The intention of marriage—Sunday 27, Year B (7 October 2012)

Mark 10.2-16 


Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

Now that I have your attention…

Did Jesus really mean this? What about someone who perhaps has had an unhappy marriage, with physical or emotional abuse or an unfaithful partner? What about the situation where two people realise that getting married to each other was a serious mistake? Do we followers of Jesus only get one chance?

Shouldn’t someone like that be able to remarry once divorced?

It seems that Matthew thought Jesus meant it was possible for a Christian to remarry. In his version, Jesus allows remarriage in one case: if a man’s wife commits adultery, he may remarry. Notice though, Matthew’s Jesus doesn’t allow a woman to divorce her husband. That was against the Jewish Law.

And Paul also thought there could be exceptions—he said that if a believer is married to an unbeliever and the unbeliever wishes to end the marriage, that the Christian ‘is not bound’. That sounds like they may remarry. And it didn’t matter if the Christian is the man or the woman. This was the Gentile way—in their world, women could initiate divorce.

We clearly see that Matthew and Paul are adapting the received teaching on divorce so that it can work in the lives of people in their context.

The Roman Catholic Church does the same. The Roman Church forbids divorce; that is well known. But it also ‘annuls’ some marriages, that is, it declares that the marriage was invalid and the couple are free to marry someone else.

The Uniting Church agrees that there are exceptions to a hard-and-fast rule. Our Church recognises that (Eighth Assembly, 1997, 97.31.12):

  • An inability to sustain the marriage relationship breaks the commitment to be together for life and may be painful for the couple, the children in their care, as well as for parents, friends and the Church community.
  • In cases of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage, the Church acknowledges that divorce may be the only creative and life giving direction to take.
  • The Church has a responsibility to:

(a) care for people, including children, through the trauma of the ending of a marriage;

(b) help people where appropriate to grieve, repent, grow in self-understanding, receive affirmation, grace and forgiveness;

(c) support them as they hear God’s call for new life.

  • The grace and healing of God are available to people who are divorced, which may free them to marry again.

I’m glad our Church has said this!

But what about today’s Gospel passage? What’s happening here? It seems that Jesus is giving us a rule to follow that few can live up to. It looks like Jesus is saying no matter how badly treated you may have been, you never get another chance. It seems that Jesus is saying that if two people realise they’ve made a mistake, they can’t move on and start again.

Is that what he’s saying? What’s happening here?

Some men come to Jesus, and ask him about ‘get out of jail free’ cards for marriage. How easy is it to get one? Some rabbis said it was simple—a husband could divorce his wife if she burnt a meal. Or even if a younger model came along.

In those days, if a woman was divorced, she might well be destitute. Prostitution may have been her only way of earning an income. I think some women must have lived in fear of upsetting their husband.

So the Pharisees say, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’

Jesus asks them what the law of Moses says and they tell him. Jesus says this was a concession to their hardness of heart. Note men: it is the male hardness of that Jesus is talking about. In this context, we are the problem. Women can’t initiate divorce in this society, so we men were the ones with the hard hearts.

But Jesus isn’t interested in ‘get out of jail free’ cards. He is concerned about the true meaning of marriage. The men who are testing Jesus here have a ‘patriarchal’ point of view. What is ‘patriarchy’? The Australian Oxford Dictionary defines ‘patriarchy’ as

a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.

That was the situation back then. Men could divorce women in Jewish society, but not vice versa. If a woman committed adultery, she offended her husband. If a man committed adultery, he offended the other husband—but not his wife.

Jesus points these men to the stories of creation in Genesis, where

a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife…

In a patriarchal society, where men have the power and women have none, who leaves their family to get married? The woman, of course. She leaves her family and enters the man’s.

But Jesus shows that the original meaning of marriage was not patriarchal. This scripture says the man leaves his family for the woman. The Bible is arguing against patriarchy and for the equality of men and women at this point.

Jesus goes further still when he is alone with his disciples. He says,

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

Again, he is talking about the original intention of marriage. We all accept that marriage is intended for life. When two people divorce, there is often a real sense of failure. Jesus says that the intention of marriage is that it is for life, and that either party may divorce the other.

But that did not happen in Jewish society in the time of Jesus. Women could not divorce men; men held all the power. So the law Jesus is allowing is about the original intent of marriage, not about what was possible or ‘do-able’ in his day.

Jesus is speaking about an ideal, where marriage is indeed for life. That ideal is not a law or a rule that everyone must obey. It’s an ideal that we strive for.

Remember what Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount? He didn’t give us a whole heap of rules. He gave us a way of living that requires a whole new heart. Jesus wants us to be ‘Beatitudes people’ who are poor in spirit, meek, pure in heart.

Remember what Paul says in the ‘Love Chapter’, 1 Corinthians 13?

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

We are called to be people who form marriage partnerships that live out that kind of love in practical ways. And if husband and wife live together like that, they will not want to divorce.

But that’s not to say that if two people realise they have made a dreadful mistake; or if one partner breaks the marriage covenant through unfaithfulness or abuse, that they’re stuck in that marriage and unable to ever have a new chance.

I am glad to be part of a Church that declares that

the grace and healing of God are available to people who are divorced, which may free them to marry again.

I love new beginnings and second chances!

I love that Jesus calls us back to the original meaning of marriage, rather than help us to get out of it any way we can.

And I love that Jesus then takes a little child and says,

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.

Receive his teaching with an open heart. Love one another, be pure at heart. But always remember this: whatever happens—whatever failures and disasters befall you—God’s grace is always with you, now and ever more.




Filed under Church & world, church year, RCL, sermon, Uniting Church in Australia

3 responses to “The intention of marriage—Sunday 27, Year B (7 October 2012)

  1. Pingback: The intention of marriage—Sunday 27, Year B (7 October 2012 … | Love Advice

  2. Much better sermon than we had, which was all about marriage as commitment while ignoring that there are those who would like their committed relationships to be recognised but aren’t. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. David Nix

    Thanks for this message Paul. I need to come and see you for some Pasroral Care at some point. A lot on my mind and heart right now.

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