Marriage and Divorce

The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade, TEC

St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Washington, DC

Mark 10:2-16

18th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 22)

October 05, 2003

In the Gospel for today, Jesus is in one of the many wrangles that characterized his relationship with the Pharisees. Ordinarily, we discount the view of the Jewish leaders and concentrate on the teaching of our Lord, but in this story honesty compels us to take another look. For today our culture at large and many of our churches and perhaps many of us individually are squarely on the side of the Pharisees.

In the story, as Mark tells it, the Pharisees want to know if it's OK for people to get divorced. They cite the current law which says that a man must give a woman a letter saying the marriage is over. It's worth noting that women had no comparable right. While the laws are different in our day, we do live in a society where divorce is common. Most of us know that about half of all marriages end in divorce court. Churches and individual Christians take various views regarding that fact, but none can deny that it is the case. Our laws and our customs, like those of the Pharisees in the Gospel story, assume that divorce happens. But Jesus takes a hard view of it. He says that divorce is wrong, rooted in our sinfulness. God's intent is that people who are married should stay that way. The bond is so inviable that those who re-marry are committing adultery.

Now that does leave us with a problem. The plain words of Jesus are right there, and the plain practice of our culture, our churches, and many of our individual lives is over against it. Let's talk about that together.

Marriage is a gift given by God. It was the first gift given to the people in Genesis, and in many ways it remains our best gift. The author of Genesis tells us that in the first phase of creation God established the natural order, the things that run on God's energy--stars, planets, seasons, plants, instinctive animals, and so forth. One thing that is made in this period is Adam, an ancient word that means "people." This six-day effort to lay out the natural order is successful, and God not only calls it good, but on second thought says that it's very good. The Sabbath rest follows and after it God begins to--shall we say--tinker with creation. His first notice is that it is not good that the man should be alone. That is a most important point because it provides the basis for our understanding of marriage, and in a special way, our understanding of divorce. Genesis tells the story in a couple of ways, but in the end the result is the creation of Eve, an ancient word that means "source." It refers to life source and the bearing of children. There are many points to consider in that ancient tale, but, for our purposes, remember that the motivation for the creation of families is that "it was not good for people to be alone." The assumption is that life will be better if we're together. Marriage and family are gifts given by God to make life better, not to make it good but to make it better. The verdict of good was passed on life, including human life, before the Sabbath and before the creation of life partners.

It is easy to think that the Adam and Eve story is about men and women since those are the characters in the tale. But the story is really about individuals and families. Its point is that life together is meant to be better than life alone, not that men are superior to women. And the better life we can have together is a gift from a loving and caring God. And what a wonderful gift it is! There are obviously many ways to organize creatures and hold them together. There are herds and flocks and anthills and swarms and nearly as we can tell, we're the only ones who get to have families in the special way that we do. There are many ways to propagate the species--eggs and mating seasons and spawning streams and dividing amoebas, but we have the extraordinary gift of making babies by making love. As far as we know, we are the only creatures who can feel what we feel, promise what we promise, and hope what we hope as we choose our life partners.

It is an amazing gift--and an incredible responsibility. For marriage will not run itself the way the natural order does. I doubt that sheep have to work very hard at being a flock; it's built into them. I doubt that eagles ever need therapy to work on eagle issues, but we often need these things and more as we try to live in the gift and up to the potential of marriage. Marriage is a relationship that works on the simple principle of self-giving while all of our instincts are self-serving. As Deborah Tannen points out in many wonderful books about communication between men and women, we have real trouble understanding one another. And today we have some special issues because the traditional roles of men and women in our society are being renegotiated. And this is a good thing to be sure, but it creates opportunities for error as well as joy for married couples. This is nothing new. The concept and context of marriage has changed many times throughout history, but its purpose remains the same. Life together is supposed to be better than life alone.

Life is supposed to be better when we are together, and we try to make it so. But sometimes the gift is just more than we can handle. Marriages can get stale or toxic, angry or depressed. Relationships can dry up or lose focus, self-destruct, or break down under pressure. Things go wrong for far too many reasons for us to get into today, but when these things happen to a marriage, it is wrong no matter what happens or why. It is a violation of God's intent and of our promises to God. As Jesus says in the Gospel for today, the plan of God is for people to be together, not apart. When our marriages fail, something wrong is happening. Not the kind of wrong that necessarily assigns blame but the kind of wrong that is other than what we want--the kind of wrong that is simply not right, not good the way creation was meant to be. It is sin, but it is not unforgivable sin.

Think about marriage the way we think of a child. When a couple marries, the marriage is something like a child of theirs in that it is an expression of both of them, but it is not really either one of them. The marriage, like a child, has a life of its own. It is connected to, but not the same as, the life of either the man or the woman. Like a child the marriage needs to be nurtured and cared for. It needs to be played with and educated. It needs serious conversations and idle chatter. It needs our prayers and our best efforts. And if, like a child, the marriage gets sick or injured, it needs our utmost attention. If the problem is serious, experts should be called for. Pediatricians for children, counselors for marriages. It may require extra time or money to provide the care a wounded or ill marriage needs, but it must be given when needed. All must work together for its well being. But the analogy does not stop there. If the marriage dies, if it cannot live any longer, if its systems have become toxic and its ability for life irretrievably lost, then it is dead, and it should be buried. When a marriage dies, we must do the same things we do when a child dies. We must grieve and ask all of the hard questions about whatever more we might have done to prevent this. We need forgiveness and understanding from those close enough to provide it. We need the strength and the promise of our God. And we need at some point to leave the graveside and return to the business of life, which may include having other children or marrying again. A divorce is a burial for a dead marriage. Divorces do not kill marriages any more than funerals kill people.

One of the great tragedies of our day is that far too many couples are burying their relationship when it is only sick or injured. Not nearly enough of us are doing the work of nurture, prayer, play, and care that our marriages need. Marriage is an amazing and wonderful gift, but it is not a natural thing. It will not run itself. But, ohhh, the wonder of that gift when it lives and when it grows.

So we have an idea and an image of marriage. And we still have the plain words of Jesus in this text. Jesus tells us that marriage is a gift from God and so it is. He tells us that it is not to be broken and certainly that is true as well. He says that if we leave a marriage we cannot avoid its binding power and we commit adultery if we enter into another marriage. Certainly this is true if we simply walk away from a marriage. But is it not possible that our promise to be together until death can refer to the death of the relationship as well as the death of the person? Is it not possible to recall that the original intent of our loving and caring God who gave us the gift of marriage was to make our lives better? Does that desire of God evaporate when we are no longer in a marriage?

Such a notion is full of opportunities for self-serving interpretation, full of opportunity for sin. At such times as when we look at marriage and the plain words of Jesus and our limitless capacity for sin and error that we can see our need for a Savior and be glad that we have one. Amen.

Let us pray.

Lord God, you have blessed us in so many ways, but few of your gifts are as wonderful to us as the gift of marriage. We rejoice in its amazing power to make our lives better and richer, and we struggle to fulfill its potential. Sometimes we drop your gift and it breaks. In such times we thank you for your continuing love, forgiveness, and grace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


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