God’s design, they wanted to find technicalities in the language that would allow them to do whatever they felt like, and to avoid confronting the reality of their own sinfulness and unrepentant hearts. They were working on trying to Justify themselves before God. In theological terms, to be justified before God means simply to be pure, and holy and able to stand before him (Just-As-If I had no sin = Justification).

One of my favourite stories in the Bible, is found in Chapter 4 of John’s gospel where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar. This is a woman who has been married and divorced not once, but five times, and she is now "shacking-up" with a man she hasn’t even bothered to marry. This is the same woman who has just been gracious enough to give Jesus a drink from her water jar. It definitely is not our Lord’s intent to repay her kindness with words of condemnation as He points out the sinful situation in which she is in.

However, the key to forgiveness is owning up to, and then confessing the sin in our lives. We may or may not be aware of it, but we must face the reality of all our sin and then confess it before Christ, and that day will come. As the woman speaks with Jesus she begins to gradually understand that the "living water" which He has been telling her about is a spiritual cleansing and rebirth through repentance and placing her faith in Him.

Jesus simply invites her to give Him the broken pieces of her life and to allow Him to put them back together for her once again; there is no evidence that He then treated her as some sort of "second-class Christian" because of her past sin. Quite the opposite in fact because we are told that she went through all the community testifying about what Jesus had done in her life, and that many of the people who heard her words became believers as well because of her testimony.  

If you are God’s child, you are forgiven and free to get on with serving Him in spite of what may lay in your past. What God has cleansed, no man, nor religious institution, has the option of calling "unclean or unfit for God’s service!" Jesus Christ is not at all interested in where you were ten years ago, six months ago, or even yesterday. It’s where you are today and where you will be tomorrow that counts with Him, and He is willing to forgive your sin (no matter how bad it might be) and restore you simply if you will repent and place your faith in Him. 

The Pharisees thought they could reach this state by their wisdom, and superior arguing skills, and that they could work their way into the kingdom of God and stand before Him as if nothing had happened. Like I said at the beginning of the sermon, this lesson isn’t really about marriage and divorce, but this is an extreme example that gets us to ask some hard questions of ourselves: “Do I do this too?” The answer for all of us is: “Yes we do.”

We too work hard at trying to justify ourselves before God, at making ourselves feel better about what we do or don’t do, even if we know deep down that we aren’t living up to the plans, and standards, and intent that God has for our lives. We try to justify ourselves by focusing only on certain sins, pet sins, to draw attention away from what we struggle with. It’s easy to condemn homosexuality, but what about the trash we were looking at on the internet?  It’s easy to say, you shouldn’t abuse alcohol, but is it any less sinful to gossip about people that we know who do? We can condemn people who break into houses to steal, and all the while we can hoard what we have, and neglect to help people in need. Do I need to continue?

We try to justify ourselves sometimes by using a sliding scale of sin. Yes, I stole 2 jam tarts, but George stole 4, hey I’m twice as good as George! It doesn’t work that way. It also doesn’t work to try and justify ourselves by trying to make up our own rules; it’s never a good idea for human beings to re-write the Laws of God! It is never a good idea to fight with God - look at His creation and what we have done and are doing with it, what a mess we are creating.  Can you imagine God in heaven, the man with the big white beard, sitting on his throne reading today’s newspapers: Oh, how He would cry in our imagination.

The Gospel is God’s reality of his love for us, shown to us on the cross, where he chooses to love us unconditionally, and undeservedly, in spite of our sins, and our Gospel reading ends with just that message. There have been times when I’ve wondered why did Mark put that snippet there, and then you realise, it dawns on you: it’s the way, the truth, the life. It’s a lesson that God teaches us by means of children. We enter God’s Kingdom, not like warriors, or scholars, or kings. We enter God’s kingdom like children, with nothing to offer Him, with empty hands, with only our dependence, and our repentance.

We make this world of ours unbelievably complicated. In contrast Jesus looks at it with eyes of love, pure love: “And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them.” Don’t bring those kids in here now; Jesus has important legal stuff going on with the Pharisees. But Jesus has none of it, he says, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the Kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them. 

This is a picture of how the Spirit leads us to come to Jesus. The Spirit will be harsh with the Law sometimes. He will open us up to the reality of our sin, and our need for God, and our inability to right what we’ve wronged, but He does so in order to steer us to the beautiful reality of the Gospel. Where Christ himself comforts us, and embraces us, and blesses us as His children. Where Christ points us away from our sins, and to the love that he showed us on the cross, where he died for our sins, and paid the price we were so hopelessly helpless to pay. Christ wraps us up in his love and we find that we have a refuge in him that we don’t have in ourselves. This is what the Kingdom of God is all about. 

We waste so much precious time thinking about how we’re not good enough, or haven’t done enough, or that God could never possibly love me; or thinking the other way round: I am better than others, I do everything and they do nothing, God couldn’t possibly love them. It’s time to stop the fight. To face the reality that God has forgiven you, and loves you, and that the cross is enough. Don’t worry about them, pray for them, but worry about you. Today, honour God by letting go of what he has long since forgotten about, and be free, and receive God’s Kingdom like a child, because that’s what you are, His Child, you are truly blessed, truly chosen, you are a child of God.  Amen.

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