May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable unto you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.
I find the conversation between the Pharisees and Jesus about divorce to be unsatisfying. Do you?
The Pharisees are trying to catch Jesus in a slip-up. Jesus has had the gall to teach people on the Pharisees’ turf-They were the authorities on law, not this young upstart–and they’ve long since stopped being amused by him. The Pharisees ask Jesus this question about divorce, not out of their own trouble or grief, or out of some burning question members of their congregation have been asking them, or even out of a desire to seek holy living. No, they just want to see how he’ll tiptoe around a difficult political question
(After all, the 6th chapter of Mark reminds us that Herod Antipas, leader of the Jews, was married to his brother’s wife. They each had to get divorces in order to get married. You’ll remember that John the Baptist was killed because of his condemnation of their relationship.)
Well, Jesus is not about to be trapped by their maneuvering. He asks the Pharisees to recall what Moses said about divorce in Deuteronomy. When they give the answer-Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal to his wife-Jesus tells them that Moses created this exception because of their “hardness of heart”. You see, this “certificate of dismissal” was originally meant as a measure of mercy for women. It allowed them to remarry. However, the certificate ended up being a way for men to divorce their wives easily. In the Hillel tradition, a man could divorce his wife because “the bread was burned too badly!” Jesus thinks this is a bad system. Jesus turns their question around from politics to spirituality and refers the Pharisees to the earliest Jewish reference about marriage there is–the second chapter of Genesis–our Old Testament reading today.
Now, the reason the Pharisees’ question is not satisfying is because they are not asking the question about divorce on behalf of those who have gone through the pain of divorce. Their attitude disrespects those who have experienced divorce because of the manipulative way they ask the question. At first glance, Jesus’ response is equally unsatisfying. Sure, it’s nice that he doesn’t want women to get abused by a divorce system that is too easy, but it still leaves a lot of questions for us about modern divorce. And then later, when the disciples have him alone, and ask him to clarify himself, he simply says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
We know through other stories that Jesus is a compassionate person, but his response does not seem to leave room for those people who sought divorces for what we would consider good reasons-to escape abuse, to protect one’s children, as a response to chronic infidelity or disrespect. Jesus certainly couldn’t have known that his words would be used to excommunicate people, force people to stay in abusive marriages, or make people feel rejected by God.
I wonder though, if Jesus was as unsatisfied with the question of the Pharisees as we are. The Pharisees’ question about divorce was not a bad one in and of itself, but because they asked it with a motivation to trap Jesus, out of a “hardness of heart” rather than out of an “open heart” the question loses its credibility.
Clearly Jesus did not support divorce. But what was his perspective on divorce? Was there a reason for his strong reaction besides the Pharisees’ hypocrisy? Let’s go back to the passage from Genesis that Jesus quotes to see why he chose to speak these words.
In the passage from Genesis, we read a lovely story in which God decides that Adam needs someone as a helper. Now here helper is not a demeaning term. In fact this particular word is used to describe God in several passages in the Old Testament. I think we sometimes think of this word as helper in the sense of, “Honey, can you help me? I want a beer but there are only three minutes left in the game and I don’t want to miss anything. . .” Actually, when the word “helper” is used in the Old Testament it means rescuing a person, saving someone’s life.
So, God was not interested in getting Adam housekeeping help. God wanted to create someone who would be with Adam through thick and thin, on whom Adam could rely. Now that God knows what he is looking for, he tries out several options. Though Adam seemed duly impressed with all the cattle and birds God presented to him, he wasn’t ready to set up house with any of them.
We all know what happens next. God puts Adam under some pretty heavy anesthesia, and takes out a rib. . .or does he?
The word for rib is an interesting one. Every other time it is mentioned in the Old Testament, the word refers to something architectural, most commonly a side chamber of a building. So, when God was pulling out Adam’s rib to make his partner, he wasn’t pulling out a miscellaneous bone that Adam didn’t really need, he was pulling out his side, a fundamental part of Adam’s person, so that this helper really could be “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh”. This woman and Adam are going to be connected in the deepest way possible. Alone, Adam was not enough. To complete this human race God was creating, Adam needed a partner.
When he sees his partner for the first time, Adam is so struck by the presence of this new person that he speaks for the first time. He recognizes that this woman is truly a part of him and can’t help but proclaim that. “I will name her woman, for she was taken out of man.”
So, when Jesus was responding to these questions about divorce, maybe he wasn’t giving the answer that seems so harsh initially. Maybe, on another level, Jesus was responding to the question the Pharisees didn’t ask. Maybe Jesus was saying, “I wish you could remember. I wish you could remember how it was at the beginning, when you were so thrilled to see another person that you stopped in your tracks. I wish you could remember how magical it was to see a reflection of yourself in her. I wish you could remember those first few moments, before you started bickering about who ate the apple and blaming each other. I wish you could remember how we meant it to be when we created you.”
Of course Jesus condemns divorce. Who would want to worship a God who intended for marriages to fall apart? For people to betray one another? In our hearts, we wish divorce didn’t happen, too. Who of us falls in love thinking, “Gosh, I’m glad there’s an escape clause in this one!” I’ve never met anyone who has gone through a divorce who has enjoyed it, even if their life after the divorce was healthier and safer than in marriage. Divorce represents all of our deepest fears: rejection, betrayal, being unloved, being alone.
For Jesus to condemn divorce is not the same as Jesus condemning those who have had divorces. We know Jesus-we know his compassion to the woman at the well, we know his love for those going through rough patches in their lives. We know that if a heartbroken man or woman had asked the same question the Pharisees asked, Jesus’ response would have been full of love and compassion.
So, what do we do with Jesus’ response? We know we can’t crawl back to Eden, back to the days before brokenness entered the world.
I think, in reminding us of our intimate connection with each other; in the way we share the same flesh and bone with all other humans, Jesus points us to what his ministry was all about. He came into the world to take on all the brokenness that drowns us. If anyone had a right to be angry about divorce, Jesus did. He earns the right because he was willing to do something about it. He was willing to take all that pain, all that suffering on himself, so one day we could be free of it. His death and resurrection are the second half of his answer about divorce.
The reason we can survive the devastation divorce and other broken relationships bring is because we know, ultimately, through Jesus’ death and resurrection one day we will healed and whole and reconciled to ourselves, all others and God. Although that can be hard to believe-or even want-in the midst of breakup, some small part of us recognizes that someday in our future we will live in a place where there are no divorces, where there is no heartbreak.
The hope Jesus offers us is not only for a future heavenly kingdom, it is hope for the here and now. No, Jesus does not offer us an easy escape from pain. Being a Christian does not exempt anyone from the hard work of grief. What God does offer us is a safe place to come with that grief. Whether we use the image of God as strong rock or a sheltering wing, God gives us something steady to hold onto, gives us a safe place to fall. Before God we can be completely honest. We don’t have to pretend to be fine, hide our anger, stop our tears. By allowing God to be part of our grief, we give Him room to be part of our healing. Experiencing God’s love for us gives us courage to take steps toward relationship again, knowing that as capable of destruction as we are, we are also capable of the kind of love we were designed to give. The love Adam felt as he watched, jaw dropped and eye opened as his life partner was made.