"Responding Without Answers" – Mark 10:2-16
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.
The reality of divorce recently touched my life. I didn’t know how to respond because it’s not something I’ve ever had much exposure to.
One set of my grandparents divorced before I was born. My grandfather remarried and moved to Arizona; my grandmother remained single and stayed across town from my family in Northwest Ohio. As a little guy growing up in that reality, and not knowing any different, their divorce wasn’t really a big deal. In fact, I thought I was pretty special given that I was the only one of my friends who could say I had five grandparents!
At some point in elementary school I learned that the parents of one of my best friends were going through a divorce. The experience seemed to change him and we drifted apart. Looking back, I’m sure the growing distance between us was due largely to my inability to understand the turmoil and uncertainty that characterized his life in that time.
All the way through college, early adulthood, and my first few years pastoring in the church, divorce was something that I rarely dealt with; and so I felt completely ill-prepared when, back in April, I learned that my college roommate’s wife abruptly left him. Brian and I hadn’t kept in close contact since graduation, but my wife and I had been to his wedding a few years earlier and we had just spent a wonderful couple of days together the previous summer.
I found out about the divorce via an email from a mutual friend. He explained Brian had told him of the situation–that she blindsided him with the announcement that she didn’t want to be married to him any longer. She told him they would be going separate directions once they closed on the sale of their home (which had already been on the market, as they were planning to move across states). The mutual friend’s email concluded with a suggestion that I get in touch with Brian to show my support.
The idea of reaching out to Brian sounded terrifying to me…crappy as that is to admit.
I found it terrifying because I had no idea what to say. Honestly, my first inclination was to avoid the issue; fortunately I realized that was a dumb and dangerous idea. My second idea was to pull out my pastoral care counseling book from seminary and read through the chapter on divorce. Because, you know, if you were going through something awful, you’d want your friend to first brush up on all the right things to say before he or she reached out to you…or not.
Ultimately, I decided to reach out to Brian, not with well-researched and well-thought-out words, but, rather, with words of unconditional love. I told him I didn’t know what to say, and I certainly didn’t have any advice for him. I told him, “I know you are strong, compassionate, and worthy of a healthy and happy relationship…. Whatever the outcome, be yourself - the Brian we know and love.”
I’ve been fortunate to have had two opportunities to spend time with Brian since learning this news. The most recent occasion happened to coincide with my skin cancer surgery on my nose. We spent the morning after my surgery talking around my kitchen table and he seemed to be at ease. With the bandage over my nose and my black and blue left eye swollen shut I probably looked like he felt on the inside – beat up and scarred by the removal of something that was once a part of him but was cut out before it could do any more damage.
I didn’t say very much either of the times we talked. I knew that my role was to listen and love; which made me feel even worse about my initial instincts to avoid the situation or to address it with “right” answers from a textbook.
People who have experienced the loss of a relationship need assurance that they are worthy of love. Often the best way to communicate this is by being present, quiet, and kind.
The Christian church, unfortunately, doesn’t have a great record of being present, quiet, and kind towards people who have experienced divorce. Some churches still today don’t allow people who are divorced to be members or take communion. After all, scripture such as the gospel text from today makes it clear divorce is a consequence of our sinful nature–what Jesus refers to as “hardness of heart” in today’s gospel, which is the same term used to describe the Pharaoh’s repeated refusal to free the Israelite slaves in the book of Exodus.
Marriage is meant to be an institution of mutual respect, support, and love. In the time that Jesus uttered these seemingly-harsh words against divorce, marriage was one of the only ways for women to have protection and value. Divorce was practically a death sentence to the women and children of a marriage. Hence Jesus’ interpretation of the law of Moses in front of the pharisees and the disciples. His words challenged a system in which the letter of the law failed to honor relationships and protect the vulnerable. His message was that people are not disposable; no matter how justifiable their disposal is under the law.
In the name of Jesus, the church must always remain steadfast in its insistence on showing grace. Surely God’s love rests on those suffering through a marriage that is ending. Surely God’s grace is upon those who can no longer maintain a healthy relationship for a myriad of reasons.
Today’s Christian church can uphold marriage as an ideal institution of mutual respect, support, and love without condemning those whose marriage was not filled with respect, support, or love.
The church can and should give tools for a healthy, life-giving marriage model and still be a welcoming and encouraging place for those for whom marriage was neither healthy nor life-giving.
Each of us in our own ways are broken. We all have “hard hearts” about one thing or another. We gather as often as we can as a part of the church of Christ because church is a place where our broken bits can be pieced back together with the broken bits of others. Together we reassemble around the gift of the true, life-giving, word of God in water, bread, wine, and the word-elements that equip us to overcome our fears, our lack of answers, our hard hearts, so that we can we can sit with the suffering, proclaim the truth of God’s unconditional love, and create new life-giving relationships in the name of Jesus.