Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.
We’ve got a doozy of a gospel reading this week. I call it one of our “damage control” passages because so many people have been hurt by it, a preacher has to unpack its meaning in order to get a decent sermon out of it.
If today’s gospel was a movie, and I had to give it a parental guidance rating, I think I would have to say it was rated R because of ‘thematic material’. This is a passage that is intended for ‘mature audiences only’. Taking Jesus’ teachings about divorce at face-value can be dangerous, especially if one doesn’t have a clear understanding of what Jesus does and doesn’t mean.
Unfortunately, “taking this passage at face-value” is exactly what Christians have been doing for centuries. This has led to a lot of people being hurt by the church during a time in their life when they needed that fellowship 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 this pulpit on the subject of 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. I think you know me well enough by now: that’s not how I roll. 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. But since that time, we have developed an awareness that life and relationships are complicated and don’t always work out like we had hoped. 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.
If you’ve been told any of those three things before, I want you to tell you today that you’ve been lied to. Getting divorced does not mean you are going to hell; it does not mean you are barred forever from Christian service; it does not mean that you can never again have a healthy, life-giving relationship that is blessed by God.
When Christians tell these lies, they often like to quote passages like the one we just read and sum it up by saying, “See? The Bible says very clearly that divorce is a sin! Therefore, any divorced person is a sinner, and no sinner could ever be called by God for service in this church.”
That’s what they say. And a lot of people get hurt when Christians talk like that.
One of the things I’ve notice about people who use the word sin in this way is that they talk about it in a way that emphasizes the so-called “sins” of other people, rather than their own. Whenever you ask about what’s wrong with the world, they can always answer: “It’s those people! It’s those sinners!”
I call this tendency “The Reality TV Phenomenon.” People watch Reality TV 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 the Pharisees. These Pharisees, like so many fans of Realty TV, had a very precise definition of the word sin that they applied to people outside their religious in-group. They saw themselves as 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 so they could 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.
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 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 the law and turns it into a conversation about the meaning of 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 our 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”, because even the most apparently righteous actions can be tainted with sin and selfishness. 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 and why 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 relationships.
With this broader and deeper understanding of sin in mind, let’s revisit that initial question: “Is divorce a sin?”
Does a failed marriage necessarily exclude a person from the benefits of salvation, full-participation in the life and ministry of the church, or God’s blessing upon future relationships? No. Absolutely not.
But, on the other hand, if someone 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: our marriages fall apart because of the brokenness and the selfishness that exists in all of us, not just a few.
This way of thinking about sin has significance for all of our relationships, not just marriage and divorce. To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s look at the Ten Commandments and imagine them, not just as a list of “Thou shalt nots…” but as benchmarks by which we can assess the quality of our relationships (marital or otherwise):
- You shall not murder:
- Do we seek to give life to one another or do we suck it away?
- You shall not commit adultery:
- Are we faithful to one another or do our hearts belong to something/one else?
- You shall not steal:
- Do we willingly share our lives with one another, or do we simply take what we want from each other?
- You shall not bear false witness:
- Do we speak the truth about who we are to one another or do we maintain a façade for the sake of appearances?
- You shall not covet:
- Are we grateful to and for one another or are we constantly looking over our shoulder at how good everyone else has it?
As we honestly answer those questions, we start to get a general sense of how healthy our relationships are or are not. 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.
Far more important than particular legal question about divorce is the question of relationships. We selfish and broken people are all reaching out to connect with something or someone outside of ourselves, hoping that we will be able to discover through that connection 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 and technicalities. Instead, do like Jesus does: 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 loving God in whom we live, move, and have our being.