Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, July 22, 2018
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Adding to the Healing and Not the Hurting

Mark 10:1-16

 I’ve preached almost 500 sermons in more than nine years of pastoring, But I’ve never preached before on this passage or any other about divorce.  The conventional wisdom about preaching on divorce is “Don’t do it.  It’s too controversial.”

 But I don’t think divorce has to be so controversial if we understand God’s desire for marriage and if we remember that God is gracious.  I think it should be easy for us to see that divorce is always a painful reality.  

 I think one of the best passages on divorce in Scripture is Malachi 2:16, where God says plainly, “I hate divorce.”  And thinking about all the painful reasons that people seek divorce and thinking about all the pain that is caused by divorce, I think it should be easy for us to say, “I hate it, too.”  But we should take careful note of what God does not say.  He says, “I hate divorce.”  He does not say, “I hate people who divorce.”  And sometimes we struggle there.  We struggle to make the distinction between hating something that is painful while simultaneously loving and caring for people involved.  

 Let’s look more closely at our passage for today.  Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.  He leaves Capernaum and heads toward Judea.  But instead of going into Jerusalem, he goes east to the land on the other side of the Jordan, a region called Perea.  That becomes important.

 Some Pharisees come to ask him a question about divorce.  Now this was a hot button subject among the Pharisees.  There was an intense debate among them about when divorce should be permitted and when it should not be.  So it’s possible they really want to know his opinion, but they’re also trying to trap him in his answer.

 They ask, “Should divorce be allowed?”  Now Jesus had already spoken about divorce earlier, and he condemned it.  So if Jesus now accepts divorce, then he would be contradicting his own words.  But if Jesus condemns divorce now, he might land himself in hot water.  This is happening in Perea.  And the ruler of Perea is Herod Antipas, who also ruled Galilee.  And Herod Antipas was the one who had divorced his wife and married his sister-in-law.  And when John the Baptist condemned him for it, John lost his head.  So maybe the Pharisees are hoping Jesus will get himself into hot water for his own comments on divorce.

 Well, these are Pharisees.  They valued the Law of Moses above all else.  So Jesus asks, “What did Moses say?”  

 “He permitted a man to give his wife a letter of divorce and send her away.”  

 The text for the Pharisees was Deuteronomy 24:1, which says, “If a man marries a woman and then finds something shameful about her, he may give her a letter of divorce and send her away.”  The debate was:  What exactly is “shameful?”  

 There were two basic schools of thought.  One school of thought, promoted by a famous rabbi named Shammai, was that something shameful only referred to sexual infidelity.  

 The other school of thought, promoted by another famous rabbi named Hillel, defined something “shameful” in the broadest terms.  They allowed a man to divorce his wife if she burned his supper or spoke ill of his family or even if she was just too loud.  

 This was the more popular of the two schools of thought, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering how male-dominated first century Hebrew culture was.  Marriage in Hebrew culture was not a relationship of equals.  A wife was considered property.  In their society, only a wife could commit adultery.  If a man was unfaithful, there were really no consequences.  Only a husband could divorce.  The most a woman could do was to petition a court to force her husband to divorce her, and that only happened under certain extreme circumstances.  

 By the way, Jesus stood against his culture and supported the equality of women.  

 The only measure of protection for women in the divorce laws of first century Hebrew culture was the requirement of a writ of divorce, a letter spelling it out.  That protected women who were divorced by allowing them to remarry without charges of adultery.  

 Jesus’ response to this culture and its divorce laws was to remind the Pharisees that divorce was a concession to human hard-heartedness in the Law of Moses.  Divorce is never commanded in Scripture; it is only permitted.  And I think the reason behind allowing it was to prevent the negative consequences that could happen if no divorce was allowed.  For example, if a man in a patriarchal culture was not allowed to divorce his wife, but was determined to get rid of her, what might he do?  He might murder her.  Or he might throw her out on the street.  Better to allow divorce than those things.  

 But God’s ideal from the beginning has always been marriage as a lifelong covenant.  As is said in Genesis, “God created human beings as male and female, and a man leaves his parents and clings to his wife.”  And what God has joined together, human beings should not separate.  God decided that lifelong commitment and the stability of marriage created the best situation for our happiness and for any children that might be born to grow up in the best possible environment.  That was God’s ideal.  Divorce was a concession to our hard-heartedness.  

 In addition to marriage presenting the best hope for personal happiness and children growing up in a healthy environment, marriage is also often used in Scripture as a picture of what our faith relationship with God is like.  Marriage is about covenant-faithfulness, and God desires covenant-faithfulness.  Divorce is turning away from covenant-faithfulness.  

 And divorce is always a sinful reality.  Think of the reasons people seek divorce:  Adultery.  Abuse.  A desire to have one’s own way rather than to share life with another.  Those are sinful realities.  

 And when divorce happens, it is painful for all involved.  It’s painful for those who divorce, painful for their families and friends.  Often if breaks apart friendships and other loving relationships.  And, of course, it’s painful for children involved.  It’s no wonder God would say, “I hate divorce.”  

But he doesn’t say, “I hate people who get divorced.”  God may hate, but he does not hate sinners, in spite of what the Westboro Baptist Church would have us to believe.  

If only we would do the same.  I had a professor in seminary who told a story about a woman he was friends with who left the Christian faith and was bitterly angry at the Church, and God too.  The reason:  She belonged to a very conservative Christian denomination that did not allow divorce under any circumstances.  Her husband was abusive, and she left him.  Her church’s response was to excommunicate her, throw her out.  I can’t blame her for being angry.  

God’s desire, in the midst of human brokenness, is always to heal, never to add to the hurt.  That should be our desire as well.  When people are hurting, we should seek to bring healing.  

Too often, we approach the subject of divorce from a standpoint of legitimacy.  Do you have a good reason to divorce?  Was there adultery?  Was there abuse?  Was there the desertion of an innocent spouse?  Whether or not divorce is “legitimate” by our standards, it is always painful.  

The real question is not, “Is it legitimate?” but, “What can we do to alleviate the pain and bring healing?”  How can we work as the church to prevent divorce rather than lamenting it after the fact?  Do we have a good understanding of marriage, and what it means, and how to make it work?  What are we doing to strengthen relationships?  

Marriage is grounded in God’s creative love.  It is a spiritual union between two people, so it is also a spiritual issue, not just a legal one.  It is not a contract of convenience or advantage.  It is a sacred union and a sacred responsibility of the Church to help people to live into the covenant of marriage.

Let’s close with a thought about communion.  How can we relate communion to this discussion of divorce?  

Well, divorce is a painful reality of our brokenness as people.  One of the properties of food is that it heals us.  I heard one time that every three years, our entire bodies are replaced.  Every cell in our bodies is renewed every three years.  And that happens because we eat food, and our bodies break it down and use it to rebuild us.  Food heals us.  We come to communion, to Christ’s table, broken in our sinfulness.  And we desire and believe that this spiritual food that is Christ can heal us.  Whatever brokenness we have, Christ can heal.

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