Pentecost 18B Mark 10:2-16
Divorce is as American as apple pie. Divorce is common to all of us and touches everyone here in this room. Mothers, fathers, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, sons, daughters, neighbors, work associates. Divorce permeates our entire culture and not one of us is immune from having some person close to us or ourselves experience divorce. That is, we realize that 50% of the couples getting married today will get a divorce. We realize that 50% of the children today will grow up in a blended family without their original mother and father. We realize that 83% of the kids in the local Highline School District do not have their original parent. Dr. Roland Martinson, Professor of Youth and Family Life at Luther Seminary of St. Paul (and a friend of mine) says that there is an “adulteration of marriage” in our culture. That is, for about 25-30% in our culture, they have been married numerous times. 45% of first marriages get a divorce; 75% of them remarry; 55% of those people get a divorce; 75% remarry; 65% of those people get a divorce, and pretty soon there is a cumulative effect of 25-30% having been married over and over again. He quotes a book, CHILDREN AT RISK, which suggests that some of the teenage violence in our culture may be caused by the children of these multiple marriages; where a child has bonded to kittens, computers and cars more than the intimacy of other human beings. I think there is a truth to what he suggests. I know a young child from the Highline School district who didn’t know her last name precisely because she had so many last names.
Divorce is painful for all people involved. Divorce is tough on the married couple themselves. Here in the church, I have never once met a couple who was gleefully and happily going through a divorce. It was painful business for all of them because they took God seriously, themselves seriously and the Bible seriously. I have found that often couples may avoid the church at that time. That is, they may come on a Sunday where marriage and divorce may be the focus on the sermon, and it is far too painful. They may want to avoid seeing all of other happy couples who truly enjoy each other. They may feel condemnation when they come around church. One thing I know: such couples need our love, not our condemnation. It has been said: those who live in glass houses do not throw stones; and when it comes to divorce, we all surely live in glass houses and none of us throw stones. Especially the elderly don’t throw stones as these people have experienced so many divorces of their children and grandchildren.
Divorce is tough on the children. These kids often have emotional scars that live with them for life. TIME magazine currently has an issue about the consequences of divorce on children, and this issue takes the long term pain of divorce more seriously. I certainly can testify to this. That is, I lived through a problem marriage and I remember far too keenly when it was like when I was alone with my parent’s battles for many years. Those painful memories are crystal clear in my mind. I do not tell you the congregation of these stories because of my respect for my mother and father, long since deceased. But when I am counseling with a teenager in a similar situation, I fill them in on the graphic details of what I experienced so that they will realize that they are not alone. I repeatedly assure such kids that they are not the cause of their parent’s divorce. I repeatedly assure them that some of their rebellious and angry behavior is the consequence of their parent’s divorce. When I got into trouble as a teenager, little did I know then that my rebellious behavior was a consequence of my anger at my home life. I also emphasize to these kids that they are not to be their parent’s counselors, nor are they responsible for “saving” the marriage. Let’s face it; divorce is tough on the kids.
Divorce is also tough on the grandparents. Grandparents are often the forgotten people in divorce, but it is tough on them as well. Often, the grandparents have fallen in love with their daughter in law or son in law; in fact, the grandparents may love the in law even more than their own child. Sometimes, there is an invisible tension that develops between parent and adult child during this divorce. Sometimes, the grandparents find themselves giving much more time to this divorcing family than they thought they were going to, often caring for their grandchildren. Sometimes, grandparents lose contact with their grandchildren through a divorce, the grandchildren moving to another town. Sometimes, the divorce costs grandparents much more money because their adult child is now living close to poverty. What I am suggesting, is that divorce is often tough on grandparents and they are often the forgotten people in the messiness of a divorce.
And divorce is tough on the church. When someone at the core of the church gets a divorce, it hurts everyone. I am not talking about those casual Christians who worship just on Christmas and Easter, but when the “true blue” church member gets a divorce, those loyal Sunday School teachers or choir members, we all feel it. And when the pastor gets a divorce, it can sometimes be so painful that the pastor is asked to leave the church because the tension that the divorce causes.
So I am suggesting that divorce is tough on everybody. Everybody is in pain. And that we approach divorce in a spirit of compassion rather than condemnation.
It is with these perceptions that we approach the gospel lesson for today which is the most elaborate discussion of divorce in the Bible. Here in the gospel of Mark is the most thorough analysis of divorce, and so we must talk about both divorce and this Biblical story about divorce.
First, I would like to give you some historical background to this Mark passage. I would like to give you some historical background material from the Old Testament, and then historical background material from the time of Christ. In the Old Testament, divorce and remarriage of divorce people were both permissible. The Biblical reference is Dueteronomy 24:1, where divorce and remarriage are permissible within Jewish law. There are two grounds for divorce in the Old Testament: adultery and infertility. Of course, when the Old Testament Jews thought of infertility, it was always the woman who was infertile. Those Old Testament people had no concept of male sperm and that a man’s sperm count may be deficient. Also, women at this time were treated as “things;” that is, in the tenth commandment, the Bible says that we are not to covet a man’s wife, manservant, maidservant, cattle or any “thing” which is your neighbors. Women were thought of as things to be owned and bargained for.
But there were also protections for women. There were two protections: first, the bride price. A man would put aside money when he married a woman, and this money was called the bride price. If and when he divorced the woman, he would have to pay her the bride price from this sum of money and that was the money she was to live on. A divorce could be financially costly for the man. A second protection for the woman was that the marriage was often arranged with a relative such as a cousin, first cousin, or niece. For example, in those days, I would perhaps married my older sister’s daughter, and if I planned to divorce her, I would have to explain myself to my older sister Beverly, and you wouldn’t want to face Beverly. So there were protections for the woman. I shouldn’t say the word “woman;” a woman’s age was about twelve for engagements and fifteen for marriage. They were young girls more than women.
The historical background for marriage is also interesting during the times of Christ. Divorces had become commonplace, and the commonness of divorce was influenced by the debates of the current rabbis, the master teachers, of Jesus’ day. The debates about divorce were a hot topic between the followers of the rabbi Shammi and the followers of the rabbi, Hillel. Shammi said that divorce was allowable only for adultery and infertility; Hillel was more “progessive” or modern and he said that divorce was allowable for three additional reasons: burning the bread, talking with a man in public, and finding another man attractive. And so divorce was a hot topic in Jewish society at the time of Christ, and had increased rapidly.
It is with this background that we approach the story from Mark today. The Pharisees were again trying to trap Jesus with a trick question, so he would come out the loser, and so they asked him about the hot topic of the day: “Do you believe in divorce, Jesus?” And Jesus replied, “What does Moses teach you in the Jewish law?” They said: “Divorce is permissible.” And Jesus replied: “That is because of your hardness of hearts. Moses in the Jewish law allowed for divorce, but I go back to the book of Genesis, which was given to us before the Jewish law, and in the book of Genesis it says: A man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one. What God has joined together, let no one separate!” “What?” the Pharisees shouted at him. Both sides. Both the Shammi and Hillel Pharisees: “No divorce? No remarriage?,” they thought inside their brains. The disciples of Jesus couldn’t believe it either and so they got Jesus into a little house and asked him, “Did you really mean what you said? No Moses? No divorce? No remarriage?” And Jesus replied to his disciples: “Whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery. This is true for men and women.” I like the editorial comment from the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the story where the disciples then say, “Jesus, if we would have known this, if we would have known we couldn’t divorce and remarry, we would have remained single.” … So Jesus upset the apple cart: No divorce. No remarriage. Now, that is tough on every one!!!
So what do we do with these crisp words of Jesus here in the twentieth century? What do we do with these words of Jesus which permit no divorce and remarriage in a culture and church in which may couples have been happily remarried for a long, long time? How do we learn from this story about divorce?
I would like to make three comments, three points. The first is this: Jesus was prophetic in his condemnation of the commonness of divorce in his day. Jesus was challenging the marriage values and practices of his day. Jesus challenged the values of his day said that marriage was not sacred. Jesus challenged the values of his day which said that divorce should be cheap and easy. Jesus challenged the values of his day that shattered the Jewish home and left many women in absolute poverty. … It is amazing to me that no human being had ever said that there was to be no divorce and no remarriage. Jesus is the first human being lift up marriage so high, to lift the status of women up so high, to radically revolutionize both marriage and the status of women, in a society where women and divorce and marriage were so low. …. I love Jesus quotation from the book of Genesis: “what God has joined together, let no one destroy.” Let me tell you a story. It was years ago when this happened, I think at one of the Welliver weddings, during which time I was in conversation with three people who were quietly dating persons who were married. I was furious inside and tried to explain to these people that they were helping to destroy another marriage; that you never believe a married person dating another and their belittling of their own marriage. In that Welliver wedding, my feelings were simmering and coming to a boil, and when I got to the line from the book of Genesis and Jesus, “What God has joined together, don’t you ever destroy it.” I hissed out the last line, “don’t you ever contribute to the destruction of another marriage. Don’t you ever go out with a married person.” My feelings must have been raw as I spoke these words because a woman came out from the wedding and said, “Don’t worry, pastor. I never will. No, not me pastor.” We laughed. But it is true: Jesus was a prophet that day and challenged the permissive values that downgraded marriage and accepted divorces cavalierly.
A second comment I want to make is that Jesus upheld marriages; he lifted up and exalted the state of marriage, and ever since Jesus, the church has been working hard at helping good marriages to become great marriages and has been helping problem marriages to work through their difficulties. Let me explain. The church of Jesus Christ, following the words of Genesis and Jesus, has always been captivated by the concept that the two people can become one person. The Apostle Paul even calls the man and woman becoming one a sacrament, a grand mystery. According to the statistics that we teach our confirmation students, the divorce rate of a normal, red blooded American couple is about 50% but the divorce rate between a man and woman who together kneel at the altar on a regular basis and whose faith is deeply genuine as evidenced in their prayer life and time commitment, their divorce rate is 2%. And we ask why: why are marriages much more solid and loving when both the husband and wife are a significant participant in our worship lives. After all these years, I finally understand. There are so many models around here at church. For me, there are so many men like Irving Birk and Fred Matthews and Herbert Breivik, who truly know how to love a woman, and I learn from them although they have never tried to teach me about this. And I have also learned something else: the same kinds of people who make time for God are the same kind of people who make time for their spouse. The same kinds of people who share their feelings with God are the same kind of people who share their feelings with each other. The same kinds of people who give little sacrifices to God, (what is an hour or two of worship on Sunday morning?) are the same kind of people who make little sacrifices for each other, and that is what marriage is: a million little sacrifices for each other, and none of them are covered by the rule book of marriage. I know, I have been married now for 37 years and I know first hand about inner communication and a million little sacrifices for each other in love.
I also find that people who are having troubles in their marriages actually go to work on them through the church. Our church counselors are loaded with people who are working with their marriage problems. Outside the church and the deeply committed Christians, people aren’t so motivated to work at healing their conflicts and problems.
The church of Jesus Christ, following the radical teachings of Jesus Christ, has always been a community that works to make good marriages great and sick marriages healthy.
My third point is this: we need to take the story about no divorce and no remarriage in the Gospel of Mark pastorally and not literally. Let me explain. Jesus is very clear in the Gospel of Mark: No divorce, no remarriage. Anyone remarrying a divorce person, lives in adultery and sin. This is very clear.
There are often two mistakes made with this passage. First, the literalist mistake. If you take a literalist interpretation of the Bible, this is another passage that gets you in trouble. There are crucial texts in the Bible, where if you take the passage literally, you create trouble for yourself and your loved ones. Here, you condemn many of your friends, friends and family with your narrow interpretation of the Bible. The second mistake of Biblical interpretation is to make the words of Jesus into new spiritual laws. We then have the spiritual laws for marriage and divorce in the Old Testament, and the spiritual laws for marriage and divorce in the New Testament. The point is: we make the New and Old Testament into a set of spiritual laws that we try to apply to our culture. We now have a new set of spiritual laws but they don’t quite work.
Let me talk about another approach. That is, we interpret the sayings of Jesus pastorally or with love. The New Testament does this with Mark 10. When Matthew translates this same passage, Matthew later inserts the words, “except for adultery.” There is to be no divorce and remarriage except for adultery. Matthew makes a pastoral exception. Then, the Apostle Paul interprets Jesus’ clear demand and makes a second exception: if you are married to a non-believer, you can divorce that person. And so the early church gave two exceptions in the spirit of love. Now, if you make these two exceptions into spiritual laws, then there are only two exceptions: adultery and married to a non-believer. But I believe and so does my church that there are other exceptions to Jesus’ demand and these exceptions are not delineated in the Bible. For example, what if your spouse is a long time alcoholic or drug addict? To stay married to them may imply that you are enabling their sick behaviors and not having them face the realistic consequences of their choices.
What if you spouse is an abuser, beating you up physically so your body is black and blue and you have to lie about it or wear clothing to cover up? What if your spouse is an emotional abuser, like a use of Chinese water torture so you can’t see it, and your black and blue marks in your emotions or spirit? What if your spouse is sexually abusing your children or grandchildren and you don’t do anything about it? These are situations not listed in the Bible, with which I have to deal as a pastor. I encourage such people to break out of their marriage, if there is no healing realistically possible. In other words, you need to interpret the passage about divorce in Mark 10 as we approach all such passages: with love, with pastoral concern. To take such passages literally may result in the opposite of love, leaving many people living in an awful, human situation.
The other day, I telephoned people who had been married and loving and living together for more than twenty-five years. I asked them if they were living in a state of adultery, a state of sin, and they all laughed at me. “Of course not, they unanimously said.” These couples had been divorced years ago, so long ago that people have forgotten, and they are not living in sin. These couples help us in our interpretation of Mark 10.
So, one story in conclusion. If you own a car, you must maintain it on a regular basis. There is no choice here, or your car will fall apart very quickly. It must be maintained. And this principle is true, much more so, in marriage. It is wise to maintain your marrige on a regular basis. And over time, your car may develop into an “old classic,” and over time, your marriage may develop into an “old classic.” A young woman looked at my wife Jan and I the other day, and realizing that we had been married for 37 years and she only three, there was that look and twinkle in her eye and she playfully said: “Your marriage is an old classic.” And, we took it as a compliment. Amen.
CHILDREN’S SERMON: Three bowls with water. Two little children pour a bowl of water into the middle bowl so it comes full. The little child exclaimed: “That middle bowl is full of water!!!” “Yes,” I said. “When the love of a husband and the love of a mother is poured into the love of Christ, the love between them becomes full.”
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