“WWJDNow?” Pentecost 19, Proper 22B
Did you hear the story of the little boy who was fascinated by the old family Bible that sat on the living room coffee table? One day as he was fingering through it, something fell out of the Bible. He picked it up and looked at it. What he saw was an old leaf that had been pressed in between the pages. “Mama, look what I found!” the boy called out. “What do you have there, dear?” his mother asked. With astonishment in the young boy’s voice, he answered: “It’s really old- I think it’s Adam’s underwear!” That’s who we heard about in that extremely ancient story from the Old Testament book of Genesis- Adam and the creation of Eve. Did you notice some basic teachings about marriage? An ancient Jewish tradition points out this truth about Eve and her relationship to Adam: “Not from his head to lord it over him; not from his feet to be lorded over; but from his rib (next to his heart) to walk side by side as a partner. Did you notice that the Bible describes them as “one flesh?” This tells us that marriage is not the ceremony (because there was none), but the coupling- mind to mind, heart to heart, body to body that constituted the marriage. The logical extension of this is that if you are in a sexual, loving relationship with someone (especially if you have a child by that person), you are also married to that person. These days most people who think they’re single have actually been married a number of times in God’s eyes.
Another story: did you hear about the conversation between God and Adam? God asked Adam, “What’s wrong with you? All I see you do these days is mope around.” Adam said he didn’t have anyone to talk to. God said he would make a companion for Adam, and the companion would be a woman. God said, “This person will gather food for you; and when you discover clothing, she’ll wash it for you. She will always agree with every decision you make. She will bear your children and never ask you to get up in the middle of the night to take care of them. She will not nag you and will always be the first to admit she was wrong when you’ve had a disagreement. She will never have a headache and will freely give you love and passion whenever you want it.” Adam asked God, “What will a woman like this cost?” God replied, “An arm and a leg!” Adam commented, “That’s way too expensive! What could I get for a rib?” The rest is history! He got Eve. He got trouble. He got woman, actually woe-man! That’s what I’d like us to look at for the rest of our sermon- the potential trouble men and women can get into with their relationships, and – since Jesus specifically addressed it in today’s gospel- divorce.
Did you notice what Jesus said? NO DIVORCE, and REMARRIAGE AFTER DIVORCE PRODUCES ADULTERY. Those are really harsh words, and they seem to have absolutely no “wiggle-room.” How is it then that the Episcopal Church allows divorce plus remarriage after divorce (with the permission of the bishop)? Is it because we’re not a Bible-believing church? Not true! We read more Bible lessons than most denominations (usually four). We ARE a Bible-believing church and try to live that way. We are also an honest church. Most churches work hard to find loop-holes to allow for divorce. Some don’t allow divorce but do declare annulments to marriages, including many with children. Some look the other way when members get a divorce and then go before the justice of the peace to get married. Many don’t manage to notice when members “play around”- and you know as well as I do that many a pastor is considered a “lady’s man.” We Episcopalians work and struggle to have a livable Bible faith. While others seem to ask the question: “What DID Jesus do?” we ask what WOULD Jesus do if he lived now, here, in the 21st century? To do that, we need to start with what it was like living when Jesus lived, because this will give us a clue probably why he said what he said about divorce. From that- with the Spirit’s wisdom to guide us, we can think through what he would probably say and do today, because it’s clear that marriage and divorce in the first century are not the same as marriage and divorce in the twenty-first century.
Here are the facts about life, marriage, and divorce in Jesus’ time:
1) Marriages were not instituted by the couple falling in love. Marriages were arranged by the parents involved. This means that for a man to divorce his wife was to dishonor his parents, who had chosen the wife and contracted for her purchase (bride money- remember, we women were owned by our men). It broke the 5th commandment (“Honor your father and your mother.”)
2) Marriages were between two extended families, not two individuals. When a male from one family and a female from another family were offered in marriage, it was frequently for social, political, or economic reasons; and the two families became one united family. When a man divorced his wife, it separated the family into two usually-feuding groups. Bloodshed often followed.
3) While Roman law allowed a woman to divorce her husband as well as a husband to divorce his wife, Jewish law did not allow women to divorce their husbands. Only husbands could divorce wives. (Remember- Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jewish men.)
4) It was easy for a man to divorce his wife. In some periods of history, all he had to do was say three times- “I divorce you” and that was it. By Jesus’ time, a written statement that you are not my wife and I am not your husband was all that was required.
5) There was no welfare system- no safety net- in Jesus’ time. Divorce was extremely cruel to women and children, as is pointed out in the Old Testament book of Malachi (2:13-16) God said, “You cry noisily and flood the LORD'S altar with your tears, because he isn't pleased with your offerings and refuses to accept them. And why isn't God pleased? It's because he knows that each of you men has been unfaithful to the wife you married when you were young. You promised that she would be your partner, but now you have broken that promise....The LORD God All-Powerful of Israel hates anyone who is cruel enough to divorce his wife. So take care never to be unfaithful!” How was divorce cruel? A woman had to be under the care of a man all her life or she and her children had no means of support. When a husband divorced his wife, she had five choices: she could try to get her father, brother, or other male relative to take her and her children into their home; she could prostitute herself; she could steal; she could sell herself and her children into slavery; or they could starve to death. No wonder Jesus prohibited divorce! I would too! It was a justice issue!
What about today? An internet pastor-friend wrote to say that a member of his congregation came to him in tears. She had endured an extremely abusive marriage for years, but now her husband had started to abuse their small son as well. Looking for a friendly shoulder to cry on, she confided in her sister that she was planning on divorcing him. “Oh!” said her sister in horror. “You can’t do that- you’ll go to hell!” My friends, my question to you is not what did Jesus say in those ancient circumstances when women were just about owned. My question to you is what WOULD Jesus say to do in today’s circumstances? I cannot believe he would expect women and children to stay in abusive situations, because women can now care for their children- alone if necessary. It’s not the best way, but better than being continually mistreated. Don’t get me wrong. There is no such thing as a good divorce. Divorce causes pain, disunity, confused children, economic hardship all around. But when hardness of heart causes the death of a relationship with the accompanying back-biting, sharp tongues, disloyalty, and potential violence; divorce is often the best of a bunch of bad choices. Is it what God intends for our marriages? No. Is it often the result of living is a sin-sick world? Yes. Is there life in Jesus after divorce? Most certainly.
May God bless us all as we continue to allow his Spirit to turn our hearts of stone into the heart of his beloved Son; and may we live our lives asking, “What WOULD Jesus do this time?”