Last week I took the easy way out. I preached from the Letter of James instead of tackling the thorny text from Mark, in which Jesus talks about cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. James chapter 5 is a significant text for any Christian community with its vision of healing as flowing from the dynamo of the community’s prayer, channeled through the elders of the Church and other individuals who have been called by God to this particular ministry. Nevertheless, avoiding the gospel because the text is too challenging is something I don’t feel I can pull off two weeks in a row.
Mark Chapter 10, contains a series of events, all of which are interconnected by Mark’s use of the word and, implying linkage. The chapter opens with today’s reading in which Jesus delivers what on the face of it appears to be a clear teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. For most of the last 2000 years, the Church has understood this text as a prohibition on divorce. Christian’s who still hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible continue to read Mark 10: 2-16 this way. For different reasons, the Roman Church also interprets this text similarly.
In the Episcopal Church the remarriage of divorced persons is at the discretion of the bishop, who on the recommendation of the priest concerned gives or withholds his or her permission for the marriage to be solemnized in church. When I am approached by two persons seeking marriage, one or both of whom have been previously married, I am required to ask the person or persons to share with me their perception of the issues that led to the failure of the previous marriage. The quality of this conversation will determine whether I feel able to advise the bishop to grant their request to marry again in the Episcopal Church.
What is the scriptural authority for this practice? Many continue to see the Church’s stance as simply an accommodation with the declining moral standards of the secular world. Maybe, so, it certainly can be read this way. Yet, the recognition of divorce is not the first time that the humanist-inspired championing of civil rights in a secular society has led the Church to review its previous stance on the interpretation of Scripture.
Mark 10: 2-16: a softening of the heart
There are two distinct scenes in this passage The first scene opens with a conversation between Jesus and some Pharisees, in which they seek to force Jesus to come down on one side or the other of a dispute between them. Judaism held two competing views on the interpretation of the writ of divorce. The strict party allowed divorce only in cases of (the wife’s) sexual infidelity. The more tolerant party allowed a number of justifications for divorce. The question the Pharisees put to Jesus in effect is – teacher, which interpretation do you favor? Jesus shocks them with his answer the effect of which is to say – I do not favor divorce under any circumstances.
What is in Jesus’ mind becomes clearer when we recall that he reminds the Pharisees that Moses’ allowance of a writ of divorce was an accommodation with the hardness of the human heart. He compares this accommodation with God’s intention at creation. God intended the marriage relationship between two persons to be a sign of the covenant between God and humanity. When Jesus says: what God has joined together let no one separate, he is saying that God’s intention takes precedence over the Mosaic writ of divorce. The Pharisees go away muttering to themselves.
A second scene now opens with Jesus talking privately with his disciples, who ask him to explain himself again. Jesus then utters these words: Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. So far, no surprises here. But then he says: and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. The disciples must have been shocked by this. What on earth is he talking about? Surely, they think, Jesus must know that a woman cannot divorce her husband?
Jesus is making clear that God’s intention at creation is for marriage to be a relationship between equals and not simply a legal property arrangement that can be put aside by the man whenever he chooses because the patriarchal law accommodates his superior status as a male.
Now, there are two ways of reading Moses’ allowance for a writ of divorce. Although the writ became a weapon in the hands of men, perhaps its original intention was for the protection of women. The writ of divorce ensured that what little legal protections marriage gave a woman, could not be lightly put aside by her husband without his having to go to court to do so, thus preventing a cruel and capricious husband simply casting his wife out of the house. Jesus is saying that Moses allowed a writ of divorce as a necessary protection for the woman against the hardness of the male heart.
A curious echo of this continues in England. In the marriage services of the Church of England the couple sign the register in front of the congregation because the marriage register of the Establish Church is the legal register of marriages. After signing the register, the couple sign the certificate of marriage, which the priest then gives to the bride.
As I handed over the certificate I would explain this ancient practice to the couple telling the bride that the certificate legally belongs to her and not to her husband. Now, an anachronism, in the past the certificate was her proof for the protections accorded her by marriage in an otherwise patriarchal society, in which property law accorded her few rights.
A relationship between equals
Jesus endorses our modern acceptance of human beings as relational beings. God is relational and the very act of creation is a desire for relationship with human beings. Through forming relationships with one another, we come to be reflections of God.
We are relationship seeking beings. Yet, as with every other aspect of being human our relationships are also fallible. Some succeed while others fail. The quality of our relationships is an expression of our emotional maturity. The failure of our relationships is often, sadly, an expression of our emotional immaturity.
In marriage preparation, I invite a divorced person seeking remarriage to share with me their perception of the reasons why their marriage ended in divorce. In their story, I listen for the echoes of sorrow. I am hoping that I can hear in their story a sense of loss – a loss of innocence. I listen for signs of the pain and disillusionment at finding failure where they hoped for fulfilment in relationship. My question is: how has this experience of loss of innocence deepened their self-awareness so as to better equip them to have a more mature expectation of themselves and their new marriage partner? It seems to me that no-one who had been through a divorce has remained unscathed by the loss of their once innocent belief that when you make sacred promises everything should work out, and people should live happily thereafter.
Because the loss of our innocence leaves a deep and often ugly scar in us, it is all the more important that we have an opportunity to learn from experience by making a new and fulfilling marriage with another person. In this way, a second marriage holds the promise of reparation. In God’s relationship with us there are always second chances. Why should this not also be so in our relationships with one another?
The Mosaic writ of divorce had become by Jesus’ time an expression of the hardness of the human heart. Jesus moves the goal posts away from the legalistic debate among men concerning the justifiable grounds for divorcing one’s wife, into a new conversation that recalls God’s intention for marriage as a covenant reflecting God’s love for us in creation. There is more than a hint here, at our own contemporary approach to seeing the relational failure resulting in divorce as an expression for the softening of the human heart.
As Anglican Christians in the Episcopal Church we live in the tension between our parental generation’s interpretation of Scripture and Tradition and the reality of the lives we actually live; lives also illuminated by a fresh encounter with the written Word of God. This place of tension is where we expect to encounter God, not only in our successes but also in our failures. It is in this tension that God comes looking for us.