I spent a lot of time thinking about the texts for this Sunday. Had I been involved with the compilation of the Revised Common Lectionary, I would have omitted a portion of this Sunday’s gospel. Yes, I will admit it: When I first read the gospel for this Sunday I was very uncomfortable with Jesus’ words about divorce and my initial response was to look for something else as a focus. However, as I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that if I were made uncomfortable by Jesus’ words on divorce, I am sure others here would be uncomfortable, too. Ignoring or passing over Jesus’ words here would be irresponsible and cowardly on my part and could allow someone to leave this space feeling marginalized, judged, condemned, or even self-righteous in his or her own marital status.
Jesus’ words on marriage and divorce seem fairly clear: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 11b-12). There is danger in taking a text out of context, so let’s look more closely at why Jesus makes this statement. The Pharisees have approached Jesus and placed before him a question in the hopes of trapping him. Their question seems very simple, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2b). However, this question takes place within a larger dialogue. Jesus asks the next important question, “What did Moses command you?” (Mark 10:3b). In a typical Jewish legal dispute, Jesus refers to the law as written in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Here the law seems fairly clear:
Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house 2 and goes off to become another man’s wife. 3 Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); 4 her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
The law permitted the man to issue a certificate of divorce and send a wife away. There is a context, however, for this permission that was somewhat unclear and frequently debated in Jewish legal circles. What constituted “something objectionable about her”? Two main schools of thought had arisen over the interpretations of the “something objectionable.” Two Jewish rabbis, Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, represented these schools of thought. Rabbi Hillel was the more “progressive” of the two. He maintained that the “something objectionable” could be something as simple as ruining a meal. Rabbi Shammai, Rabbi Hillel’s contemporary, took a more “conservative” view. He maintained only something of a serious moral nature, such as adultery on the part of the woman.
The Pharisees may be attempting to trap Jesus into taking one of those two positions, thereby alienating followers who may fall into the opposite camp. However, as is frequently the case, Jesus does not fall into this trap. Jesus maintains that divorce is only allowed because of “hardness of heart.” Jesus cite the Genesis creation narrative to maintain the indissolubility of marriage with no exceptions, a position perhaps closer to that of Rabbi Shammai, but with the typical moral intensification that characterizes Jesus application of the law.
Some interpreters believe there is something more at stake here than simple obedience to an abstract law and ideals of marriage. We must remember what would happen to a woman, and potential her children from the marriage, were a woman sent away by her husband. While she could return to her family of origin, the experience would still be traumatic, as all divorces are, and she would be uprooted socially, economically and emotionally. She would have no grounds to contest the divorce, nor could she have initiated a divorce had she desired to do so. She would be completely dependent on the will of her husband.
That this power of the husband over his wife is at least part of the issue here is intimated in the version of this story found in Matthew 10:2-6. Here is attributed to Jesus’ disciples the objection, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 10:6). In other words, if a man cannot divorce his wife even with the excuse of finding something “objectionable” about her, is it worth the risk to get married? Obviously if a man does not have this power over his wife, it is not worth getting married.
There may be deeper issues here than simply whether divorce should be legal or not. What may be at stake here is the just treatment of one’s partner in a relationship. The ability to arbitrarily divorce one’s partner and leave that partner with no recourse creates an uneven relationship, and one of the characteristics of the Reign of God that we see through the ministry of Jesus is reciprocity and respect. That is the core of what we commonly call the Golden Rule, “In everything do to others what you would have them do to you; for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). When a couple decides to separate, this process should be one that leads to healing and liberation for both parties, not just for one. I am a realist and I know divorces can be filled with pain and angry words, for each partner is now extremely vulnerable to the other. Many raw emotions are flowing. In a time like this the couple most needs to be in counselling to help process these emotions so they can mutually release each other from a relationship that may not be working well for either of them. Counselling, in addition to the legal advice of lawyers, may help bring some degree of healing to people who are being torn apart. Those of us who are on the peripheries of the divorce as families, friends, co-workers, and church-family, need to be supportive and sensitive during and after this time of transition, not judgemental or distance.
Relationships can be difficult, and the ending of a relationship, particularly one as intimate as a marriage, can be extraordinarily painful. In our stages of our relationships we need to treat each other with reciprocity and respect. The Golden Rule of do to other what you would have them do to you needs to be central throughout our dealings with others, whether those relationships are just beginning, going through a plateau phase of mutual comfort, or a painful decent into separation. Imagine a world where we truly lived out the Golden Rule. Maybe in that world, a divorce might not even be necessary.