Jesus’ words on divorce are very strong words!
In Mark we read, “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.’”
I personally wrestled with these words in the depths of my soul, since I went through a divorce myself. And without sharing too deeply on the causes of that divorce, at its root it was irreconcilable differences and no adultery was involved. Which means I also had to wrestle with the fact that Paul’s exception did not apply in our case.
I’d like to share a little bit of my struggle with you, in hopes that it will shed light on the words of Jesus and set them in their proper context. And I also hope my story will encourage those who are struggling with these words, since my story has a “happy ending”.
First, the context for Jesus’ words.
He was living in a culture, much as we are, where divorce was very easy as a general rule – in fact it was easier then than now.
All that was required was a written certificate of divorce.
In his culture, men had all the power.
His culture was much like the culture of Saudi Arabia and other Arab cultures of today.
A man has full power over his wife – or wives!
Jesus was aware that a divorced wife had no status in his culture. No way to support herself – women could not just go out and find a job. She generally ended up back in her father’s home!
Jesus takes a position on divorce that expresses God’s Perfect Will. It is God’s Perfect Will that marriage be sacrosanct and not ended.
No one begins a marriage thinking it might end.
God’s Perfect Will is in line with the beginning of a marriage relationship and His Perfect Will is that the love between a bride and groom will continue and grow.
Jesus also lived in a culture where life expectancy was a lot shorter than it is today. Life was just too short to end up getting divorced and causing the pain and social upheaval it caused.
By expressing God’s Perfect Will, he was also opposing a cultural view that women were disposable.
People are NOT disposable!
I find it significant that in Jesus’ words, either the man OR the woman could be the one initiating the divorce. “Whoever divorces his wife … and if she divorces her husband …”
He grants women equality in this, but also holds both the man or the woman initiating the divorce equally responsible.
So, with this as background, we can appreciate that Jesus expected marriage to be life-long, people were not disposable, and God’s Perfect Will is for loving relationships.
Which brings me to my personal struggle and journey through his words and my own divorce.
First of all, we do live in a different culture today. Women are not without status, resources, or employability in today’s world.
And alimony and child care are included in most divorces today.
Secondly, one of the things that Jesus always opposed was “legalism”.
He came down very hard on the Pharisees who were the Biblical Legalists of his day.
And he always put people first.
When people failed in their attempts at keeping God’s Perfect Will, he was always on the side of forgiveness, healing and grace.
In my own situation, after 5 years of trying to save our marriage through marriage counseling, my understanding of this grace took the form of asking myself, “What is the Most Loving Thing To Do?” This is NOT, “What Would Jesus Do?” but it is derived from it.
Asking this question usually helps us avoid the trap of Biblical Legalism.
In my situation, it is my deepest belief that divorce was “the most loving thing to do”.
After my divorce, I found great comfort in a Rembrandt sketch. It’s a picture of the Father welcoming the Prodigal Son.
It is full of Forgiveness and Grace. And it reminded me of God’s UNCONDITIONAL love for me personally.
The other vehicle God used to bring me through the turmoil of divorce and into a deep healing was to go through the year long process of an annulment.
I met Colleen. She was a widow with 3 children. And she is a Roman Catholic.
To honor her desires to be married in the Roman Catholic church, I did get my prior marriage annulled. This is not as easy as popular notions of the process make it seem!
It involves deep soul searching into the reasons a marriage failed and unearths the root cause of what was missing to prevent a marriage from lasting a lifetime.
Despite the pain, it was very healing, and Colleen and I were married in her church. We are very happily married. And I fully expect this marriage to last for the rest of our lives.
In conclusion, let me summarize.
Jesus expressed God’s Perfect Will. It is his Perfect Will that Marriage last a lifetime.
Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to get a divorce – AFTER you’ve done all in your power to save the marriage.
Jesus was and is against legalism and in fact, in some situations, divorce may be the way to freedom from destructive situations, forgiveness, healing, and unfathomable Grace.
It is also his Perfect Will that we find what only He can offer, “The Peace that Passes Understanding” and his “Joy” that makes us whole again.
In this Holy Eucharist, may each of us who are or have been broken, not only through a failed marriage, but in any other situation we’ve encountered in our lives, find the Forgiveness, Grace, Joy and Peace of our Living Lord Jesus.
Rev. David Clark, 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Oct. 4, 2015