Bring his head on a plate, sighed King Herod. And moments later, John the Baptist was beheaded, to please the whim of a dancing girl, to appease the vengeful heart of Herod’s second wife, who hated John for calling out Herod on his divorce and remarriage to Herodias. It may be that the Pharisees who approached Jesus hoped for the same outcome for Jesus, if he were to answer their question in just the right wrong way. “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” They ask.
Lawful, yes, the Pharisees point to Deuteronomy 24:1 in which Moses says, “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of her house.”
Lawful, yes, but not always just. Marriage in Jesus’ day was held in high stead, though as Lutheran Pastor Meghan Rohrer illustrates, by drawing ovals on a paper to represent “Two become one”, then ripping the paper apart, divorce leaves a gap into which much loss can flow, and it then, as now, often leaves great loss and lack for the women in the relationship. Lower pay, no education back in the day, left, no leaves, women vulnerable—often to resort to slavery or prostitution to survive afterwards.
In Jesus day, much attention was paid by the rabbis and men, as to what constituted “indecency” by which a man could leave his wife. Too often these were flimsy indecencies. But curiously, Jesus makes mention of the possibility of men OR women leaving their spouse. Craddock notes that this indicates that Mark with his bias toward Gentiles, was already accommodating the realities of Greco-Roman culture (and not just Jewish viewpoints.)
Jesus shifts the question from Divorce, to the intent of marriage, that two would be come one. That two become one. So that even if one gets divorced, there are non-legal ties that bind spouse to spouse long after the court decree, especially if there are children involved.
Having experience divorce from many of its different sides and effects I see, touch, and taste those effects. Seven years after my parents separated, they finally announced their divorce, and the little boy inside of me was heart-broken. Though the man of 24 I was knew better, I was undone. But now, years later, I, and my mother and my father each have seen good rise from the pain of those days.
Pastor Meghan Rohrer in her online bible study takes tape of forgiveness and reconciliation, and re-connects the torn edges of those affected by divorce indicating that there are various ways to end a relationship and more or less healthful ways to reconnect them in different ways. And there is a new possibility for life and grace for the divorcee, and for the church.
This is the point that Lauren Winner makes in her essay, “Lectio Divina and Divorce” (Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2015), both Marriage AND Divorce can teach us about forgiveness. She writes, “To suggest that divorce can teach the church something is not to argue that divorce is “a good” as such, or a gift created by God in a way that precisely parallels marriage and singleness. It is rather to move away, momentarily, from the category of rationale and read the many divorces in our midst from another place. Instead of focusing on whether and under what circumstances Christians can divorce, and instead of using divorce to launch a critique of society, this essay introduces another question: Divorce is a failure, and a morally serious failure at that; is it a failure that can teach the church anything about penitence, forgiveness, justice, grace, vocation? About love?”
In marriage, one learns to forgive another with incredibly close capacity to hurt you, daily we practice this. And you learn that you have incredible capacity to hurt another, again, sometimes daily. In the smallest of church communities we call marriage, two persons commit to learn how to love, support, forgive, and cherish one another. But sometimes we can’t do it anymore. Or we’re not given the opportunity to even try when someone else moves on. Sometimes, in spite of our very best efforts on the part of both parties, we cannot do enough to hold it all together.
In divorce, one learns to accept failure, either one’s own, or that of the other with whom you made and broke vows. One also learns that a friend, as children, as parents, or as a church of folks related to those divorcing. There is space and need to learn to forgive not only the other, but also yourself. To learn that no failure in any of our lives, failure to grow, to change, to finish, to do, not even the failure to live up to the vow to stay forever, is beyond God’s forgiveness.
Jesus is hard on divorce. Impossibly hard. After making a positive statement about marriage as the union of two separate persons into one body, one flesh, the disciples dig deeper inside the house, after the meeting. “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.”
How then, can THESE people teach the church about forgiveness?
Too often, the church becomes a place where folks set up two classes of Christian, married, and therefore good, and the other class: divorced, separated, single. All somehow broken or less than. My own mother a few years after her own divorce, was asked to be the Deacon Representative in her church to the ministry literally called “Divorced, Separated, and Singles” They met in the basement.
In time, a long time, my mother re-married, in that same church. Actually, I did it; I married my mother to a great kind man, who was also divorced before coming to that chancel to say I do, again. Which technically means that at that moment, I solemnized their adultery, which did not exist up until that point. But it also reintroduced opportunities to live out vows again, to try again, or differently, and to bring to the table the humility that only God keeps God’s covenant. It’s always a one-sided deal, in the end. Jesus wants the Pharisee in each of us to acknowledge that legal divorce doesn’t get anyone off the hook, either for treating the other justly, and with mercy, or from confessing it as a sin, grave sin, yes, but still a sin like any other in that it is forgivable.
There are churches that divide by sins, especially in divorces. There are the forgivable ones, the victims in the divorces, the good ones, the left, the more contrite, the victims, and there are villains, the cheaters, the leavers, the bad boys, the shrews. Yet Jesus makes no distinction between married or un married. In Matthew 5:27-30 he says “anyone who looks at a [person] lustfully has already committed adultery in [their] heart.
The truth of life is that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of god. All. But some more pious point out that they have not left their spouses, they have not remarried, so they are okay, more than okay, they are a class apart, the still married. As a co-worker likes to say in tense situations, “its not that I have to be the fastest runner if a bear comes after me, its just that I have to be faster than YOU.” For many Christians, dependence upon Jesus’s forgiveness alone is not as important as being slightly better than the next gal. Or at least not being divorced. Even though through passive aggressivity and silence or secret betrayals one can remain all but divorced, even though married. All have sinned.
Jesus is as unflinching in naming divorced-remarrieds as adulterers, as unflinching as he is in Mark 9, just before this passage, by suggesting that you cut your hand off or gouge your eye out if it causes you to sin, because he is unsentimental about our sin classifications. And he is unambiguous about the fact that we ALL stand in need of forgiveness. Sin is sin is sin to Jesus.
My parent’s divorce was hard, hard for a long time. As for my part, I chose sides. It wasn’t until a friend pointed out to me how my grudge was strangling me that I finally sought out each party involved to talk it out. To ask, to listen, to speak. There were apologies on all sides. And forgivenesses all around.
When the Pharisees, or we, come to Jesus looking to box him into a corner, or to expose him, or to show how we are better than the next gal or guy, Jessus shifts the subject back to the bigger picture— the standards are high for all of us.
Which is why it is important that just after and a bit before, Jesus exhorts his followers to be like children, filled with wonder looking for a blessing, not filled with trick questions and social classes. Confession really is the only recourse for anyone who would follow Jesus Christ. “You are God, and I am not.” “I have failed in this, this, and this way. And oh yeah, and that way, too.” “Thank you for your forgiveness and mercy.”
Divorce is an obvious incarnation of our personal failure. It exposes not only those who are, but also those who are not. It reveals our longings to be married, or our sufferings in a “bad” marriage, or the end of it, or our fears and judgments of those who divorce. It reveals that even our best is sometimes not good enough.
Again, Lauren Winner, “The obligation to love one another does not begin at marriage. It begins somewhere prior: it begins whenever we read Leviticus 19. It begins in baptism, when the baptized promises, with God’s help, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” Nor does the obligation to love end when one ends a marriage-not because the marital vows to love and cherish are, after dissolution, per se still operative, but because the Great Commandment is still operative.”
Love God. Love Neighbor. The end.