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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 10/07/2018

Today is kind of a pick your poison day for those of us who preach. Do you go with Job and the impossible question of why bad things happen to good people or do you go with what Jesus has to say about divorce? Neither option is very attractive but we’ve got three more weeks of Job so maybe I’ll take him on at some point, but today, for better or for worse, I’ll take on Jesus.

Some years on the Sunday closest to Veterans Day I’ve asked people who are serving or have served in the military to stand up, then add to them those who have a parent or brother or sister or child or other family member who is serving or has served and at that point pretty much the whole congregation is standing. I suspect I could do the same thing with a question about divorce and that the result would be about the same. I’m not going to do it but again, my guess would be that pretty much the whole congregation would be standing. There aren’t very many individuals or families who are not touched in some fashion by divorce.

And then comes Jesus. On the surface, what Jesus has to say about divorce seems pretty clear: divorce is not allowed, and that’s the problem with a situation that hits so close to home. The percentage of marriages that end in divorce is around 50% and while I suppose there could be a few exceptions, you have to figure that when they got married, divorce wasn’t the intent for that 50%. One assumes that their intentions were sincere and they were truly committed to one another.

To make a blanket condemnation of divorce and to call those who remarry adulterers then is not helpful as it can serve to deny faithful and hurting people the support of the church at a time when they most need it. And yet, what Jesus says seems clear so the dilemma is how to be faithful to his teaching on marriage and divorce and to exercise compassion at the same time.

In some ways it’s not unlike the struggle the church had around the role of women in ministry and more recently the controversy around all the sexuality issues. One school of interpretation says that these are things that are rooted in God’s created order and therefore are timeless and cannot be changed; what the Bible says still holds. Another school of interpretation says that there is a social and cultural dimension to these issues and thus they are subject to change because the social and cultural situation today is not the same as it was at the time the Bible was written. From that perspective, being faithful means taking another look at these things.

Within the ELCA, the latter view is the one that has prevailed as the majority position with the understanding that these issues can be reconsidered in light of present day knowledge, that even a statement from Jesus is somewhat bound by the time and culture. With that as our position we then get accused of not taking the Bible seriously and of simply accommodating and caving in to the culture, but I take issue with that.

For me, whether the question is what the Bible says about the role of women or about sexuality or about divorce, these are examples of texts where the cultural setting has to be taken into account. Even more importantly, these are texts that have to be considered, not in isolation, but in the context of the entire gospel, in the context of Jesus fundamental and overarching message of grace and welcome and forgiveness. They’re examples of us taking the Bible so seriously that we aren’t willing to settle for a simple black and white interpretation but are always looking for and struggling with the gray areas because it might be there that grace is found.

Relative to today’s text then, the question is how to interpret what Jesus says about divorce in the context of the rest of the gospel. How can divorce and remarriage be allowed without ignoring what Jesus said? How do we affirm the ideal of of marriage without being judgmental and insensitive to those who aren’t able to meet that ideal? How do we resolve the tension? Can it be resolved?

To better understand what Jesus is saying in today’s verses, you really do have to consider the status of women in that society, particularly their rights regarding marriage and divorce. Basically, they didn’t have any. A married woman was not a partner but a piece of property owned by her husband. A man could treat his wife however he wanted and particularly, according to Deuteronomy, he could divorce his wife simply because “she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her,” which leaves it pretty wide open: “It’s 5:30 and supper’s not on the table darling; there’s the door.” The wife on the other hand, had no legal right in any case to divorce her husband.

Note what Jesus says though: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” If you don’t know the context, that does seem like a pretty straightforward statement forbidding divorce, but let’s consider the statement in that context. First of all, what Jesus says is that divorce and remarriage for a man, something that Old Testament law says is permissible, is not, but in fact constitutes adultery which was considered a capital crime punishable by death. Jesus is rattling cages here; he’s being intentionally provocative. When he follows it with “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery,” the provocation continues because a woman had no legal right to divorce her husband and Jesus implies that she does.

The context does change how you hear this verse but still if the Pharisees, the experts in Jewish law got wind of this you can easily imagine them missing Jesus’ point and saying, “Wait a minute; who do you think you are, changing the law?” However, interpreting this in the context of the gospel, in the context of Jesus overarching teaching, would be to say that Jesus’ intention here is not to change law or to create law. HIs goal isn’t to overturn the Torah, only to expose the injustice and hypocrisy of the divorce practice of his time, a practice supported by the religious authorities, a practice totally lacking in grace. Jesus’ response is more in line with the way he often used parables to indirectly get at the truth; rather than giving a straight answer, he says here’s something for you to think about.

Also worth noting is that within the New Testament itself there is already evidence of degrees of interpretation around what Jesus says about divorce depending on the specific situation. We don’t get it in Mark, but in Matthew unfaithfulness is cited as a reason for divorce to be permissible. In Corinthians, Paul addresses issues around a marriage between a believer and an unbelieving partner and he finds that to be grounds for divorce if the situation seems to be a hindrance to one’s faith. The point is that even then, exceptions were considered; the Old Testament law was open to interpretation.

Still, even considering the context and Jesus’ challenge to the divorce practice of his time, he does uphold the sanctity of marriage and he does identify divorce as a violation of God’s intent concerning marriage but even with divorce being as pervasive as it is, I don’t think that anyone would take issue with that; no one would say that divorce was the desired outcome of any marriage. I also don’t think that Jesus or anyone else would take issue with the need for compassion and support for anyone who has experienced divorce.

It’s never the desired outcome, but there are times when it’s a better outcome. Jesus sets up an ideal but living as imperfect people in a broken world, we don’t always meet that ideal and the cross reminds us of that. The cross is the primary symbol of Christianity and it is also at the heart of Luther’s theology. I asked the confirmation kids last week to count how many crosses they could find displayed around the church and they found well over a hundred, more if you count the cross on the front of every hymnal. The cross though is a reminder that God meets us in the brokenness of life. Just as God was present and revealed in the cross of Christ, he is present in whatever brokenness we face, including the brokenness of divorce.

What is also very apparent to me is that for many people, a second marriage, even a third marriage can represent a resurrection moment. The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just about him but was about all the times we experience new life and new hope. That’s the promise of the resurrection. Death and brokenness is not the last word. Divorce doesn’t have to be the last word.

I do think that Jesus is being intentionally provocative in pointing out the hypocrisy of the divorce practice of his time. Rather than heaving a sigh of relief that lets us off the hook though, we do better to consider what might be hypocrisy in our own lives, areas where we might not extend the kind of grace and forgiveness and welcome that Jesus offers us. Regardless of the context, in many and various ways, including provocation, that is the challenge that Jesus puts out there, the challenge to grow in his likeness as bearers of grace in every situation.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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