07 October 2018

‘Hardness of heart’ and using
marriage and divorce to trap
people and to trap Jesus

A summer wedding in a monastery in Crete … but the Gospel reading may bring us to ask whether a marriage should last longer than love (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 7 October,

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIX):

9.30 a.m.: the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton

Readings: Job 1: 1, 2: 1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2: 5-12; Mark 10: 2-16.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning’s readings challenge us to think about the differences between how we see God’s ways and the actual working out of God’s ways. They challenge us to think about the foundations of faith, which are weak if they depend on God meeting our expectations, and are weakened when God does not meet our expectations.

Job challenges us to think about how much we tend to fashion God in our image and likeness, but throughout the Old Testament reading, Psalm and Epistle reading, we are challenged to be fashioned in God’s image and likeness.

The Gospel reading also challenges old ideas and customs – in the Pharisees’ tradition about divorce. But, instead of accepting yet another tradition, how might we accept what Christ says as a way of challenging custom and tradition, and as a way of being brave enough to come to new conclusions that reflect the priorities of God and the compassion of Christ?

The Temptation of Job … a panel in ‘The Purgatory Window’ by the Harry Clarke Studios, designed by Richard King, in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Athlone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Book of Job, the first poetic book in the Bible, addresses the problem of continuing to hope in the justice of God in the face of human suffering. In his suffering and distress, Job laments the day of his birth, and would like to die. But even that is denied to him.

In the past, people thought their relationship with God depended on laws and rules. But in the story of Job, we are challenged to find ways of knowing God that are based on faith and love.

In the missing verses, although Job has not sinned himself, he loses his children and all his wealth. In the past, people saw this as God’s punishment, but Job wants to see faith and love standing on their own, not depending on the changes and chances of life.

When Job is tested again, he excludes himself from society, and goes to live on the town dump. His wife nags him and advises him to end his misery and pain. But Job is reasonable, kindly and wise in his answer and keeps his faith in God.

If our health is ruined, our family life and domestic situation become desperate, our income dries up, our family breaks up, we find ourselves down in the dumps and marginalised, do we blame God? How is God with us in our woes?

Do we see material success, prosperity, family life and children as rewards from God?

Is faith, like love, not without seeking reward?

Or do we only love – and believe – because there are rewards?

Many priests and preachers, on first reading this morning’s Gospel passage (Mark 10: 2-16), may decide to preach on one of the other readings. But if they do this, they will leave us in danger of thinking that Christ is too harsh on those who go through a divorce.

People who go through a marriage breakdown and divorce, and still cling on to going to church, perhaps just by their fingernails, may well ask, ‘Where is the Good News this morning?’

So, what’s happening? Herod Antipas was the Governor of Galilee. He had divorced his wife Aretus to marry Herodias, the wife of his brother, Herod Philip. This caused such a scandal that when Saint 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 says 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 the grounds for divorce. So, the question is a trap in another way. They say: ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her’ (Mark 10: 4). The Law of Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife, if he finds ‘something objectionable about her’ (Deuteronomy 24: 1).

Mind you, it never said a woman could divorce her husband.

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 on a bad hair day. Indeed, by the time of Christ, divorce was allowed for the most trivial of reasons, and was so common that many women suffered.

However, instead of falling into the trap being set for him, 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), perhaps hinting at how hard-hearted men were now making women suffer even more.

There are other places in the New Testament where Christ, and Saint Paul and Saint Peter, accept that a man may divorce an unfaithful wife.

Saint Mark alone mentions the possibility of women also divorcing. This may have been normal in non-Jewish contexts, but cases of Jewish women initiating divorce are rare.

This morning, Christ 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.

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 than 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, or worrying about the minutiae in the details religious people construct around marriage.

The way Christ interprets scriptural law ought to provide a clue to how we interpret his teaching.

Today, many of us may appear to be on the side of the Pharisees on the question of divorce. Divorce is common today and most of us accept it as a reality. Our laws and our customs, like those of the Pharisees in this Gospel story, assume divorce happens.

Christ appears to be harsh and uncompromising on a first reading this morning. But many marriages get stale or toxic, relationships can dry up or lose focus, self-destruct, or break down. Things go wrong for far too many reasons.

A divorce may be 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.

Is it not possible that the 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?

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

Of course, the covenant of marriage is still just as valid today. Ideally, when two people marry, they commit themselves to 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 complexities 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.

Sadly, when people go through a divorce, the church is often 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 family member?

I was reminded once 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 grieving of divorce through our faithlessness and wandering.

God hates divorces because God has suffered divorce.

What a profound insight.

Too often, in debates, passages of Scripture taken out of context, or one-sided interpretations of the tradition of the Church can be used to set a trap so that people are forced to accept only one standard or practice for marriage in the world today. But in this Gospel reading, Christ responds to those who seek to trap him by refusing to accept to be trapped into accepting their interpretation of Scripture or Tradition.

Instead, he challenges those around them to think for themselves and to think with compassion.

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

We must face questions about marriage and divorce, about who can be married and who can be divorced, as challenges that ask us to think outside the box, without trying to trap Jesus or to trap those who are faced with honest questions about marriage and about divorce.

May all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Enjoying a summer wedding (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Mark 10: 2-16:

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.

Wedding flowers strewn on the lawn at Lisnavagh House in the late evening … what happens when love fades in a marriage? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green

The Collect:

O God,
without you we are not able to please you;
Mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit
may in all things direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Holy and blessed God,
you feed us with the body and blood of your Son
and fill us with your Holy Spirit.
May we honour you,
not only with our lips but in lives dedicated
to the service of Jesus Christ our Lord.


638, On for a heart to praise my God (CD 49)

259, Christ triumphant, ever reigning (CD 16)

634, Love divine, all loves excelling (CD 36)

‘Holy and blessed God, you feed us with the body and blood of your Son’ … the Post-Communion Prayer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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