I couldn’t come up with a clever title for this sermon, so here it is, a sermon on marriage and divorce.
19th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) – October 4, 2015 – Genesis 2:18-24, Mark 10:2-16
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“On Marriage” – Pastor Evan Davis
What do you love about marriage? Why is it important to you? [people respond…]
That’s what we think of when we think of marriage… commitment, stability – for the couple, for children, for society as a whole. We think of love that sees beyond looks, beyond talents, love for the sake of love itself, love that sits by the hospital bed, love that gives you a bath when you can’t even wash yourself any longer, love that brings flowers to the grave…that’s why we treasure marriage. To see two people commit to all that in the face of this world’s cynicism and doubt when you have no idea what that will mean for your life…that’s a beautiful thing. It’s to be treasured and respected. It’s why we surround marriage with our presence and prayers and ask for the blessing of God upon it.
We would be pretty arrogant to think that this kind of self-emptying love and open-ended commitment was not also in the hearts and minds of people in Biblical times. Consider the much greater challenges of day-to-day survival and think of committing to stick-it-out with another person through all that. But marriage back then was also a very different thing.
The passage from Genesis we heard earlier beautifully describes how God has finally created a corresponding partner for the first human being, who up to that point has no equal, and you can even say the human doesn’t really have a gender yet.1 In verse 23, for the first time the adam, the human being, is called an ish, a male human being, in relation to the ishah, a female human being. Man (ish) and woman (ishah) are partners for one another…no hierarchy implied. The man cries out “at last! Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh – truly a partner, truly an equal, truly someone with whom I can share life and create life – one flesh!”
But this is not describing the social, emotional, spiritual, legal relationship we call “marriage.” The idea is just not that developed. First of all, we think marriage means one partner for life. Until the first centuries of the Church, the people of the Bible meant no such thing. Abraham had two wives – Sarah and Hagar – and it was Sarah who “gave” Hagar as her property to Abraham – Hagar was not asked her opinion.2 Not to mention his concubines, by whom Abraham fathered several other children.3 Jacob fathered his 12 sons, the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel, by four different women, two his wives (Leah and Rachel) and their two concubines (Zilpah-L and Bilhah-R).4 I won’t even get into Solomon – 1 Kings records, “among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines.”5
My point is not that every man had multiple wives – only those wealthy and powerful enough to support more than one did. My point is the simple fact that marriage was not a mutual relationship. As is still practiced today in many cultures, marriage in the ancient Middle East and in the Bible was generally an arrangement between families, with a substantial payment (a dowry) made by woman’s family to the man’s, basically in compensation for adding another mouth to feed. For the few who were wealthy and powerful, marriage was a way to negotiate political alliances or take care of estate planning and inheritance. For the vast majority who were poor, it was a basic structure of survival. You had a partner to work with you, to split up the work of the household, to watch your back, to have children. This may be hard for us to believe, but the idea of marriage having something to do with romantic love or mutual consent comes about only in the past couple of centuries.
So in a world in which a man could, with a piece of paper and a ceremony, kick his wife into the outer darkness whenever he felt like it, here comes Jesus saying, “not so fast…really? can your heart really be that hard?”
The Pharisees questioning Jesus are playing their usual game of trying to color inside the lines, to be that kid who wins all the awards at school, to be better than you at the God-pleasing game. So they want to know where Jesus draws the line. Because if he draws it in the wrong spot, they can be better than him too. And like he always does, Jesus effortlessly turns the tables on them, responding to their question with one of his own, “what did Moses command you? Sure, Moses let you ditch her with a piece of paper. But only because you’re so cold you can’t recognize the beating heart in your wife. Don’t you remember what the first man said? At last! Flesh of my flesh! A holy gift of God. Not two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus wants them to wake up and see a human being, a true partner, in their wives. You don’t get to trade her in for a newer model, you don’t get to upgrade, you don’t get to throw her in the trash because you’re done with her or when life gets hard, when relationships get tough, when she’s no longer the one you met all those years ago. And interestingly, when the disciples ask again, as if they doubt he could really mean this, he extends the prohibition also to women – they too are not to discard their husbands. It would not have occurred to anyone that a woman could do such a thing, and yet 18 centuries before the women’s movement Jesus elevates women to same moral responsibility as men.
All this is good to know. But it’s not like we can wash our hands of this text. Jesus also speaks a living Word to us through these words. And it’s clear Jesus is no fan of divorce. He sees marriage as sacred, just like you do. Jesus teaches us that marriage is a commitment that takes hard work, abiding trust, and the grace to forgive, again and again. Most of the time people can and should work through the challenges which come in any marriage. Even more than that, people should deeply consider who they are and to whom they are called before getting married. Yet people who get divorced believe their marriages were sacred too. They tried too. And they are just as sad as Jesus is if divorce comes.
Sometimes a marriage dies, and whatever was sacred in that marriage is destroyed. We know it’s not sacred anymore when a spouse continually physically or sexually abuses the other. We know it isn’t sacred when husbands or wives emotionally manipulate their spouse. We don’t value silence in the face of infidelity or abuse or neglect. We don’t want women or men to stay in marriages in which their spouse ignores them or abuses them or simply no longer loves them. If we honestly believe Jesus does not wish any of this upon someone who is married, we can acknowledge that there comes a time when a marriage is no longer a marriage. Every couple is different. Every set of circumstances is unique – there are no simple explanations. But when love is gone, when all that remains is resentment, terror, trauma, or devastation, the marriage is dead. For this Jesus has empathy, he has mercy and all-forgiving love, and in the face of such death Jesus desires freedom, release, and resurrection.
Our God revealed in this Jesus is a God who embraces complicated people who have done plenty of good and plenty of evil, whose best intentions all too often fall apart into tragedy, who cannot simply be labeled as saint or sinner but who on their best days are an inseparable mixture of both…our God is a God who just loves people like this – people like you and me. Our God is a God who doesn’t love divorce, but a God who loves people when divorce is the only way toward healing for his children who have been deeply wounded by those they love the most.
Our God is a God who loves children caught up in the midst of the brokenness in their parents’ relationships, a God who sends counselors and mentors and teachers and church families to their aid, a God who finds ways to bring life and healing even when there has been such pain. Our God says, “let these little children come, do not stop them….because in my kingdom, we are all children. Nobody is higher than the next. Single (by choice or not), widowed, married, divorced, re-married, it is to these children that the kingdom of God belongs….to you. Jesus takes up in his arms those looking into the eyes of their beloved on their wedding day, he takes up those in the darkness of the day they go to court, he takes up those at the grave of their partner, he takes up those happily married again, or happily single, he lays his hands on them, and blesses them. Blesses you. Be blessed today in this taste of the kingdom, this foretaste of the great wedding feast to come. Amen.
1Wil Gafney, Commentary on Genesis 2:18-24, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2537 (accessed October 3, 2015).
2See Genesis 16 (the whole chapter) for the full story.
4See Genesis 29-30:24 for the full story of both wives and concubines and the twelve sons.
51 Kings 11:3.