My first at the church I currently serve at – Resurrection Lutheran Church in Lakeview, Chicago – fell on October 7th, 2018. My supervisor and I scheduled it by date, not by lectionary, and unbeknownst to me, I received a doozy of a text: Jesus’s teaching on divorce.
It happened to fall the same week as the Kavanaugh hearings, at the very height of the #MeToo movement, but the text revealed itself to me as an opportunity for discussion about the dignity of women’s lives and against violence against women, wherever it exists.
The text for the Sunday was Mark 10:1-16. The text for the sermon can be read below, under the “read more” link.
May the words of my mouth, and meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
If I were to ask y’all how many of you have heard Jesus’s teaching on divorce used in a way to hurt or condemn someone – perhaps yourself – my guess is that many of you would raise your hands. I won’t make you raise your hand, don’t worry – but I imagine that many of us would have stories about knowing someone who felt too ashamed after a divorce to come back to church, or who stayed away from their friends and family after a divorce because of their fear of what people thought of them. In other Christian traditions, divorced people are barred from participating in the holy sacrament of communion, and sometimes even their children are kept away from the Lord’s table. Legally and historically, this very text has been cited to make women remain in abusive marriages.
After all, since Jesus said divorce is a sin, the argument goes, shouldn’t Christian communities take a hardline stance against it?
Throughout the Gospels, we Christians often interpret Jesus as doing away with Jewish law – whether it be about dietary laws or governing social order. He speaks to the Samaritan and eats with Gentiles! He heals on the Sabbath and his disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat!
A glimpse at the Gospels might make you think that Jesus is doing away with Jewish customs, including the idea that a man can divorce his wife. And yet, bafflingly, he is also giving stricter rules about divorce at the same time that he appears to be rebuking Pharisees, who some describe as ultra-strict Jews.
What is going on here? And how are we to respond to Jesus’s teachings on divorce?
Lost in discussion on Jewish law in the New Testament is the fact that Jesus was a rabbi – a Jewish teacher of Law. He was a devout Jew who knew Jewish Law and Scripture inside and out – and so we can assume that they were near and dear to his heart. And though it’s sometimes tempting to understand him as abolishing what Western Christians have interpreted as strict Jewish legalism, the fact of the matter is that Jesus can often be seen in the Gospels as encouraging even stricter observance of Jewish teachings, and this reading on divorce is an example of this. While some Jews in Jesus’s time taught that divorce was admissible, Jesus comes out more strictly and says no, since the very beginning of time, marriage has been forever.
Jesus strengthened teachings about observance of the Law. But, he wasn’t legalistic – just like he wasn’t abolishing Jewish Law. It’s more complicated than that. Sometimes Jesus preached for a stricter observance of his Jewish customs, and at the same time, he was preaching and teaching to people who weren’t following Jewish customs – and according to our Gospels, he wasn’t trying to get them to follow these Laws.
He was simultaneously raising standards and letting in anyone. No wonder his disciples were confused! No wonder they had to ask him what he meant when they returned home! Imagine if the University of Chicago said they were raising the standards for admission while also allowing anyone who applied in – we would all be baffled.
But, thankfully for us, Jesus wasn’t recruiting for a prestigious university; he was recruiting for the Kingdom of God. The Gospel of Mark keeps no secrets and from the first chapter, Jesus is announcing to the whole world that the Kingdom of God is at hand. As in, it is coming, it is here. You can stretch out your hand and God’s reign is in your reach. For the last few weeks, we have heard more and more about the Kingdom of God: that we must be last of all and servant of all to enter it, that it will be difficult – but rewarding – to be a part of it. Today we’ve learned that it belongs to little children.
The Kingdom of God is not a place like an earthly country is. We know that in part because it’s coming to us, it’s knocking at our door. Instead, the Kingdom of God is what God wants for us and for the people not like us. It is the promise of freedom, wholeness, and peace for every person on earth. The Kingdom of God is the witness that the last will be first, that the little children – relegated to the bottom rungs of Roman family – have the kingdom. It is the promise that God loves us and is for us. The Kingdom of God is known to us in Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah. (pause)
And Jesus both breaks Jewish Law by doing things like healing on the Sabbath and strengthens Jewish Law like changing the teaching on divorce. He does this to show us what the Kingdom of God will look like for us. In Jesus’s teachings, including this one on divorce, we see a glimpse of what it looks like to be truly free – even when that teaching is strengthening Law.
It’s alien to us that banning divorce would be central to Jesus showing his followers what it means to be free. After all, in our context, legal no-fault divorce was a central issue for American feminists. It’s even stranger when we consider that this very text has been used to hurt others, especially vulnerable women. To understand how a teaching against divorce meant freedom in Jesus’s time, we have to understand a little bit about the Roman world.
In Roman society, women were literally viewed as partially developed men who were unable to think or feel with the same profundity as men. Many male philosophers believed that true love could only exist between two men, whether it be the love of friendship or romantic love. And though in Jewish subcultures, women often experienced more equity than their gentile counterparts, Roman culture deeply influenced Jewish culture, just as American culture deeply influences our lives as Christians today.
So then it’s no surprise that marriage was not often a great deal for women, even Jewish women. But, it was usually better than divorce. Usually, a woman could not initiate a divorce – it was something that happened to her. Usually, a divorced woman wasn’t welcomed back to her father’s home, but instead was on her own. And because women were barred from participating in public life in Roman society, they were left largely without recourse and relegated to the margins of their society. They were vulnerable to all sorts of threats alone – poverty, hunger, violence. For women in this context, divorce could be devastating.
You can almost hear Jesus’s frustration in this text as he references the hardness of the Pharisee’s hearts. I can imagine Jesus saying, “I can’t believe I have to say this, but you can’t please God by throwing women to the wolves” but he does have to remind his followers of this – then and today. Jesus’s teaching against divorce signals that women’s lives had value far beyond what people in Jesus’s day recognized.
I wish I could say that sexism was a thing of the past. And while some things have improved in some places for some women, the truth is that women’s lives are still undervalued – within and without the confines of marriage. And in October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, this reading gives us the opportunity to see ways that women’s lives are not valued as they ought to be.
In the US, every day, four women are killed by their intimate partners, and this is not even to mention the outrageous rate of violence against women. Men who commit violence against women often go unscathed, even going on to hold the highest offices in our nation. Across the globe, women make up far more than half the people living in poverty, and are frequently the victims of violence. In the US and abroad, child marriage is still legal and practiced; every year in the US, one thousand girls as young as thirteen are married, sometimes to grown men. Marriage, it seems, can still be a danger for women and girls.
But Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is at hand: this is not what God wants for women and girls. God envisions for us lives of wholeness and peace. God values us and loves us – and wants our lives to reflect that fact. And Jesus comes, with the Gospel intertwined in Law, to tell us that something better is on the horizon for us.
Somewhere along the way, the church forgot the significance of this teaching on divorce, or perhaps we never understood it to begin with. This reading became the proof-text for shame and silence around divorce. Somehow, we took a teaching which pointed to the need to protect vulnerable people in our midst – and we used it as a tool to harm. But this is a misuse of Jesus’s teachings, because Jesus never strengthened Law to burden us, but only to set us free, only to give us a glimpse into the Kingdom of God.
Culture has changed since the Roman Empire. Disallowing divorce is no longer what will protect the dignity of women and girls, and we know that in our culture, a ban on divorce has often led to more suffering. But, we can rest assured that God has not changed, and that the Kingdom of God is still at hand.