Divorce

Sermon at St James, Colwall and All Saints, Coddington: Trinity 18, 2015

Gen 2.18-24; Mark 10.2-16

To hear the sermon as you read:

Pope Francis made headlines when he announced that pastoral care for divorced people should be marked by “mercy.” Some commentators – even some Roman Catholics – are asking if the Pope is changing Roman Catholic doctrine about marriage, a subject at the heart of the synod on the family, which resumes in Rome today. However, most commentators realise that the Pope believes firmly in the importance of marriage. He believes that heterosexual marriage – at least – is vital for human flourishing. But he is challenging two points on which there is a good deal of ignorance or confusion. One is the teaching of the Bible (particularly, the teaching of Jesus) about marriage; and the other is what Christians should do when marriage doesn’t work.

The Old Testament doesn’t tell us much about marriage. One of its later books, Deuteronomy, does talk about details to be considered in divorce, and that may have prompted the question put to Jesus in today’s gospel reading. But Jesus’ response was to go back to the book Genesis, to the origins of the human impulse to make male-female pairs as told in the Garden of Eden legend. His approach goes to the roots of the matter rather than juggling with a trick question. But that did not prevent his disciples from pursuing their own questions about divorce. The Jerusalem Bible translates the Greek text like this: Jesus said “because you were so unteachable….” these divorce laws were introduced. That’s an interesting English translation, because the Greek word is σκληροκαρδια sclerocardia, hardness of heart: “because of your hardness of heart, your forbears brought in divorce laws.” If you think about it, you may agree with me that “unteachable” is a pretty fair way of understanding hardness of heart in this context. It acknowledges our inability or our unwillingness to understand the other person, and our inability or unwillingness to understand ourselves; to unwillingness to learn about the other person and our unwillingness to learn about ourselves. That surely must underlie so much of what either goes wrong in a marriage or else never goes right.

The compassionate pastor Francis, following in the footsteps of the compassionate rabbi Jesus, understands that. Pope Francis is not recommending divorce, but he does want to make annulment less painful: he does want people to be able to own up to their mistakes, to recognise the flaws in the relationships they have made and, if they truly cannot be repaired, then to annul them, to make them no longer exist. Of course, that cannot be the end of the matter. There are other people to be considered – most notably, children. And there are the unfinished hurts of former partners, their parents and parents-in-law, their relations, their friends…. There is a need to put right what can be righted: all the resources that can be deployed to help in this process should be offered by the Church and by all the parties concerned.

In our gospel reading Jesus recognised that divorce is a fact of life. It happens. In the domain of God where all people live as God would have us live and we could all be people unharmed by life’s assaults (as in the garden of Eden), there would be no need of divorce. We would be able to live in lifelong partnerships. However, we live in a world where we are frequently unteachable (often through no responsibility of our own) and where we only learn the hard way. That being the case, we are bound to harm other people and to harm ourselves.

The Jewish law as set out in Deuteronomy 24 allows a man to divorce his wife. That permission,  not available to women wanting to divorce husbands, was immediately available in the case of sexual unfaithfulness – not surprising in the days when certainty of fatherhood was essential to the stability of tribal life. However, the list of permitted causes for divorce reached ridiculous proportions by Jesus’ day. Some rabbis even ruled that a woman who burned her husband’s food gave him ground to divorce her – hardness of heart, indeed. Small wonder then that Jesus went back to first principles before answering a tricky question. Incidentally, you can tell that Mark’s gospel was written for a Roman audience because Mark’s Jesus discusses not only a man divorcing a woman, but also a woman divorcing a man – something, as I said earlier, unknown then in Judaism, but part and parcel of Roman civil law.

Let me summarise, then, what we might learn from Mark chapter 10. One thing of interest to us in a 21st century western democracy, is that Jesus was never asked to comment about marriage between people of the same sex – unknown in his day – so we cannot assume that he would either approve or disapprove. Instead, we should follow Jesus’ example and go back to first principles, for example, by studying what the Bible tells us about intimate friendships in general, and take it from there.

We do, however, get Jesus’ clear affirmation that the coupling of men and women is something intended in God’s plan for human flourishing, and that it often doesn’t work. And we also get a clear statement about divorce: it is a remedy in case of breakdown. We also get some teaching on remarriage after divorce, although, once again, we need to appreciate the cultural background to understand what Jesus is teaching. In Jewish law, if a man committed adultery, it was a crime against his wife: but, if the adultery was with a married woman, he also committed the crime of adultery against the other husband. That is because, in rabbinic thinking, the women belong to the men. But Mark’s Jesus goes beyond that: he speaks of a wife committing adultery against her husband or ex-husband, and asserts that men are also the sexual property of women. For Jesus and later for St Paul, sexual property – belonging – is transformed because it is mutual. Women can choose to belong to men, and men can choose to belong to women. That is a radical departure from Jewish law of those times and it lies at the heart of Christian radical ethics.

Once again we must not place on the biblical text what we hope or fear to find there. There is a kind of absolutism which has often made its way into the teaching of the Church, especially about sex and marriage. Pope Francis and we have to live with the reality that people marry – or become partners in a less formal way – and those relationships may break down. We should not be complacent about this but instead address the flaws and stresses that are often hidden from view when people fall in love. Those flaws, in time, can cause the relationship to fall apart. We have to deal with the hurt that is done to all parties when that happens. We have to recognise that divorce is often the least bad resolution and then do whatever we can to help injured parties make better choices if they choose to re-marry.

Most of all we should take from Mark chapter 10 that Jesus teaches us the importance of marriage in God’s plan, and the equal importance of dealing with the consequences of breakdown in marriage. The Christian’s concerned response to breakdown, which Pope Francis calls “mercy,” must be marked by compassion, by justice and, above all, by healing.