Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
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.”
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
We’ve got a doozy of a gospel reading this week. I call it one of our “damage control” passages because you almost want to apologize for it while you’re reading it. I’m mean seriously: we have a rating system for movies, why not come up with one for the Bible? The parable of the Good Samaritan would probably be rated PG-13 for mild violence. The book of Judges would definitely be rated R for all the extreme blood n’ guts. The Song of Solomon would be… um… well, let’s just say it would only be shown in “select theaters”. Of course, the big problem I can see with that idea is that I can’t think of any sections of the Bible that would merit a G rating.
If I had to give today’s passage from Mark’s gospel a rating, I think I would have to go with either PG-13 or R because of ‘thematic material’. This is one of those passages that are intended for ‘mature audiences only’. Taking Jesus’ teachings about divorce at face-value can be dangerous, especially if you don’t have all the necessary background information at hand.
Unfortunately, Christians have been taking this passage at face-value and applying it indiscriminately for centuries. This has led to a lot of people being hurt by or excluded from the church during one of those times in life when they needed fellowship, guidance, and support more than ever. So, with that in mind, I’m going to begin this morning by stating very clearly what you’re not going to hear from me, today or ever, on the dual-subject of marriage and divorce.
First of all, I’m not going to tell you that, if you get a divorce, you’re going to hell. I don’t believe that. It’s not how I roll. To borrow a hip-hop phrase from the early 90s: “Homie don’t play dat.” Second, I’m not going to tell you that, if you get a divorce, you should be banned from receiving communion or serving the church in an ordained capacity as an elder, deacon, or pastor. There was a time in Presbyterian history when that was the case. In fact, it’s still the case in some denominations. But we in this church developed an awareness during the last hundred years or so that life is complicated and so are relationships. Our ancestors realized that an effective, Christ-like ministry is one that recognizes life’s complexities and leads with grace rather than judgment. Third, I’m not going to tell you that, if you get a divorce, you can never begin another relationship or get remarried and expect that relationship to be healthy and blessed by God. The God I believe in is the God of Plan B and second chances. If that wasn’t who I believed God to be, then I wouldn’t (I couldn’t) be standing in this pulpit today.
Now, there are preachers out there who will tell you differently from what I just told you. They would look at today’s gospel reading and say, “You see? The Bible says right here that divorce is a sin and you can’t go against that without going against Jesus, so you might as well just tear it up and admit that you’re not a real Christian!” If you’ve been told that before, even by a member of the clergy, I want you to know that you’ve been lied to. Let me show you how.
First of all, we have to begin with the definition of that theologically load term: sin. “Divorce is a sin,” or so they say. The word sin, when used in this way, usually refers to a specific behavior or set of behaviors that supposedly angers God because it violates one of the moral rules laid out in the Bible. The implication is that these behaviors (and only these behaviors) can be defined as sinful, therefore those who live their lives according to this list of rules are on God’s nice list while other people (i.e. most of us) are on God’s naughty list.
One of the most convenient things about this definition of sin is that those who talk about it in this way are often able to emphasize the so-called “sins” being committed by other people rather than their own. Whenever you ask these folks about what’s wrong with the world, they can always answer: “It’s those people! It’s those sinners!”
The list of sins identified is usually pretty limited in scope. For example, people in our culture tend to spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on sins related to “the pelvic issues”: divorce, abortion, homosexuality, pornography, adultery, teen pregnancy, etc. North Americans are fascinated by sex, although we don’t want to admit it. You can find sermons and political ad campaigns on these sex-related topics all over the internet. But think about this: when was the last time you heard a sermon on greed or gluttony? When is the last time you heard about a church-sponsored, multi-million dollar, anti-gluttony lobbying campaign? Celebrity sex-tapes make lots of money, but who would ever pay cash to download a video of Paris Hilton eating a bag of pork rinds? We’re just not interested in that. As a culture, we’re obsessed with sex. We really want to know all about who is doing what with whom, even though sex itself is just as natural and just as prone to disorder as our appetite for food. But people in this society tend to fixate on these “pelvic issues” because those “sins” are less socially acceptable than other behaviors.
I call this tendency in people “The Jerry Springer Phenomenon” (although I could probably also call it “The Jersey Shore Phenomenon”). Jerry Springer and Jersey Shore are TV shows that people watch in order to feel better about themselves. No matter how dysfunctional one’s life currently is, chances are that it’s not nearly as messed up as the people on the Jerry Springer Show. It’s a convenient way to feel self-righteous and superior to other people.
Whenever Jesus encountered that kind of attitude, he called it hypocrisy. He would often butt heads with a religious group known as the Pharisees. These folks, like so many fans of Jersey Shore and the Jerry Springer Show, had a very precise definition of the word sin that they applied to people outside their religious in-group. They were the guardians of morality and family values in their culture. They were upstanding citizens who attended worship regularly and knew the Bible inside and out. If anyone had a trustworthy definition of the word sin, it was them.
These Pharisees approached Jesus with a question on the topic of divorce. Rather than genuinely seeking advice from Jesus, they just wanted to put him on the spot and figure out whether his definition of the word sin was as accurate and comprehensive as theirs. But Jesus, as usual, is onto this little game of theirs and isn’t having any of it. He takes their question and raises it “to the next level”, so to speak.
Let me show you what I mean:
The Pharisees come to Jesus with a question about the legality of divorce. Jesus reframes the question by placing it within the much larger context of human and divine relationships. He immediately starts talking about the story of Adam and Eve in the Torah. He talks about who God is and what God is doing. He takes this conversation about the technicalities of human relationships and turns it into a conversation about the meaning of human relationships.
Jesus is arguing here that the Pharisees, with their very precise and thought-out conception of morality, have essentially missed the point. They thought they had this question of divorce already figured out. They thought they already had all the right answers, but Jesus shows them that they haven’t even begun to ask the right questions.
Their definition of the word sin left them feeling pretty self-righteous and superior. It allowed them to place the blame for all the world’s problems on the shoulders of “those other people” whose lives did not conform to socially acceptable norms. But then Jesus comes along and hits them right between the eyes with some hard truth. Even though all their legal ducks were in a row, he told them, they were still not free from the bondage of sin. Jesus was working with a far broader and deeper definition of the word sin than the Pharisees were.
The word sin, I think, has surprisingly little to do with legal requirements and moral laws. I think it has a whole lot to do with the quality of our relationships. Sin is a tendency that exists within all of us, regardless of moral, legal, or religious status. We all have an inner drive toward selfishness. Therefore, none of us has any right to feel morally or spiritually superior to anyone else, no matter how socially unacceptable or dysfunctional others’ lives may appear to be.
When we try to identify the presence of sin in our relationships, it’s not enough to simply label some behaviors as “sins” while others are “okay”. Even the most apparently righteous actions can be tainted with sin. Just look at the Pharisees and you’ll see what I mean. If you look at what they were doing from a legal standpoint, they came away looking squeaky clean all the time. But if you look at how they were doing what they did, their self-righteous and judgmental hypocrisy becomes clear. They came to Jesus with a loaded question about a legal contract but left with even bigger questions about the nature of human relationships.
With this broader and deeper understanding of sin in mind, I would like to revisit that initial question: is divorce a sin? To begin with, I would have to say no, because that question assumes a very limited and narrow definition of the word sin that I doesn’t apply to the real world, where that kind of question is usually used to shame and exclude the very people who need friendship and support the most.
If, on the other hand, one were to ask me whether I think divorce is a product of human sinfulness (i.e. our inner tendency toward selfishness), then I would have to say yes, divorce can be and often is sinful, but even that depends on the relationship. To give one extreme example: I can’t think of anyone who would dare to pass judgment on a mother who ends her marriage to an abusive partner in order to protect the safety of her children. To be sure, human brokenness and sinfulness are involved in the situation itself, but we would have no right to pass judgment on that mother or accuse her of “committing a sin” just so we can feel morally superior to her. That would be beyond cruel.
This way of defining sin has significance for all of our relationships, not just marriage and divorce. Why don’t we take a look at the famous Ten Commandments as statements about the quality of our relationships (marital or otherwise)?
Here is a list of the last five commandments as they appear in the book of Exodus:
“You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.“
Instead of seeing these “thou shalt nots” as legal statements, let’s reframe them as questions that have to do with the quality of our relationships. In your relationship with X…
- Do you seek to give life to one another or suck it away?
- Are you faithful to one another or does your heart belong to something/one else?
- Do you willingly share your lives with one another, or do you simply take what you want from each other?
- Do you speak the truth about to who you are to one another or do you maintain a façade for the sake of appearances?
- Are you grateful to and for one another or are you constantly looking over your shoulder at how good everyone else has it?
As you honestly answer those questions, you’ll start to get a general sense of how healthy your relationships are or are not. As I said before, this can be applied to all relationships, not just the ones between spouses or partners. It works just as well for relationships between parents & children, bosses & employees, siblings, coworkers, friends, you name it.
You can even ask these questions about your relationship with yourself. Who else do we try to hide from more? I think there are a lot of people walking around this world right now in a state of being divorced from themselves. They feel alone and exposed, hiding their deepest fears and covering up their insecurities, even as they’re looking into their own bathroom mirror.
At the heart of every moral question, as Jesus understands it, is a question about human relationships. And the heart of every question about human relationships is the ultimate question about our relationship with God.
Far more important than particular legal questions about divorce is the question of human relationships, in whatever forms they may take. We selfish and sinful people are all reaching out to connect with the whole, hoping that we will be able to discover through it the meaning of our existence.
As you go back out into the world this week, I want to encourage you to be mindful of how it is that you conduct your relationships with others. Don’t get caught up in these squabbling debates about legalities, technicalities, and who is better than who. Instead, do like Jesus did in today’s gospel reading and raise your own level of awareness in order to ask the harder questions about all your relationships.
May you find on that difficult journey a sustaining sense of connection and meaning in your life that draws you ever closer to the sacred source of all life: the living, loving God in whom we live, move, and have our being; the All in All from whom, through whom, and to whom all things come.