With the recent decision of the Supreme Court legalizing the marriage of same sex couples, there has been increased conversation and debate about marriage in general. Those opposed to same sex marriage frequently refer to the Bible as evidence that God’s laws only allow the marriage of one man and one woman. What is often overlooked is Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage. Jesus said nothing about gay and lesbian relationships but did regarding divorce and remarriage.
Jesus’ teaching is troubling to many. If we take what we read in the Gospel of Mark at face value, it appears that Jesus is setting down an absolute rule as legalistic as any in the Bible. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12) But upon reflection, that isn’t the sort of thing that Jesus made a first priority. He gave the highest standards regarding ethical expectations in the kingdom of God, yet offered
mercy in abundance for all who fall short of the glory of God. He didn’t mind pushing these opposites to the extreme. He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27-28) Lust in itself makes one guilty of the crime. But by contrast, when a woman is taken in adultery, Jesus says to the scribes and Pharisees who are ready to condemn her, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) And to the woman he said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:10-11)
Jesus was frequently put to the test by the Pharisees who sought to trap him in his words to demean his reputation. When they asked him about divorce he acknowledges that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce his wife, but Jesus uses the occasion to highlight what marriage is intended to be – that the husband and wife are to become one flesh. Jesus seems to be saying that a man shouldn’t simply write a certificate of divorce if he gets tired of one wife and wants to marry another. In those days women
were treated as property and lost most of their rights after divorce, like the right to own property. “She could easily find herself begging for food on the street or prostituting herself for income.” As scholars have pointed out, “Jesus had a pastoral concern for women who could have their lives torn apart by a signature on a piece of paper. In the kingdom of God, there should be mutual respect and concern for each other, not a quick certificate of divorce or a call to a lawyer to ‘take her (or him) for everything one can.’” (David Howell)
Following Jesus’ response to marriage and divorce we read of people bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:13-16)
Once again we hear an impossible standard that we must become as innocent as a child in order to inherit the kingdom of God. But the point is not that we will all be condemned, but rather that entrance into the kingdom of God is a gift, not something that we earn or merit. It is not in obedience to the letter of the law that we will find the
unfolding of peace, love, and justice. Those are gifts from God that we receive whether or not we deserve them.
From a practical point of view it is incomprehensible that Jesus would desire that one stay in an abusive marriage just because the marriage vow had been made. As Bishop James Pike, a popular author and former Bishop of California said many years ago, and I paraphrase, “Some marriages end when one of the parties dies. Other marriages end when the marriage itself dies.” His recommendation was that if the marriage has died it should be buried.
We are not people who believe that death has the last word. We are resurrection people who believe that God is always encouraging us to move beyond the disappointments and failures of our lives to discover new opportunities for love and healthy living. Divorce and remarriage have never been defined as the unforgivable sin. In fact, some divorces are not primarily a matter of sin. The problem may have been that the couple should not have been married in the first place, or the relationship was one where the two could not become one flesh.
Jesus set some of the highest ideals we can imagine; but coupled to this standard was generous forgiveness and encouragement to move forward in the life of the kingdom
which is one of peace, love, and justice. Our response to this should be one of gratitude for God’s grace.
Jesus was known to break some of the laws of Moses. He healed and fed the hungry on the Sabbath which was not permitted. When confront with this he said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) One might also ask whether the human was created for marriage, or marriage for the human. In both cases the concern is for the welfare of the person, not the preservation of an institution.
Many have suffered the disappointment of marriages that were terminated but were recognized as being the better choice for the couple. And some have found new life and love in new relationships. One can continue to feel guilty about the failure of a previous marriage, or rejoice that Jesus doesn’t throw stones to condemn us but encourages us to live lives that are generous both in love and forgiveness. Rejoice that new life and happiness are at the root of our relationship with God.
For those in long term marriages or relationships, let the roots grow even deeper; and may God continue to bless the commitment you made many years ago.