A Protective Prohibition
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.
Divorce was a reality in three of my extended family relationships as I was growing up. My initial draft of today’s sermon went into some detail about one of these relationships – detail I thought was necessary to the larger point I was making. However, this morning as I read through the draft I decided to disregard the details and context of divorce as I’ve witnessed it. Reason being, I understand that divorce is highly personal, each circumstance is unique, and I don’t want to risk advocating divorce as the only way to respond to a particular situation. All that to say, the final version of today’s sermon is drastically shorter and less personal than it was a few hours ago, but I trust the good news will ring true.
Scripture verses such as Jesus’ prohibition on divorce are often taken as a universally-applicable and valid in each and every situation throughout time and space. The issue I have is that in my life, I have seen the utter devastation that divorce has brought on families, but I’ve also recognized divorce as a life-giving and completely justifiable option for some marriages.
“But pastor,” one could say. “Jesus plainly says that anyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery.”
If you believe that the Bible was written by people isolated from the world who simply wrote down the whispered words of angels; if you believe there is no narrative underlying the pages of scripture; if you believe that every word of the Bible is literally true and universally applicable regardless of the context or bias on the part of the author or translator; then scripture such as Mark 10 is available to you as a tool to judge others and condemn their actions.
Had I never witnessed a healthy, necessary, and dare I say beautiful, divorce between people in my extended family…if I never knew their story…then I, too, likely would have been content to take the verses that prohibit divorce and remarriage at face value. I could have used such verses to justify condemning anyone caught in the painful process of divorce.
Fortunately, however, I have been taught how to gracefully hold up the truths from scripture as well as the truths from lived experience…even when they appear to be contradictory.
I don’t think anyone here is interested in using today’s verse as ammunition to shame people who have experienced divorce. Instead, let’s explore what is going on in this text and where the good news is located.
You’ve probably heard a lot of talk about the “Biblical understanding of marriage.” Well, there isn’t one unified vision for marriage. The patriarchs of the faith (including Abraham, Jacob, David, and others) had numerous wives…or at least a concubine or two. And the apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Corinth, tells people to consider not marrying at all, saying, “Those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that” (1 Cor. 7:28). I bet you’ve never heard that verse read at a marriage ceremony!
In the Biblical contexts, marriage was contractual, not relational. A family would sell their daughter or sister into marriage, where she would become property of the man. Notice the Pharisee’s question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” as well as their response, “Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife.”
In these times, a woman had no rights. Her husband could divorce her for any conceivable reason. And once divorced, she would lose most of her rights, including the right to own property. She could easily find herself begging for food on the street or prostituting herself for income. Jesus recognized that divorce was a tool that men were using to shame, ostracize, and terrorize women. Thus, his strong words against divorce served to protect women. This is yet another passage where Jesus is positioning himself as a champion of the vulnerable and the outcast.
Clearly, divorce is not something that God intends for us; particularly when we consider how often marriage is used in scripture as a metaphor of the relationship between God and God’s people. But it is a reality of our imperfect lives that many unexpected things can enter a marriage and destroy it. Jesus’ intent is the protection and honor of the spouse as a child created in God’s image, not as trash to be discarded on a selfish whim. Marriage is more than just a legal obligation; it is part of our created order and responsibility to care for one another. If marriage can no longer provide protection and honor that function, then alternative routes of protection and honor must be pursued.
Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce are not straightforward legalistic principles to be applied and assailed regardless of context. Rather, they are words meant to protect women, honor the image of God in each other, and inspire our relationships to be injected with love, fidelity, and grace – the same gifts God bestows upon us every day.
May all of your relationships be life-affirming, precious, guided by grace, and worth fighting for.