Marriage, Divorce, and Jesus

This past Sunday, Jesus covered quite a bit of ground. Too much ground for one sermon, really. He hit on points of marriage, divorce, gender, and children. Any one of those topics could have been a book, let alone a fifteen-minute homily.

And because this week’s texts have been used as a cudgel to bludgeon rather than as a balm to soothe the afflicted, it’s important that we spend more time with the text.

Luckily, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Here are some highlights from other preachers.

The Rev. Ben Day, an Episcopal priest in Georgia, offers this reflection:

Looking at the text as a whole though, condemnation is not even the point of the discussion in that gospel. In response to a specific question on the subject of divorce, Jesus uses the subject to teach about the standards of God, and broken nature of those who violate them. In essence, this is Jesus teaching on sin in general, and divorce stands in for all sinful acts. Jesus is using the topic of divorce as the departure point to the much larger and more important lesson of this text: the nature and availability of God’s grace….

Yet, given all this explanation, none of it undermines the notion of Jesus’ words on divorce being as they appear. Divorce is not the intended outcome of marriage. The sacrament of Holy Matrimony should be respected as a lifelong covenant, just as it was created in the beginning. Divorce therefore undoubtedly grieves the heart of God. It is sinful, but actually no better or worse than lying, theft, idolatry, and so and of other pervasive sins of our culture. And through God’s grace we have been given a clear and easy path back: a childlike faith.

The Rev. Anna Tew, an ELCA pastor in Massachusetts, made this point in her sermon:

The Genesis reading has been used for centuries against LGBTQ people and women, so let’s get a few things clear: first, a woman created to be the “helper” for the man doesn’t mean that she’s less than he is. Don’t believe me? The Hebrew word for “helper” used here in Genesis is the same Hebrew word used for God in the psalms when a psalmist says,“O God, you are my help.” So yeah. I wouldn’t go too far with that argument, dudes.

Second, the point of the passage is not really gender at all. Sure, it helps explain to ancient people why male and female humans exist, but that doesn’t seem to quite be the theological point being made here. Last week, we talked about how often we get distracted when reading the Bible by talk of heaven and the afterlife — sometimes we get so distracted that we miss what the writer of the passage is actually trying to say. The same is true of gender; we get distracted by it and don’t notice much else about a passage. If we were dogs, gender would be a squirrel: a distraction, something we run off after, leaving everything else behind.

And here is what we miss by running off after gender: “it is not good for a person to be alone.” And God creates all the creatures of the earth — presumably even dogs — and none is found to be a suitable companion.

The only thing that works is when God creates another human. It’s not just Eve; we are all created for each other, to walk with each other, to keep each other company. We are created for relationship by a God whose very self is relationship: one in three, three in one, God is love. It is not good for us to be alone — so we have each other.

And the Rev. Paul Eldred, who serves an ELCA parish outside Seattle, proclaimed this homily in the pulpit:

So when the Pharisees test Jesus today and try to trick him into saying something embarrassing or even potentially offensive to those in power, Jesus responds with an answer that sounds regressive by modern standards but was absolutely radical in his context.
Jesus says that men and women should be treated equally in divorce – held to the same standards – groundbreaking for his time.
But what’s more, he says that humans must live into relationships of true equality because that’s how we were created.
He reminds us of the Genesis story of humanity’s creation – the story we heard in our first reading.

We hear in this second creation story that God created a human to tend the garden, to care for creation.
But God quickly recognized that it was not good for the human to be alone – that a partner was needed.
And when every bird of the air and animal of the field was seen to be inadequate as a partner, God needed to create a true equal.

So when the human was asleep, God split them into two – took a side from the human (not just a rib as some translations say) and created female and male – companions and partners.
Co-workers in the garden and helpers for each other.
True equals from the same creation.

From the very beginning of our human story, God created us to be helpers and partners for each other, to be in relationship with each other.
This is what we are made for – to care for God’s creation together, to care for each other with mutual respect and true equality.
This is about much more than marriage, this is about how we can live together as God created us – because when we are alone, we are only one part of a whole.
When we rely on ourselves we are missing what could be.

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