Sunday, October 08, 2006

Divorce in the Inbox

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22

Year B (BCP Lectionary)

Sunday, October 8 th, 2006

Today’s gospel is one that any sensible preacher dreads – a short, pithy teaching about divorce that cuts in every direction. Coming right out of Mark’s Gospel, which tends not to mince words anyway, Jesus’ teaching sounds particularly pointed. And for any and all of us who have had to live through the pain of divorce – whether or own or someone we deeply care about – Jesus’ words can be more than just difficult. He seems to walk right into the midst of the pain and confront us with it. This is not the kind man of the beatitudes, or the warm shepherd leading his flock. These are the hard-edged words of an apocalyptic teacher caught up in a no-holds-barred debate with the religious authorities of his day. . .

And caught up in a debate with us, God’s People, about the very nature of human relationships – and how seriously we are called by God to take them.

In Jesus’ day, marriage was not as we in the West now view it – a contract between two individuals – but an agreement between families, the combining of blood lines and a public understanding between men: namely the groom and the father of the bride. The wife involved was a transaction of particular importance, most valued for her ability to bear a male heir for her husband. The transaction would be completed by her leaving her father’s household and entering that of her husband. But even then, she remained a stranger to her husband’s family – an outsider who would only gain status when her hoped-for son would arrive, at last bringing her esteem as mother of the heir.

With a narrow understanding of marriage like this, there was more than one reason around honor for a man to divorce his wife: she might not bear a son, she might not be able to bear any children at all, she might displease his family. And if he divorced her, he brought shame on her father’s household, who might exact revenge or otherwise start a bitter feud that could go on for generations. Divorce, you see, in Jesus’ time – while not beyond the power of women to initiate – was largely the man’s prerogative. And the divorced woman was only the property involved – if she were not reclaimed by her father, she would have to turn to begging. . .or worse. And even if she was taken back into the household of her birth, the rest of the society was likely to see her as nothing more than damaged goods.

So, Jesus stands up in today’s gospel for the women of his day, and for the fabric of the local community, which could be irreparably damaged by the fallout from a nasty dissolution of marriage. In our age we might be tempted to suppose this teaching is not so relevant to us, where no-fault divorce is pretty commonplace and – generally, at least – both parties and their families can move on without much stigma.

Yet words are easy. No matter what popular culture today tells us, divorce is not. Any of us who are survivors of divorce, however necessary it might have been, know even that in the most amicable ending of a marriage, the pain still touches our lives and the lives of those we care about most deeply. And no legal formula is prepared to address that.

This is the failure of the Pharisees’ question in today’s Gospel. It asks if divorce is lawful. Jesus takes a big and faithful step further. He sees marriage, in the narrow sense – and human relationships in the broad sense – as substantially more than legal contracts. . .much more, in fact. Appealing to the very heart of the Hebrew story of creation in Genesis, he talks about the one-fleshedness of humanity. Women and men are made of each other. So are sisters and brothers, parents and children, and friends and strangers. All of humanity is made of the same stuff. We belong to one another.

Jesus calls the Pharisees and us to view marriage and all covenanted human relationships not through legal eyes, but through God’s eyes. That we are all one flesh. And until we can most deeply embrace this as individuals and as God’s children, we are likely to continue the tragic cycles of divorce.

* * *

Arriving in my inbox Friday afternoon was an e-mail targeted, it seems, at all the rectors and vicars of The Episcopal Church across the country. It announced that the time for schism had come, and if I wanted to lead Church of Our Saviour out of the heretical Episcopal Church and join the “real” Anglican Communion, and the “real” Christian family, now was the time for me to start educating you all about it. A few clicks away were the usual list of suspects of disgruntled and highly vocal members of the church agitating for schism – a group now sporting the title “Lay Episcopalians for the Anglican Communion.” I gather the assumption is that the rest of us aren’t for the Anglican Communion, because we might think somewhat differently about human sexuality, the ordination of women, what biblical authority means, or the interpretation of scripture.

Insults aside, the e-mail was upsetting enough on its own merits that it gave me pause. In the name of Christ, the e-mail was self-righteously heralding a communal divorce – a spiritual-ecclesiastical surgery to further divide the Body of Christ. Baptism and sharing in the broken bread isn’t enough, it seems, to keep us together. The bitter question in my mind was what kind of Christian witness would this schism give to a world already in the throws of multiple divorces of its own on a grand scale?

But maybe that’s too small a worry. Since the potential for schism in the Anglican Communion made headlines for a brief time this past summer, the world media has had much bigger fish to fry. With the multiplicity of divisions growing in the Middle East, the rising sectarian violence in Iraq, and the nuclear ambitions of a paranoid regime in East Asia – well, 2,000 years after Jesus argued about it with the Pharisees, divorce on all scales is still clearly much a part of the pain of the human family.

Our common blood remains in crisis, both inside and outside the church. When Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being hard-hearted, he also indicts the entire human family for our continued cold treatment of each other. Whether it’s decades of neglect and exploitation of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East – by their own governments, by militants, and by our thirst for their treasure – the starvation of the North Korean people by a tyrant who claims divinity; or the ongoing threats of schism in the Anglican Communion, all in the name of being right with God.

Jesus’ teaching today is for all of us, married or not, divorced or not, trying to reconcile with our neighbors and our communities, or learn again to live with our families. Jesus raises up the story of people made in the image of God, crafted out of the stardust as one flesh, one bloodline: a reminder of a common heritage that not even our most painful divorces can deny. God in Christ wants the human family whole. And before us is a long and difficult journey into deeper love and true peace we have yet to make.

In response to our shared pain, Christ offers himself in the bread and the wine and calls us around the table, where we are no longer strangers; where all of us who are children of one or many divorces may find healing; where the nourishing breath of the Spirit re-enters our bodies and souls and calls us back into the family of God. Where we are called to pray for those who have hurt us and those we have hurt.

Divorce of all kinds may haunt us and the human family for a very long time to come. But here, today and every day, we are offered the heart of Christ: to begin again to be renewed as the Children of God, children of one blood, sisters and brothers in the great human family, and bring hope to a world thirsty for an end to strife.


Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992. pp. 240-43

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