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I will admit that I am a bit tired of it...especially when it is attached to one more attack ad. I personally would like to hear the candidates say, "This is what I HAVE done and this is what I WILL do; if you can support that, I would appreciate your vote." Forget this stuff about what a bum the opponent is; tell me about YOU!!! Gracious!
What brings that stuff to mind is this text we have in Mark's gospel. For 21st century Americans, that lesson is about as welcome as a political attack ad, and Jesus' teaching on divorce has been used to beat up on people for generations. Knowing Jesus as we do, I think we have reason to wonder if that is a message that Jesus really would approve.
A bit of background. The story begins with, "Some Pharisees came and tested [Jesus] by asking, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?'" This was not a request for assistance. What is likely is a political agenda behind the Pharisees' "test" - they have been out to get him since chapter three. In Mark's gospel, the previous occurrence of the word "lawful" (exesti) is when we are told that John the Baptist had been telling Herod, "It is not LAWFUL for you to have your brother's wife,"(1) after Herod had divorced his wife in order to marry Herodias, his sister-in-law. Would Jesus side with John and say that this was not lawful? If so, the Pharisees might push to have Herod do to Jesus what he had done to John - off with his head. Sounds to me like the question was a not-too-well-disguised attempt to have Jesus, in a sense, "hang himself," by speaking against Herod. Nice folks, those Pharisees.
Jesus' response to the question was a question of his own: "What did Moses command you?" Well, actually, nothing. What Moses did was PERMIT divorce.(2) Jesus does not debate this. He chooses instead to interpret Moses within the larger context of God's intentions for humanity.
According to Moses, a man can divorce a woman who becomes "displeasing to him" by simply writing her a note saying they are divorced - the note in Hebrew is called a GIT (which is not simply short for GIT OUT, but that is the effect of it). If she then becomes another man's wife, and, in time, the second guy comes to want rid of her, he can divorce her too, but he cannot send her back to the first guy because she has been "defiled." Clear? Who makes all the decisions? The men, of course. What is the basis of their decisions to divorce? She does something "indecent." What is considered indecent? Well, men, we know it when we see it, right?
Actually, knowing it when we see it was causing a certain amount of controversy in the Jewish community of Jesus' day. The Hebrew root ('ervah) of what is translated "indecent" has a sexual connotation which led some interpreters to conclude that only some sexually immoral act like adultery would be grounds for divorce. Others thought that conclusion was too restrictive and interpreted "indecent" as anything the husband found objectionable, something as simple as 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 were a brawling woman (defined as one whose voice could be heard in the next house). All these things were considered to be 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)
As we are aware, if a divorce did occur in that day and age, the consequences could be severe. Quite apart from the emotional pain and trauma, the woman is suddenly cast out on the street: homeless, unless she has family to which she might return. Certainly, she was in disgrace. For the husband, less consequence - he keeps the house, the property and the kids. There might be extended family concerns since they were the ones who had arranged the marriage in the first place, but, even with that, the decision to divorce was his and his alone.
So what is the answer, Jesus? "It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law," Jesus replied. "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." These days, we might wonder how some couples end up with one another. Did God join them together, or was their merger the result of other urges? No matter...
Pretty conservative response from Jesus, eh? Which we could live with, I guess. After all, as we learned in our study of the Ten Commandments, the family was part and parcel of that society's Social Security system. You fool with that only at the expense of the stability of the social order, and in particular, protection for those most vulnerable.
The problem for us in the 21st century is what comes next. Apparently the Pharisees who were looking to entrap Jesus had given up and wandered off. Jesus and his friends had moved on inside the house in Capernaum with the conversation on the subject continuing. The disciples asked Jesus to elaborate. "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery." BAM!!!
What we hear is that divorce is OK but not remarriage. Wait a minute. This is crazy. What good is a divorce unless it frees you to remarry? And, of course, according to Mosaic tradition, that is what was allowed. There is something else to note here, especially after our Ten Commandments study where we found that "You shall not commit adultery" was essentially a property crime against a married man, whose exclusive rights to his wife have been violated (whether the male offender is married or not is irrelevant); if a married man has intercourse with an unmarried woman, this does not count as adultery. By insisting that the second marriage is a crime against the first WIFE, Jesus is abolishing the established double standard. In addition, because the law of Moses treated polygamy as legal(4), a second marriage for the man was always permissible anyway. By declaring the second marriage adulterous, Jesus is saying no to polygamy too.
We live in a different world. Polygamy is long gone, and, for our society, so are arranged marriages. These days we see marriage as mutual decision between equal partners. And the decision to end a marriage is no longer the exclusive option of the husband. What do you think Jesus would say today to a woman in an abusive marriage, a marriage in which to stay is to risk physical harm, even murder? What do you think Jesus would say today to a teenage mother with a newborn baby, whose equally-teenage husband has deserted them both because he is not ready for the responsibility of a family? Sorry, sweetie. Too bad. Guess you are stuck. Is that the message from Jesus here?
My Dad thought so. At least for most of his ministry. For that matter, he came by that position honestly because that was essentially the position of the Presbyterian Church: the prohibition against remarriage following divorce was not just for the days of Jesus, but for now on into eternity. Presbyterian ministers were not permitted to officiate at a marriage where the bride or the groom had been divorced UNLESS they were the "innocent party." (We know these days that there is no such thing as an "innocent party," but this is now and that was then.) Apparently Dad began to think about the problem and, one night, as he and Mom were talking, he began to list all the really wonderful SECOND marriages in his congregation - couples who had been together for years and years and had raised terrific families. These were committed Christian people who were active and involved in the church, one of whom, years before, had been married and subsequently divorced. Was this second wonderful marriage an adulterous and sinful relationship? Sure did not look like it. In fact, it looked like God had marvelously blessed these couples, and as we all know, God does not bless sin. Hmm. Dad's mind began to change. Good.
To understand this text properly, we have to look at the entire context of Jesus' ministry. He was always looking out for the vulnerable, the powerless, the weak. This lesson, properly understood, was one more way Jesus was trying to protect wives who, in that society, had no real way to protect themselves.
The gospel writer emphasizes the point by placing the instruction about divorce and remarriage next to the story about Jesus blessing the children. Most of us are inclined to imagine the children of that incident as much like the children of today: as people in their own right, deserving of respect. Yet that is not how people viewed children in Jesus' day. Remember that something like half of all newborn children, back then, never made it to adulthood. Childhood diseases - most of them wholly preventable by today's standards - were killers in the first century. As a result, little children had a very low place in society; after all, who would want to forge a strong relationship with a child who could up and die at any time?
Over the objections of his disciples, who are seeking to protect his time, Jesus insists that the little children be brought to him. In doing so, he is reaching out to another downtrodden group in his society, not the abandoned wives this time, but the children who were considered almost less than human. Once again, Jesus turns the tables; he lets love rule.
Would Jesus say divorce in the 21st century is OK considering we live in such a different culture? I doubt it, if for no other reason than divorce is so incredibly painful for almost everyone it touches. Listen to Abigail Trafford:
There is nothing easy about divorce. It is a savage emotional journey. You don't know where it ends for a long time. You ricochet between the failure of the past and the uncertainty of the future. You struggle to understand what went wrong with your marriage, to apportion the blame and inventory your emotional resources. There's one thing you are sure of almost immediately: You know that life will never be the same again. "Divorce is a death, says counselor Sharon Baker of the Los Angeles Divorce Warm Line. "Divorce is the death of a relationship. It is the death of your dreams. You have to start all over."I have officiated at LOTS of weddings in my career. I would love to say that I tied the knot so securely that none of them ever unraveled. I wish. So saying, none of those folks got married with the intention of getting divorced. Every couple who marries does so with the intent holding on "so long as we both shall live." That is the promise. Yet sometimes the promise can no longer be kept. Relationships break down. People break down. Should that happen, the church is called on, not to stand in judgment or point accusing fingers, but to offer hospitality. With Jesus we say, "Let them come to me, and do not hinder them..." And he will take you in his arms, put his hands on you, and bless you. When the church does that, we are liable to hear, "My name is Jesus, and I approved this message."
1. Mark 6:18
2. See Deuteronomy. 24:1-4
3. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press
4. Deuteronomy 21:15-17
5. Abigail Trafford, Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992)