26 September 2012

When love and marriage don’t always go together like a horse and carriage

From the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female” (Mark 10: 6) … ‘The Arnolfini Wedding’ by Jan van Eyck (1390-1440)

Patrick Comerford


These tutorial groups on Wednesday mornings have a number of purposes:

1, This is an opportunity for small group worship, prayer and Bible study.

2, This is a small group with the community here, where you have an opportunity for mutual support, both in prayer and in supporting one another academically. We should find time each week to share our problems and joys in our work here.

3, As your tutor for the year, I should be available to you for advice, pastoral support, and to help you with any of the problems that arise this year, whether they are academic, spiritual, pastoral or of any other nature.

4, As a tutorial group, we have responsibility for organising chapel worship two weeks this semester (Week 5, beginning on October 29; and Week 11, beginning on 11 December), two weeks next semester (Week 2, beginning 21 January, and Week 8, beginning on 4 March). In addition, we are also responsible for the Remembrance Service during Week 8 in November.

5, In the past, my tutorial groups have also had a period of Bible studies. In the past, we have looked at the Johannine writings; the Pastoral Letters, and at the Old Testament reading, and at the New Testament reading in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) not for the following Sunday, but the Sunday afterwards, so that students had time to think and prepare in advance for Sunday placements.

The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

The RCL readings for Sunday week, 7 October, the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, are: Job 1: 1, 2: 1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2: 5-12; Mark 10: 2-16.

Mark 10: 2-16

2 καὶ προσελθόντες Φαρισαῖοι ἐπηρώτων αὐτὸν εἰ ἔξεστιν ἀνδρὶ γυναῖκα ἀπολῦσαι, πειράζοντες αὐτόν. 3 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Τί ὑμῖν ἐνετείλατο Μωϋσῆς; 4 οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Ἐπέτρεψεν Μωϋσῆς βιβλίον ἀποστασίου γράψαι καὶ ἀπολῦσαι. 5 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Πρὸς τὴν σκληροκαρδίαν ὑμῶν ἔγραψεν ὑμῖν τὴν ἐντολὴν ταύτην. 6 ἀπὸ δὲ ἀρχῆς κτίσεως ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ ἐποίησεν αὐτούς: 7 ἕνεκεν τούτου καταλείψει ἄνθρωπος τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ τὴν μητέρα [καὶ προσκολληθήσεται πρὸς τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ], 8 καὶ ἔσονται οἱ δύο εἰς σάρκα μίαν: ὥστε οὐκέτι εἰσὶν δύο ἀλλὰ μία σάρξ. 9 ὃ οὖν ὁ θεὸς συνέζευξεν ἄνθρωπος μὴ χωριζέτω.

10 Καὶ εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν πάλιν οἱ μαθηταὶ περὶ τούτου ἐπηρώτων αὐτόν. 11 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ καὶ γαμήσῃ ἄλλην μοιχᾶται ἐπ' αὐτήν, 12 καὶ ἐὰν αὐτὴ ἀπολύσασα τὸν ἄνδρα αὐτῆς γαμήσῃ ἄλλον μοιχᾶται.

13 Καὶ προσέφερον αὐτῷ παιδία ἵνα αὐτῶν ἅψηται: οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ ἐπετίμησαν αὐτοῖς. 14 ἰδὼν δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἠγανάκτησεν καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ἄφετε τὰ παιδία ἔρχεσθαι πρός με, μὴ κωλύετε αὐτά, τῶν γὰρ τοιούτων ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ. 15 ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὃς ἂν μὴ δέξηται τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ ὡς παιδίον, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθῃ εἰς αὐτήν. 16 καὶ ἐναγκαλισάμενος αὐτὰ κατευλόγει τιθεὶς τὰς χεῖρας ἐπ' αὐτά.

2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3 He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4 They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5 But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 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. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

The Lectionary context

Before working on a sermon, it is always worth reading all the readings for that Sunday. This allows us to make connections with the other readings, and it is always worth remembering (1) that the Old Testament readings are often neglected in the pulpit and (2) that the reading that has most impact on the people listening may not be the Gospel reading.

So let us look briefly at the other readings for Sunday week and what we may find there.

Job 1: 1; 2: 1-10

The first two things that struck me coming to this reading anew are:

1, Job is an outsider, not a traditional Jew. He lives in Uz, south-east of Palestine and is drawn to God because of his faith, not because of his ethnic origin.

2, God appears to allow Satan to belittle and demean this good man. We are told he is “blameless” and “upright,” that he has a right relationship with God, that he is reverent and obedient, that he deliberately and consistently chooses to do good.

Why does God agree that Job should be tested by Satan? In the missing verses he loses his children and all his wealth (1: 13-19), he grieves (1: 20), and yet he accepts his lot before God (1: 21). “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing” (1: 22). Job passes the first test; he continues to bless God as the origin of all life: it is God’s to give and God’s to take away.

Now Job is tested again in Chapter 2. He excludes himself from human society, his wife nags him and advises him to end his misery and pain (2: 9), but Job is reasonable, kindly and wise in his answer and his faith in him.

Perhaps you may find connections to make later on with the Gospel story where it speaks about both divorce and children.

Psalm 26

The psalmist seeks delivery from his antagonists. He has lived with integrity, in a godly way, and has trusted in God constantly. He prays for help and for deliverance from his ungodly enemies, but vows to continue to “live with integrity” (verse 11).

So there are obvious parallels with the plight of Job.

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2: 5-12

The author contrasts the old and new ways of God: that of “long ago” and that “in these last days” (1: 2).

Christ shares in and mediates the creation of the worlds, he is “heir” of God, and is an exact image, icon, of God.

You might want to make a connection between his sufferings and death, which are then talked about in this reading, and the sufferings of Job and the Psalmist in our Old Testament readings, or connections between the old ways and the new ways and how we wrestle with this in trying to understand our Gospel reading.

Mark 10: 2-16

There is an old adage that it is a bad idea to plan a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments, because eventually your church is going to empty week-by-week by those who know they are due to be targeted in the next sermon, and that by the end of the ten weeks all your pews will be empty.

When we first read this Gospel reading, I think many of us may be inclined to skip over it altogether and preach on one of the other readings. At first reading, it seems Christ is being very harsh on those who have gone through a divorce. But you will find these people in every parish and congregations on a Sunday morning. Where is the Good News in this reading, they may ask.

Divorce is now widely accepted in this society. And yet, at the very end of the Old Testament, in the last prophecy, God says: “I hate divorce ... I hate divorce” (Malachi 2: 16). What does it mean to say that God hates divorce?

Statistics in the US, for example, show the divorce rate is no different for couples who go to church on a regular basis, despite the old adage that “the family that prays together stays together.” In fact, according to the Barna Research Group, a Church-based think tank, divorce rates among conservative Christians are significantly higher than for other faith groups, including atheists and agnostics.

Barna says “born-again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce … even more disturbing is that when those individuals experience a divorce, many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing.”

So what does this passage say about divorce?

And where is the Good News for those who are divorced?

Indeed, because there are two topics in this Gospel reading, divorce and children, and because there are doubtlessly going to be divorced, and suffering divorced people, in your church on Sunday week, you may think it is going to be an easier option to preach about the second part of this Gospel reading, thinking you might chose a topic like: “Let the little children come to me” (Mark 10: 14).

The first thing is to place any reading in its context. Jesus is now in Judea, or east of the Jordan, in Perea. He arrived earlier in Capernaum (Mark 9: 33) on his journey from Caesarea Philippi (8: 27) to Jerusalem. The verse preceding this reading (Mark 10: 1) sets before us a journey that involves travelling south along the east bank of the Jordan and then crossing the river near Jericho. As we join Christ and the disciples on this journey, we hear him teaching them about community life, so that we have already heard about leadership and responsibility (Mark 9: 33-50) and now we hear two anecdotes about family life (Mark 10: 2-16).

Contextually, remember that Herod Antipas was then the Roman governor of Galilee. He had divorced his wife Aretus to marry Herodias, the wife of his brother, Herod Philip. This caused such a scandal at the time that when John the Baptist confronted Herod about it he was beheaded (see Mark 6: 18-19).

If Christ says it is unlawful for a man to divorce his wife, does he end up like John the Baptist? If he said it is acceptable, does he contradict the teaching of the Torah and leave himself open to the charge of blasphemy.

The Pharisees were divided on the legality of divorce and on the grounds for it, so their question is a trap in another way too. They say: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her” (Mark 10: 4). Mosaic law allowed a man to divorce his wife (but not a woman her husband) for cause, but the grounds were unclear. Deuteronomy 24: 1 says a man may divorce his wife if he finds “something objectionable about her.”

To do this, a man could simply “write a certificate of dismissal” (verse 4), without going through any formal legal proceedings. “Something objectionable” could cover a multitude, from adultery to an eccentric hair do. Indeed, by the time of Christ, divorce was allowed for the most trivial of reasons, and was common.

However, instead of falling into their traps, Christ asks the Pharisees: “What did Moses command you?” (Mark 10: 3). In other words, what does the law say? He tells them Moses allowed this “because of your hardness of heart” (Mark 10: 5), although elsewhere Jesus accepts that a man may divorce an unfaithful wife. He then reminds those around him of God’s original intention. Marriage is a covenant relationship in which the two people become one and live in mutual love and affection.

God’s original plan is that marriage is for life: man and wife are “one flesh”; my stance is God’s plan, not Mosaic law. In this plan, remarriage is either literally “adultery” (verse 11-12) or a deviation from God’s ways.

The retort of Christ, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate,” echoes similar phrases throughout this Gospel (see Mark 2: 9; 2: 17; 2: 27; 3: 4; and 7: 15).

Of course, it would outrageous for us to undo what God has done. But the effect of his reply is to shift the focus from what might justify divorce to the more fundamental issue: breaking apart what God has joined is to be seen as departing from God’s intention.

Does this mean, as we so often hear at weddings, that God does the joining through the person officiating at the wedding. But the background to Christ’s answer is Genesis 2: 24 and what is seen as divine order. The coming together is the joining. The real ministers at the wedding are the two people who are joining themselves to each other.

Saint Paul uses the same passage (Genesis 2: 24) in I Corinthians 6: 16 to persuade the Corinthians that they should not have sexual union with prostitutes, to become one flesh with them (see I Corinthians 6: 12-20). The assumption there and in this Gospel passage is that sexual union is part of a total union that is divinely affirmed.

Of course, this positive affirmation of human sexuality and sexual intercourse carries its own implication. Sexual union, as part of total union, is so highly valued that we should not let anything undo the union it produces and celebrates. That is worlds away from the Pharisees’ concern about defining the grounds that exist for divorce. This text seems to rule out not only divorce, but also remarriage involving either of the original partners. Saint Mark alone includes the possibility of women also divorcing. This may have been normal in non-Jewish contexts, but in Judaism it was usually a male prerogative, and cases of Jewish women initiating divorce are known but rare.

We could soften the blow in this text have by arguing the Christ’s concern here is with the abuse of women and the plight they face because of divorce. But is this the primary concern here? In this passage, women’s plight is not given as the rationale, but rather a belief about sexual union. If women’s plight is really the focus it is difficult to understand why remarriage, at least on the part of the “innocent” divorced woman – or man, for that matter – is forbidden.

The most we can say is that Christ’s positive regard for all people, especially the oppressed, could easily have led him to attack cheap divorce, but is this what we find here?

Saint Matthew adds the exception clause (see Matthew 5: 31; 19: 5), reflecting the common law at the time, which ruled that a partner who committed adultery must be divorced. No forgiveness is possible. For example, Joseph had no choice in that regard (see Matthew 1: 19).

Christ devotes much of his teaching time interpreting scripture in a way that gives priority to human wellbeing. For example, the Sabbath is made for us rather that we being made for the Sabbath. Similarly, we could say he is saying here that the order of marriage is made for us, not that we are made for the ordering of marriage.

Saint Paul had no difficulties in contemplating circumstances where divorce might be appropriate almost in the same breath as citing Christ’s prohibition (see I Corinthians 7: 10-16). The way Christ interprets scriptural law ought to offer a clue to how we interpret his teaching.

So, would Christ’s primary concern for human wellbeing result sometimes in a decision that would override what he might have said about some aspect of life at one time? Saint Paul would say yes, for he is not trying to get around strict laws, but is being realistic and caring.

Sexual union takes on enormous significance in this Sunday Gospel passage. How can we draw on Christ’s views and Saint Paul’s view as we explore human sexual fulfilment and responsibility in today’s contexts?

And in the pulpit on a Sunday morning, how would you connect the teaching about divorce with the story that follows about little children (Mark 10: 13-16)? Remember there is a similar story just a few verses earlier (see Mark 9: 36-37).

Mark 10: 13-16

You might decide to opt out of dealing with the question of divorce completely, and think of just preaching on the verses about little children. But the story is easily trivialised. It is not just about being childlike. It is about the dignity and worth of children.

Would you talk about some of the issues today, such as the referendum in November on children’s rights?

Or would you talk about some of the problems of our own day, such as the exclusion, demeaning behaviour, abuse, violation, enslavement, killing of children?

Would you challenge people to hear the cries of children in the slums, in the sweat shops, in the brothels, and the cries of children behind the bedroom doors of respectability?

Some reflections

Today, it may appear many of us are on the side of the Pharisees on the question of divorce. While the laws may be different today, we live in a society where divorce is common. Churches and individual Christians take various views regarding divorce, but most of us accept it as a reality. Our laws and our customs, like those of the Pharisees in this Gospel story, assume that divorce happens. But here Christ appears to takes a hard, uncompromising view of divorce. He says it is wrong, rooted in our sinfulness.

And that does leave us with a problem.

It is easy to think that the Adam and Eve story is about men and women since those are the characters in the story. But is that story not truly really about individuals and families, about life together, that it is better to live life together than to live life alone, and not that men are superior to women?

Marriage is a relationship that works on the principle of self-giving when all our instincts are self-serving – so, is it counter-intuitive, or is it part of the natural order?

The truth is that in many marriages life together becomes a gift that is more than we can handle. Marriages can get stale or toxic, angry or depressed. Relationships can dry up or lose focus, self-destruct, or break down under pressure. Things go wrong for far too many reasons.

A divorce is a burial for a dead marriage. Divorces do not kill marriages any more than funerals kill people. Although, one of the great tragedies today is that far too many couples are burying their relationship when it is only sick or injured.

But is it not possible that our promise to be together until death can refer to the death of the relationship as well as the death of the person? Is it not possible to recall that the original intent of our loving and caring God who gave us the gift of marriage was to make our lives better? Does that desire of God evaporate when we are no longer in a marriage?

Sometimes it is better not to avoid the difficult passages in the lectionary readings. If we fail to wrestle with the difficult passages, not only can we not expect people to do it themselves, but they may also think we are shallow in our preaching, and we may even find that once we start choosing passages that we find easy for ourselves we start making God in our own image and likeness rather than seeking to be shaped in the image and likeness of God.

From the opening of this story, it is clear the Pharisees are not seeking Christ’s wisdom. Instead, they are seeking a way to entrap him. But marriage is not a matter of expediency in which the wife is the property of the husband.

But what does all this mean for us today?

Of course, the covenant of marriage is still just as valid today. Ideally, when two people marry, they commit themselves to each other in an exclusive relationship of love and devotion in a new entity.

But that is easier to say than it is to face up to reality, which includes the complexity of child-rearing, careers and competing religious, social and economic claims and responsibilities.

Ideally, we are not to live alone, but in loving and committed relationships. In an ideal world, there would be no such thing as divorce. But we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a fallen and broken world in which human nature always falls short of the glory of God. Whether we like it or not, divorce is a reality and we have to live with that.

Despite the best efforts by the best people, marriages fail, for any number of reasons, and that is the reality of human nature. And so, divorce is not going to go away.

So many times when people go through a divorce, the church is the last place they can turn to for help and understanding.

But divorce is like a death. It is the death of a relationship, and so people grieve, and they need sympathy and to be consoled. Would you dare chastise someone who was grieving after the death of a family member?

I was recently reminded by a divorced priest in the Church of Ireland that when God says: “I hate divorce ... I hate divorce” (Malachi 2: 16), that of course God hates divorce because he has gone through the sufferings and grievings of divorce through the faithlessness and wandering of God’s own people.

God hates divorces because God has suffered divorce.

What a profound insight.

Let us not use this reading to trap Jesus. And let us not use this reading to trap vulnerable, suffering and grieving people who remain open to loving and being loved.


Almighty and everlasting God:
Increase in us your gift of faith
that, forsaking what lies behind,
we may run the way of your commandments
and win the crown of everlasting joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a tutorial group with MTh students on 26 September 2012.

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