Toorak Uniting Church

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Dreaming of true love

Mark 10: 2 – 16
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
5 October 2003, 8.00am

The text this morning confronts us with a problem. A big problem.
Not with the problem of divorce by the way, although that is a problem too, but with the problem of the authority of scripture. A problem that goes a lot deeper than divorce, because it has bearing on a host of other subjects that can be very divisive, in the church and in life in general.

‘What God has joined together let no one separate.’

It is there isn’t it. Loud and clear, straightforward and simple. Divorce is a no no and remarriage as bad as committing adultery.

That at least is what it says if we consider the text to have absolute authority. Jesus has said. So, for time eternal, for all those who follow him divorce is out of the question and remarriage after divorce even worse.

Quite a few Christians believe this is the only valid way to read the Bible, all other ways no more than escape routes from rock solid truth and guidelines given by divine authority.

However.

All of this is usually very well until the life guided by these high ethic norms is confronted with a reality that shows up a lot of gray. When somebody trying to adhere to the law as it is given in scripture meets with reality that is not black and white nor straightforward. When legalism and compassion clash is when problems start to appear.

What if your daughter is in an abusive relationship, gets battered every night and at long last finds the courage to walk out and build a new life? Should she have stayed because Jesus said so? Can you imagine Jesus meaning to say she should stay put and let herself be battered?
What if parents are fighting like cats and dogs and have been for years, resulting in children growing up damaged and unhappy, the father ending up in a mental hospital with a severe depression, the mother in a mess, but both substantiating their staying together by a desire to obey Jesus’ command?

At the same time: some marriages do heal, even after a severe crisis. I’ve seen it happen. And sometimes one does wonder if some people don’t take the option of separation too lightly.

In my work with divorced and divorcing couples I have sometimes asked myself the question: "What would Jesus do?"
And to be quite honest, I have not always followed the guideline given by Jesus here in Mark 10. Simply because sometimes I could see no other way forward than divorce, could understand the hopeless mess some marriages get into, could see how divorce would bring release and liberation, even where a lot of pain and hurt would be accompanying the process. Could not believe Jesus would condone an abusive relationship or want to keep people in a situation that is clearly harmful for them and for those depending on them.
Didn’t I however put myself on a slippery slope there? Bending or even ignoring the obvious guidelines in scripture to accommodate my own common sense and compassion with people?
On the other hand: wasn’t Jesus first and foremost compassionate and understanding of people’s weakness and sin? How can he that loved people so much and sought the company of all sorts of sinners be so harsh? It does not make sense!

It could if we looked at the text in the context of first century Palestine. Let me explain why. A question is put forward by Pharisees that want Jesus to say something that is contradictory to the law so they can get him convicted.

‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ they ask.

Knowing the answer perfectly well: The law in Deuteronomy states that it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife when she is not ‘agreeable’ to him any more. The discussion at the time focussing on the ‘agreeable’. Could one send ones wife away when one didn’t like her cooking very much or was fed up and ready for something else, or did ‘not agreeable’ mean something more substantial?

That would have been the next question of the Pharisees: if we agree that Moses says divorce is permissible, what exactly to you would be grounds on which a husband could divorce his wife?

Jesus does not take the bait. He skips Moses and the law to go to the very beginning of creation. To how male and female by God were meant to be. Together, one body, one flesh, one in everything, a unit of love created for mutual care and satisfaction.

‘The law is only there because of your hardened hearts’ says Jesus, it’s a temporary measure, God meant it to be different, but because you guys cannot live up to God’s purposes he offered some rules that might help limit the damage. But basically: No, divorce should not be happening at any time if we live our lives according to God’s will.

If we read it that way divorce is an emergency measure. The whole law a temporary ordinance to limit the harmful consequences of people failing to live the life God wants them to live. God wanted men and women to complement each other and love each other, make each other happy and spend their lives together sharing the care and joy of creation. But that’s not what it’s like and until further notice these rules are given to protect what was, at the time, in a patriarchal society, the most vulnerable party. The woman. Preventing a man to be able to send his wife away when he feels like it, but compelling him to give a valid reason and a letter testifying to it.

It should not be that way says Jesus, and I hear a sigh behind that: divorce is not meant to be part of life. The life God envisioned at the beginning, the life that beckons us from his future is a life where divorce does not occur. We can probably all see the logic of that. Even if a couple "parts like friends" a lot of hurt and damage gets done. Always. Making divorce even at it’s ‘best’ an unwanted, unhappy, but unfortunately inevitable part of life.

The "law" in that case not laid down as an inescapable and merciless command, but as a way to limit the damage where we fail to live according to God’s will.

So can I say amen now?

Not just yet, let us look at the question we started out with just one more time. Because he did say it didn’t he?
‘What God put together let no one separate.’

So how do we read it?

Do we take it to mean that divorce is wrong whenever and whatever may be going on because it is written down in scripture?

Or do we draw into the equation our own experience of the contradictions that life throws at us. Do we look at what the rest of the gospel tells us about Jesus and the way he handled law, his compassion, his attitude to sinners, his standing up for the weakest and most vulnerable in society? His commitment to liberation and healing of what was broken and damaged by life? His non-conformist way of dealing with sinners? Always putting love and compassion before any law? Or is that selective reading? Are there maybe a few points where Jesus really does take a stance and we should be doing the same?

Do we look at the backdrop against which Jesus answered a trick question put to him and let that influence the way we read this statement? Reconstructing the context to discover that ours may be different or asking for other answers? Or is that taking the easy way out and trying to find ways to circumvent the loud and clear command Jesus gives here?

The choice is yours. But be careful, whichever way you go will have repercussions on everything you read in scripture and consequently on what it means for the way you conduct your life and the choices you make.

What would Jesus do?

Let us ask that question one more time.

I find it difficult to believe that Jesus would want a marriage that hurts and damages to go on. I find it difficult to believe that he would want people that have lost the ability to make each other happy to stay in a relationship just for the sake of it. I do believe these situations would sadden him. I believe he would want people to try their utmost to make things work before they decided to go their separate ways. But I also believe that he would not object to them doing so if that was the only way to release them from what only causes them pain and hurt.

Maybe you don’t. Maybe you think that because Jesus said so and because it is the norm of his Kingdom we are living towards we should be living that norm now, no matter the cost.

And then, perhaps we’re both right.

Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2003


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