The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 10/8/2000
Text: Mark 10:2-16
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Jesus and Divorce. Tough text. In generations past, this would have provided no problem for the preacher - Jesus says No Divorce, the church says Amen (along with most polite society); case closed. Easy sermon. But these days, things are different. Jesus still says No divorce, but only part of the church says Amen while other parts say we are not so sure (and polite society says mind your own business); case NOT closed at all.

I recall a conversation at our dinner table one evening about ten years ago that was so bizarre I remember it like yesterday. Somehow the talk had turned to the number of youngsters in my children's classes who were living with "Mom and Mike." They were the majority. There were problems with such arrangements, of course: the one most obvious to my kids was the impossibility of making plans - is this the weekend that Billy stays here or the one he has to go to his dad's? As we talked about it, I said that I liked our family arrangement better. My daughter (age six at the time) replied, "Well, give it time... give it time." I was stunned! Divorce had become such a part of the fabric of our life as to lead a little child to think of it as the inevitable norm. In 1960, only 9% of children lived in single-parent homes. By 1998 that percentage had increased to 28% (with 35% of children living apart from their biological fathers).(1) Hmm.

The text: "Some Pharisees came and tested [Jesus] by asking, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?'" Now 2000 years later, WE ask Jesus the same thing, not as a test, but because we really want to know. After all, as Erin's observation attests, divorce is a fact of American life - everyone of us here has been affected by divorce one way or another, even if only trying to figure whether Billy can come over to play or not. Tell us, Jesus, tell us.

Jesus responds with a question of his own: "What did Moses command you?" The response: that Moses allowed it - if a man wanted to divorce his wife, he handed her a piece of paper so stating, and sends her on her way. That seems fairly straightforward. The Law of Moses assumes the legitimacy of divorce; the issue is remarriage. Divorce had to be official and regulated by the community, thus offering some protection to the divorced woman by granting her legal status and permitting her to marry someone else.(2) The decision to divorce was strictly the prerogative of the husband, who did not have to go to court, but could simply make the decision himself in the presence of certified witnesses and was acknowledged in the same way as any other renunciation of property. After all, that is the way a wife in that day was thought of - PROPERTY, not much more.

However, by the time of Jesus, a continuing debate was raging among the rabbis as to legitimate grounds for divorce. The conservative school of thought had it that only INDECENCY or UNFAITHFULNESS on the part of the wife made divorce acceptable. The more liberal school defined "indecency" in the widest possible way: a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled a dish of food, if she talked to a strange man, if she spoke disrespectfully of her husband's relatives in his hearing, if she was a brawling woman, (who was defined as one whose voice could be heard in the next house). All these things were considered as grounds for divorce. A certain Rabbi Akiba even went the length of saying that it meant if a man found a woman who was "fairer" in his eyes than his wife was. Given the way human nature goes, you can imagine which school of thought was most popular.(3)

In line with this general disregard for women in the ancient world, if a woman were divorced, she did not have many options. There were no "Want Ads" to scour. She could go back home to her parents or move in with some other relative. If that were not possible, she might be forced to resort to prostitution to keep from starving. Not a good situation. Not good at all!

One more thing should be noted: adultery was primarily a WOMAN'S problem. After all, polygamy was still accepted in the ancient world (although by Jesus' time the practice was dying out) and if a man wanted to marry another woman, he just did it - he did not have to worry about divorcing his first wife. Such was NOT an option for the ladies, and anything they might do sexually outside the bounds of their one and only marriage could be punishable by death. The only way a man could be guilty of adultery was if he fooled around with a woman who was already engaged or married to another man. There are many women in our day who chafe under the yoke of sexual discrimination, and rightly so, but be aware, things are so much better today than back then that there is no basis for comparison. As has been said, "You've come a long way, Baby."

For what it is worth, the nations that surrounded Israel were no better. The Greeks had no problems about relationships outside of marriage, and they were accepted with no stigma at all. Demosthenes laid it down as the normal practice of life: he said, "We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation, and wives for the purpose of having children legitimately." There was even such a thing as "sacred sex" - Greek men could go down to the temple for a little hanky- panky with one of the priestesses (for pay, of course) and then come home full of the knowledge that he had worshiped the gods of fertility.(4)

The Romans? To be sure, they had started out with a very high view of marriage and sexual morality - in the first 500 years of Roman history there is not one recorded case of divorce (the first one came in 234 BC when a man desired a child and his wife could not give him one). Things went downhill from there though. By Jesus' time, the morals of Rome were not much better than a bunch of alley cats. Marriage had become nothing more than a necessity for the propagation of the race. The typical Roman joke was, "Marriage brings you only two happy days...the first and the last."(5)

Considering all that, you can see how radical Jesus was in his position on marriage. "It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this [divorce] law," Jesus said. "But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female...For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

I wonder what the Lord would say if he came back today and spoke on the same subject? I suspect that, considering the current situation, he would say the same thing all over again, and particularly if he were as concerned with the protection of women, for that, after all, was the force of his words in the first place.

We say "You've come a long way, Baby?" Well, almost TOO far when it comes to divorce. According to statistics, the vast majority of women who are involved in divorce today get no alimony, and that includes many who have spent years making a home and caring for a family while the husband went out, enhanced his earning power through education and experience, and then decided he wanted out of the marriage. The courts now seem to think that women are just as capable as men of earning a living, so they do not need the protection they once did in a divorce action. The result is that several million divorced or separated women and their children now live in poverty. That ends up costing the taxpayers billions of dollars a year in public assistance, subsidized housing, food stamps, and the like.

To be honest, I would suspect that Jesus would make even MORE of a point about saying no divorce in our day because we have a problem resulting from it that was really NO problem 2,000 years ago - the CHILDREN of divorce. You see, no self-respecting Jewish man would have EVER considered abandoning his children just because he was divorcing their mother. But in our day, it has become almost morally permissible for divorced fathers to literally steal the bread from their sons' and daughters' mouths. Half of all divorced fathers fail to pay their children all that the courts have decided is due and an incredibly high number pay their children nothing at all despite the fact that what they are doing (or rather NOT doing) is illegal in all fifty states.

You see, that is part of the problem with divorce - it affects more people than simply the husband and wife who cannot stand each other anymore. Somewhere I read about a woman out in Oklahoma who stopped her car on a busy road to scrape the ice off her windshield. For some reason she did not pull off on the shoulder, but probably thinking she had adequate time, stopped in one of the traffic lanes. A car coming over a bridge behind her saw her car and the driver instinctively hit his brakes, the wrong thing to do on an icy bridge. He slid sideways, and before he could get straightened out, was struck by another vehicle. That car was struck by another and then another and then another, in all, a total of 36 cars and trucks. The unidentified woman who had stopped to scrape her windshield was not involved in any of the collisions. In fact, after getting it wiped clear, she drove off, seemingly unscathed by it all. Sadly, it is very much like that with divorce.

Every year, over one-million children(6) suffer (and that IS the word for it...SUFFER) their parents' divorce. Two-hundred-thousand of those end up seriously troubled by the experience. Children of divorce are five times more likely to be expelled or suspended from school, three times as likely to require psychological counseling, two times as likely to repeat a grade, and face a 50% greater probability of going through a divorce themselves in later life. Dr. Judith Wallerstein, the author of a controversial new book on the subject(7) says, "If children had a vote, there would be no divorce." As I say, if Jesus were asked his position about divorce today, I suspect he would make his point even more vehemently than he did on that Judean hillside so long ago.

As you are no doubt aware, the church has historically taken the Lord's statement about divorce in the most legalistic possible sense. And that is why there were comparatively so few divorces and so few "Mom and Mikes" in time past. But, truth be known, we have come to see that such an approach can be problematic, so, in recent years, Presbyterian statements about the problem of divorce are much more willing to see that sometimes such a conclusion is inevitable and actually best for all concerned. Listen:

---"What if a particular marriage under consideration appears to have been ill-considered, an example of blind, youthful, compulsiveness from the start, based almost exclusively on 'hardness of heart' rather than God's `joining'?"

---"What if in the course of a marriage, the marriage relationship becomes fundamentally destructive to the partners (and/or their children), then what shape does God's gracious intention take?"

---"What if because of various sorts of 'hardness of heart' a marriage is dissolved, then are those who were a party to it forever shut out from God's gracious intention of `oneness?'"

...Neither the Confession of Faith nor the Bible wrestle significantly with the troublesome fact that although it is possible to affirm marriage as an institution "designed and ordained of God for the welfare and happiness of [hu]mankind," there is no certainty that God is the instigator of any specific marital union or that God intends the continuation of the union regardless of the personal consequences to the persons involved.(8)

How SHOULD we deal with divorce then? Ask anyone who has gone through a divorce and they will tell you that there are few situations in life which can cause that kind of pain. It is significantly worse than the death of a loved one. Honestly, it is the death of a part of yourself. Those words in the marriage ceremony that Jesus quotes from Genesis about the two becoming "one flesh" (or one person, really) are true. There is no such thing as an "ex-wife" or an "ex-husband." The marriage bond changes people forever. Two people who were once strangers, who came together in marriage, can never again go back to being strangers. Marriage changes people, and divorce cannot change THAT. Every so often we hear of two people and their "friendly divorce." I do not believe it; those are mutually exclusive terms. All divorce can do is cause pain...excruciating pain...and there is nothing friendly about that.

Jesus and Divorce. As the Bible makes plain, divorce is allowable, and from a practical standpoint, we know it is sometimes unavoidable - some marriages SHOULD end for the sake of all concerned. Is divorce ever good? I think Jesus would say no, despite the fact that it may be the only possible way out of a particularly horrible situation. At best, divorce is the lesser of two or more evils.

Without question, a failed marriage is a tragedy for everyone involved. But it need not be the end of the world. With the writer of Lamentations whose life had been turned upside down and who was tempted to despair of anything good coming ever again, we can affirm,

I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.(9)

Has divorce hurt you? Then look to the dawn and remember the promise of the morning. New mercies and unfailing faithfulness.


1. "Family News" from Dr. James Dobson, November 1999, p. 2 quoted in Homiletics, September/October, 2000, p. 49

2. M. Eugene Boring, "The Gospel of Matthew," The New Interpreter"s Bible, Electronic Edition, (Nashville : Abingdon, 1998)

3. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press

4. ibid.

5. ibid.

6. Walter Kirn, "Should You Stay Together For The Kids?" TIME, 9/25/2000

7. The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (Hyperion)

8. Presbyterian Church in the United States, "Divorce and Remarriage With Special Reference to Ordained Ministers," Office of the Stated Clerk, Atlanta, 1978, p. 7

9. Lamentations 3:19-24 NIV

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