Sunday, 4 October 2015

Jesus and Divorce

This passage came around again for Sunday 4th Oct 2015. We wanted to explore the other passage set for the day, but didn't want to duck the issues raised by the Gospel. Here's a sermon preached by Mike Peatman on a previous occasion the reading came up.

Sermon – Divorce. Mark 10:2-16

Today’s Gospel reading confronts us with a stark challenge on an issue which will be very familiar to many of us – either in the lives of our friends, of our families or ourselves. Here, Jesus discusses divorce with the Pharisees – the purists of the Jewish community – and appears to prohibit divorce altogether.

Yet in our own experience we will have known, or perhaps are ourselves people who have been in relationships which have come to an end – for all kinds of reasons, ranging from unfaithfulness or even domestic violence, through to the relationship just not functioning any more. What seemed to have promise at the start has just ceased to be.

If we take this text at face value, and in isolation, then Jesus’ words prohibit any future relationship of this kind. A second marriage cannot overwrite the first one, based on these word alone.

So we’re then faced with the kinds of choices we always have to make over a moral issue:

  1. We take it as it stands, and live with the consequences. The Roman Catholic Church holds this view, although it does have the option of annulment – effectively saying that the original commitment was defective, and therefore the marriage never really existed in the first place.
  2. We reject the text. Of course, once you reject one text, it begs the question why you don’t throw out the rest. Why love your neighbour, care for the poor, or even do this [the Eucharist] in remembrance of Jesus, if the instruction contained in Scripture carries no weight.
  3. We do some more work on it – that’s the option we’re going to take this morning.

You see the real problem is that we shouldn’t read the Bible like this [wave reading sheet] It suggests that this is the complete picture. We should always look at the setting of the story or the teaching – what happens before and after, who is Jesus talking to, what issues lie behind this, and crucially what does the rest of the Bible have to say about marriage?

Well, there is a problem with the idea of ‘Biblical marriage’. It’s a phrase banded about a lot by people opposed to marriage being available for gay people. However, the whole of the Bible shows a very diverse range of understanding what marriage is. In the Old Testament, men have several wives, often concubines in addition. Abraham has a child by his servant as his wife is infertile. Women are, in effect, property of their fathers until they are married when they become effectively property of their husbands. And so it goes on.

One thing that lies behind this challenge from Jesus is that we know from other records that women were often discarded by their husbands on very trivial grounds. In a society with no proper welfare system, this frequently left them with no option but to beg or even resort to prostitution to survive. So one issue here is that Jesus sees women being demeaned and discarded, so he challenges the Jewish men that they should take their commitment seriously. With our eyes, this text can seem lacking in compassion, but for women in Jesus’ time, this was quite the opposite – it represented valuing and respecting women in a horribly sexist world.

Secondly, contained within that challenge is a reminder of what their marriages should be – the vision, the ideal. Men and women made to be one. Joined by God, in a union to be respected and not attacked.

Now I have taken probably 150 weddings in my ministry and I’m pretty confident I’ve never married a couple that weren’t setting off with that intention. Whether they fully understood what was involved is a different question. They may have been na├»ve, over-optimistic, sometimes getting the giggles, and perhaps simply blind to the harsher realities of working at a relationship, but none of them didn’t mean it, insofar as they understood what they were doing.

However, I do know that a number of those marriages came to an end. Statistics suggest 1 in 3 first marriages fail, and about ½ of second or subsequent ones do. I have had the sad responsibility of writing a copy certificate for someone involved in divorce proceedings, where I also had previously officiated at the wedding.

So the question remains: what would Jesus have us do with people where that has happened? What do we do when someone has returned to the church for a new start with a second relationship, so that they might seal it by getting married?

This is where we need to look beyond this passage for clues. When Matthew tells this story, he includes Jesus referring to an exception, where adultery means divorce and remarriage is permissible. Likewise St Paul gives us another exception in 1 Corinthians 7, saying that where a Christian is abandoned by a partner who is an unbeliever, they are not bound by the original marriage.

So even at an early stage, the Christian community was struggling with what should happen when a marriage fails.

And it’s worth pausing with that word ‘fail’. There is often a lot of guilt around the break-up of a marriage. Once the initial trauma and anger have subsided, I have often come across an abiding guilt, even where, at least on the face of it, the balance of wrong seemed to lie with the other partner. For example, when someone has seen their partner leave to be with someone else, they are bound to feel angry, but quite often they also feel some guilt – was it my fault, should I have done something, or just I have failed.

Given that’s the case, a straight ‘no’ from the church to second marriage in church has always seemed very wrong to me. It makes divorce a kind of unforgiveable sin, and can only reinforce in people who have been through a difficult and testing time, a sense of guilt and failure.

And crucially we know from the life of Jesus that his ministry is rich in forgiveness and new starts – prostitutes, tax-collectors, the thief on the cross, the woman caught in adultery. Is it credible that under all circumstances, and in all cases, that Jesus would have us turn people away? I think not.

There will be exceptions. The national guidance we have from the Church of England on this issue identifies some problem areas:
  1. where the relationship of the couple wishing to marry was materially responsible for the break up of a previous marriage.
  2. where issues are unresolved from the previous marriage – finance, custody, etc.
  3. where a partner was violent or abusive in a previous relationship.

An unwillingness to discuss them can prevent the marriage being booked. (Church of England clergy and parishes aren’t obliged to carry out second marriages, unlike first marriages of eligible couples.)

But these aren’t easy to prove – clergy aren’t private detectives. My view is that we have to leave it to the conscience of the people involved – in the end it’s God who knows their hearts. Furthermore, we need to bear in mind that in the case of people who have not been married, but have been involved in long-term relationships, these issues might be present, but we can’t subject them to the same scrutiny.

So Mark 10 is challenging, but it’s for a specific audience, with a particular history, and it’s not the only word of Scripture on the subject. This passage teaches us that we should regard marriage as a vital and precious commitment, and we should do all we can to help people to prepare, and support couples in their commitment. But the wider testimony of Scripture also affirms that we should be a place where people can find forgiveness, reassurance and peace, and have the opportunity of a new start.