Jesus and Divorce

Sermon Given October 3, 2021

I mentioned last week that the Gospel reading would be on my list of least favorite Bible verses if I had one. I think this week’s Gospel goes right up there as well. But while last week the scriptures were strange and a little frightening, this week the scripture is just overwhelmingly painful for anyone who has been divorced or is connected to a divorced person, a category that I’m pretty sure encompasses everyone listening to this sermon. This gospel has been used to keep people in abusive situations and to keep couples that are miserable together well past the end of any sort of healthy relationship. It’s also used to judge and speak against people who have divorced and remarried, even if their new marriage is life giving to them. It’s really hard to know what to do with these words of Jesus because they’ve done a lot of harm. 

So what was it about marriage in particular that Jesus was getting at? And why would the Pharisees ask him about divorce in particular? I think sometimes we forget that Jesus didn’t include this in his major teaching moments. Rather, it was his detractors that brought him into this conversation. I’m not sure we would have these words recorded in our Bibles if there wasn’t controversy and disagreement about what marriage and divorce meant. Different schools of thought had different ideas. Indeed, marriage is one of those institutions that has been around for thousands of years and throughout that time has changed and adapted to the culture it is in. While our culture now emphasizes love, Jesus’ culture, while not denying love, emphasized the household unit with it economic benefits and as the source of progeny. 

In Roman culture, the family unit was the building block of society. People married to create their own household, which was its own economic unit. The household was much more than what a household is today. They lived in very localized economic systems. There were traders that came through, but for the most part people in each region had to provide for themselves. So most households were involved in trade. Some were carpenters, some were tanners, some were fishermen. Everyone was involved in the production and selling of goods. Each household also produced children that would more than likely carry on the household trade, and who would provide for the elders if the parents made it to old age. To put a woman out of the household was to take her out of her role in this economic unit, this building block of society. Her labor no longer counted and she was not provided for. So a woman did fare better if she remained in the household unit. She had more protections and more available to her.

But sometimes we ignore the fact that while Jewish society certainly wasn’t egalitarian, Jewish women did have the right to receive their dowries back when divorced, meaning they could recoup the money their family put towards their marriage. They also had some property rights, and married women were known to own their own property separate from their husband, mostly land they inherited from their parents. But those concessions would matter very little to women whose families of origin had no money or no property who were the majority of women in Judea. A woman could survive on her own, but more than likely she needed men who could provide a support system for her. Still, did that have to involve a husband? There were plenty of women without husbands in Jesus’ day, mostly widows, but they were still part of household structures. It wasn’t so much that women needed a husband, women needed the economic benefit of the household.

There was also the matter of protecting parental relationships with children. In Genesis, God is chiefly concerned with creating society. God sees that the human, the ish, is alone and that this social creature needs someone to socialize with. So God creates animals, and the ish delights in these creatures, but the ish can’t hold long conversations with them or have a full partnership with them. They aren’t the human’s helper in the way God is the Hyman’s helper. So God puts the human into a sleep and out of ish pulls out an ishah, a woman. Here is a full and complete partner, someone who can be alongside them and together they can build a whole planet full of people. Ish and Ishah can become one flesh, can literally create another life. When two people have the power to create one life, how can they ever be separated? Even if they aren’t interested in each other anymore, there is still that life, that other human, that bonds them together. The ish and ishah were the foundations of procreation, and procreation was a very big deal for God’s people. They were literally starting the process of building God’s nation, Israel. Nation building required a lot of babies, and that’s part of the reason why prosperity was show in the Old Testament through the number of wives and concubines a man had. If there is a divorce, what happened to the children? How did that affect the nation’s abilities to prosper?

There are a number of ways of looking at this passage from an economic and parental standpoint. All of them affirm the need for a household. But we know that Jesus himself didn’t have a household. His movement actually ran countercultural, taking people out of these units and into different relationships. By the time Paul started his ministry, the household wasn’t the building block of this new way, this Christian society. He begrudgingly said people could marry, but wished that all could be single. Women were encouraged to stay virgins and widows. The single person became a great agent for God, able to focus entirely on God’s reign without worrying about the household. Plenty of early Christians married and stayed married, there was no sin in it, but the household isn’t the center of Christian society. Christ is. The society revolves around the question: How do I love God, my neighbor, and myself? It allows Christ to be the center of life. 

So what do we do with all this today? Everything I’ve laid out is very patriarchal and heteronormative. It assumes an economic system that is long gone. Divorce is a reality and honestly, while no one goes into marriage wanting a divorce, sometimes it’s a healing act. It can take people out of abusive and harmful situations, saving lives. Friends who I talked with who have initiated a divorce shared both about how painful it was and how much better they felt afterwards. One friend expressed how she felt like she would die inside if she remained with her husband. He wasn’t abusive, but their relationship was not healthy. I really don’t think the Church shouldn’t be telling people to tough it out. That doesn’t promote life. 

While I don’t have all the answers, I do know this: If Christ is the center of our Christian society then the core of our relationships with each other is a simple question. Am I treating the other as someone who is made in the image of God? 

If we treated each other as people made in the image of God, I don’t know if we would stop flowing in and out of romantic partnerships, I know good God-fearing couples who decided that they should not stay married, but I do know that the harms of divorce, the ugliness of it could be mitigated. Economic and parental concerns have solutions that are not necessarily that one should stay in a household for the rest of their lives. There are ways to honor the other and provide for needs they may have as one household splits back into two. 

Maybe Christ really was considering children more than the adults in this instance. I’m not sure if I can get into his headspace on this one. But directly after talking about divorce, he surrounds himself with kids. He wants children to be loved and protected, to have what they need. He wants them to have parents and adults in their lives who love them deeply and teach them the way of love. He invites us to see the world through a child’s eyes and to bask in their awe. 

Maybe, today, we can use these words not to keep two adults in a marriage that would be better off dissolved, but to advocate for the just treatment of children. If there isn’t abuse, which requires complete separation for protection, we can invite parents into healthy divorce that honors their child’s needs. These parents can never really separate from each other, they’ve literally created a life together, so how are they going to honor that child and uphold them so their kid can grow and thrive in this world? How are they going to treat each other as people made in the image of God so their child can learn to do likewise?  

Maybe the healing comes when the two focus on looking at their relationship and the world through their child’s eyes, taking the time to process the effects of their actions on the young ones among us. Maybe we should all take the time to look at the world through the eyes of a child and learn to treat each other in ways that uphold all children in love and tender care. What would not happen in the world if we knew children were watching and learning from us? What would we do different if we saw the world as a giant classroom? May we all learn to view the world through the eyes of a child and to care for each other in love, even if and especially when romantic relationships dissolve. Amen.