Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
We are in that time of year when Jesus hits us with a bunch of speeches that frankly, we just don’t like and we don’t want to hear.
Two weeks ago, he chastised his disciples for worrying about who was the greatest, taking our very popular dreams of being great, powerful, and well-known, and smashing them to bits, telling us that we need to be the least, servants, and people others walk on.
Last week, he blasted his disciples for sticking to a harmful notion that you have to belong to a certain group in order to belong to Christ, and in the process challenged us and the way we perceive membership in our community and in the eyes of God.
Next week, Jesus tells a man that selling everything that he owns and giving it to the poor—everything that he owns—is the only way he can inherit eternal life. In our culture and society, where obsession with money and control over it is basically the bedrock of our civilization, be prepared to be uncomfortable.
And then there’s this week. This week, Jesus is put to the test and asked a simple question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” And his answer is scathing and absolute.
This is never an easy text to tackle, and it comes up every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s easy to preach about things that don’t affect us personally. Heck, compared to this text, preaching about racism a few weeks ago could be considered easy because we as a community of faith by and large never have to deal with the evil of racism.
Marriage and divorce, though—those are personal. Incredibly personal. I know that some of you have gone through the pain of divorce. I have watched friends go through it, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It is a terrible ordeal to go through, one that is usually not planned when a wedding takes place. Very few people get married planning on having a divorce later.
The Pharisees’ question is actually easy to answer. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The answer, by their own admission, using the laws of Moses as their guide, is “yes”. According to the Torah, the laws of Judaism, a man could divorce his wife. The problem is, the answer is more a “yes…but”. “Yes, it’s legal, but, it’s wrong.” As Jesus says, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate”.
Jesus’s words, then, speak to a reality we already know. We know that divorce is not what God meant for us as people in relationships. We know that it is destructive and painful. We know that it is the result of broken relationships, betrayed trusts, failed attempts at reconciliation. We know that.
Yet Jesus doesn’t hide his feeling on the matter. Divorce isn’t supposed to be a part of life. It shouldn’t happen, but it does.
It’s amazing to me how deadly and venomous these words of Jesus have become when they are used against people. While it is a little less prevalent today than it was 50 years ago in the self-proclaimed “golden age” of the church, it is still too often that a Christian woman in a marriage with a physically, verbally, or emotionally abusive husband is told that she has no choice but to remain in the marriage because “Jesus said so.” In many churches, a divorce is more evil than a man who beats his wife, many times to death.
I don’t believe that, and I hope you don’t, either. Unfortunately, we tend to take other parts of the Bible this way, using other laws and commands as sharp blades against other people.
This is what happens when we take a legalistic approach to any of Jesus’s words and use them as weapons against each other. Believe it or not, the world is very infrequently black and white. Instead, it is a nuanced collection of greys. Ethics and morality are complicated, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise, that tries to make everything easy and clear and summariz-able in a little sound byte, is selling you something.
Jesus himself is not concerned with the legalistic interpretations of the law concerning divorce. His responses, both to the Pharisees and to his disciples, never touch on whether divorce should be legal or not. Instead, he is concerned with something else, something that gets at the heart of Christian ethics and morality: relationships.
Relationships have been at the heart of the human experience from the very beginning. In the second creation story, presented in Genesis 2 (yes, there are two, and they conflict on many points), after God forms the dust of the earth into an earth creature and breathes life into it, it dawns on God that it is not good for the creature to be alone. And so God creates many other creatures, hoping that one of them will be for the earth creature a partner. When none of them are able to be in that relationship God hoped for, God molds flesh and blood from the earth creature into another earth creature, and finally, in this mutual reflection of itself, the earth creature declares that it has finally found a partner, an equal, someone to be in intimate relationship with; and thus are man and woman created, together, at the same time, and humanity realizes that it is best when it is together.
Of course, we know how the story continues, how humanity distorts its interdependent relationship with itself and with God. It’s a story that continues to this day. We are a people who’s relationships are shattered. We see it every time there’s yet another mass shooting we can’t seem to do anything about, or civil war, or international conflict, or nasty political debate—and yes, we see it when our most intimate relationships break down in divorce. We are an imperfect people in imperfect relationship to one another.
And it is into this mess of humanity that God comes incarnate. Into this wreck, into this disaster, God is made present. I admit, you wouldn’t know that by looking at just this story, just this pericope of Jesus and the Pharisees arguing about divorce. But the entire Biblical history, from Genesis to Revelation, a collection of writings compiled over a thousand years or more, is one big story of the reconciliation of human beings with God and with each other.
It’s a constant uphill and downhill battle. God creates the world and all that is in it, including human beings, and all is good. Then human beings break that relationship, introducing pain and suffering into the world. God calls Abraham and his descendants to a new, special relationship; and they turn out to be a bunch of tricksters, thieves, and liars. God rescues the enslaved Israelites from captivity in Egypt; and they make a golden calf, worshiping someone else. God raises up the Judges, and then Kings for the Israelites; and the Judges and Kings are mostly bad apples who turn their backs on God. God calls prophets to speak words of wisdom, judgment, mercy, and sometimes terror to the people; and the prophets are often hunted or reviled.
There’s something peculiar about that pattern. It’s peculiar because, no matter what happens in the Biblical narrative, no matter how damaged the relationship gets, God keeps coming back. God enters those times of hurt and devastation, and God works to make the people—to make us whole again. The story of God is the story of broken relationships that God, through grace, attempts to make whole again.
It doesn’t mean we’re free from the pain. A divorce is still a divorce, a terrible thing, and Jesus is right to grieve, even in his own day, that it exists. But neither does it mean that in those times, God is absent. On the contrary. It is in those times, when we need grace the most, when our relationships with each other and with God are at their worst, that God is present in our grief, offering peace, grace, mercy, and yes, forgiveness.