Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 22 October 04, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
When my parents divorced, I had just graduated from college. They sat across the kitchen table from my brother and me and broke the news. They offered few details, and my brother and I asked for none. They had raised us and invested so much in us that we had no desire to add even a tiny bit of pain to the wound that was opening before our eyes. To the best of my knowledge, no sin had been committed to end their marriage: no adultery, no abuse, no neglect. I received the news with a cold and heavy sense of grief, but never did it occur to me that they were committing a sin. If anyone had tried to tell me their divorce was a sin, I would have been furious. And now, ten years later, both of them are happy; two new lives have grown out of the death of a relationship. So where is the sin? True, neither of them has remarried, and Jesus saves his harshest language for that scenario, but let’s not dodge the issue. Jesus stakes out an extreme position. How can we reconcile this with his radical compassion, inclusivity, and forgiveness? How can the same Jesus who broke bread with the objects of all manner of scandal sound so harsh, hard-hearted, and ignorant of human nature? So the question really is, where is the grace?
First, let’s take a deep breath and remember that no matter how strongly a passage may make us feel, there’s a good chance it’s not about us. And indeed, in this case, it’s not about us. The thing both Jesus and the Pharisees called “marriage” bears little resemblance to the way we use the word. In those days, a marriage was an elaborate, extensively-negotiated business transaction between two families. It was a contract, not a sacrament. The couple’s happiness, let alone love, was not a consideration. While modern divorces can be hideous affairs, the end of an ancient marriage was even stickier business, since they involved not one household, but two extended families that had previously decided to become permanently enmeshed. Jesus and the Pharisees would also have known that divorce immediately placed a woman in great danger, depriving her of her only material support and exposing her to the worst elements of their society. So while the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus in a tricky hypothetical argument, Jesus has compassion for the flesh-and-blood women who lived every moment of their lives at the mercy of a patriarchal society. Harsh as he sounds, Jesus is not condemning individuals who need to get out of a marriage they never should have gotten into, in our modern understanding of marriage and divorce, rather, he repudiates the vicious, cold-hearted patriarchy that allowed a man to destroy a woman’s life on a whim.
That brings us to the second point: what prompts Jesus’s harshness is not an actual case of divorce, but his enemies’ attempt to trick him, to put him in a box, to force him to take a side on a hotly controversial issue. There was controversy because the Torah says very little about divorce. The key text is just four verses in Deuteronomy, and that passage only forbids a divorced woman from remarrying her first husband after marrying a second. Rather than extend compassion to actual divorcees, the Pharisees concerned themselves with formulating detailed legal positions on the subject. And then came the temptation to elevate their own interpretations to the same divine authority as Biblical law.
Jesus had no time for that. Don’t be fooled; he knew perfectly well what my seminary professor said: “Some people, if God put them together… God was out of his mind!” Or more to the point, Jesus knew better than anyone the difference between what God wants for us and what we do to ourselves, the difference between the ideal form of things and the brokenness to which his grace, love, and forgiveness is the ideal response. In the prayer he taught to his followers, the first thing we ask for is, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.” We have to ask, and keep asking, because God’s will is not consistently done in this world, and thus Earth remains stubbornly far from heaven. Jesus humbled himself, coming out of the perfection of God’s will that exists in heaven, coming into our world that is so broken by our sins and our weaknesses, to show us how much God loves us, to meet the world’s brokenness with grace, and by teaching us a better way to live, a way of grace.
The hard part is accepting that we need to change, that we can’t rely on ourselves, our preferences, our intricately-constructed defenses that create our prized sense of security. Accepting the life Jesus offers out of the death of the world is like welcoming a little child into your home. Some things are going to get dirty, and some are going to get broken, but you accept that and a mountain of uncertainty and an all-consuming commitment of effort because you believe it’s all going to be worth it. The little child you welcome will change things in two complementary ways: the child will grow and accomplish incredible things, and the act of raising the child will cause you to grow, too. New life is always disruptive, but everything we know about this world gives us the courage to embrace it. In the same way, the resurrection — life from death — did change the world, and continues to change it. The Church’s sacred story, starting with the teachings of Jesus himself, gives us the courage to embrace the new life that Jesus brings to us. Just like with a child, when we accept the Good News, and become more intentional followers of Jesus, the experience changes us. Jesus changes us. And, through us, he changes the world.