19 Pentecost, Proper 22 – October 4, 2015
So, here we go. Divorce.
Divorce was a significant and disputed issue in Jesus’ time, and it was a complicated matter, as well, in the first century. There were differing perspectives between Jews and Romans and also within Judaism itself. Here’s what you need to know. In general:
- The ancient world was patriarchal, and wives were regarded as the property of their husbands. Among Jews, technically only the husband could divorce his wife. (This is the working assumption in our scripture for today) In Roman society, a wife could divorce her husband.
- Marriages were not based on love between two persons but on property, status, and honor considerations between two families. Divorce, therefore, could be complicated. A whole tractate of the Mishnah (the rabbinic collection of Jewish oral law) is devoted to the topic.
- Jews regarded Romans and other non-Jews as having weaker standards regarding marriage, marital fidelity, and divorce. The Herodian dynasty, though, provides an example of how strings of marriage and divorce could be actually be used to manipulate political and status advantages even within Jewish circles.
So, this question posed by the Pharisees to Jesus – this isn’t a casual – or even intense, for that matter – conversation about love, marriage, and divorce. It’s a test. It’s not even a test about divorce, it’s about the law. There were, you see, several competing schools of thought about the legality of divorce. Not so much about whether divorce was legal – everyone agreed on that – but rather under what circumstances. And with this question, this test, the Pharisees are trying to pin Jesus down, trying to label him, trying to draw him out and perhaps entrap him so that they know better how to deal with him.
And Jesus is having none of it. He deflects their question away from matters of the law and turns it instead to relationship and, in particular, to God’s hope that our relationships are more than legal matters but instead help us to have and share more abundant life. Hence that turn to Genesis: questions of marriage and divorce, he argues, aren’t simply a matter of legal niceties, but are about the Creator’s intention that we be in relationships of mutual dependence and health. God created us in the garden of Eden.
In fact, Jesus goes one step further and takes what had turned into a legal convenience – typically for the man who sought a divorce – and pushes them to see that this law – indeed, all law – was and is intended to protect the vulnerable. When a woman was divorced she lost pretty much everything – status, reputation, economic security, everything – so how can they treat this as a convenience, Jesus asks, let alone a debating topic. The law is meant to protect the vulnerable and hurting and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter. This is what Jesus meant by hardness of heart.
Jesus isn’t speaking to individuals, you see, he’s making a statement about the kind of community we will be. In fact, he’s inviting us to imagine communities centered in and on real relationships; relationships that are founded on love and mutual dependence, fostered by respect and dignity, and pursued for the sake of the health of the community and the protection of the vulnerable. Women and children were the vulnerable in ancient times.
Now, here’s the interesting part. Even though the discussion up to this point has been about divorce, I don’t think that’s really the heart of what’s going on here. Because the next verses describe the reaction of Jesus’ disciples to those bringing children to Jesus to bless them and, more importantly, Jesus’ reaction.
Let’s recall the context: Jesus has announced his intention to go to Jerusalem to die and, in response, his disciples argue about who is the greatest. Jesus in turn tells them that to be great is to serve, and that the very heart of the kingdom he proclaims is about welcoming the vulnerable. In fact, he says that whenever you welcome and honor a child – one who had the least status and power in the ancient world – you were actually welcoming and honoring Jesus. Now, on the heels of this conversation about the purpose of the law, some folks bring their children to be blessed and the disciples try to keep them away. And Jesus intervenes, forcefully, saying that welcoming the kingdom pretty much means welcoming children, that is, the vulnerable, those at risk, and those in need.
This whole passage, I think, is about community. But it’s not the kind of community we’ve been trained to seek. It’s not a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent. This is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk. It’s a community of those who know their need and seek to be in relationship with each other because they have learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place. The Garden of Eden.
This is what the church was originally about – a place for all those who had been broken by life or rejected by the powerful and who came to experience God through the crucified Jesus as the One who met them precisely in their vulnerability, not to make them impervious to harm but rather open to the brokenness and need of those around them.
But that is difficult to remember! Paul had to remind the Corinthians,
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God (I Cor. 1:26-29).
Part of being human is to be insecure, to be aware of our need and, in light of the cultural preference for strength, power, and independence, to be embarrassed by our need. For this reason, Paul, following Jesus, reminds us that to be broken isn’t something to be ashamed of. To be broken is, in fact, to be human. And to be human is to be loved by God and drawn together into relationship with all the others that God loves. Which means that our gatherings here on Sundays are gatherings of the broken and loved, of those who are hurting but are also healing, of those who are lost but have also been found, of those that know their need and seek not simply to have those needs met but have realized that in helping meet the needs of others their own are met in turn.
Can we look at this passage this way, not so much as instructions about divorce but instead as an invitation to see our communities as those places where God’s work to heal and restore the whole creation is ongoing, not by taking away all our problems but surrounding us with people who understand, and care, and help us to discover together our potential to reach out to others in love and compassion? We are communities of the broken, but we are those broken whom God loves and is healing and, indeed, using to make all things new. We are a community of the broken and the blessed. Amen (based on a blog written by David Lose)