|27th Sunday in Ordinary Time||
October 8, 2000
|TILL WHEN DO US PART?
John Denver wrote:
Come let me love you, let me give my life to you.The song was written for his first wife, Annie. It speaks of his unending love for her and of his desire to be with her for his entire life. However, before his tragic death John Denver not only divorced Annie but his second wife as well. John Denver's marital life is symbolic of our time. We begin the relationship with a commitment to be faithful to one person through times of struggle, times of turmoil, times of distress but with greater and greater frequency the marriage unravels and ends in divorce.
Glenn Stanton says that we have gone from "till death do us part" to "satisfaction guaranteed or your money back." Between 1960 and 1990, the American divorce rate more than doubled. Forty percent of all American children can expect to experience the divorce of their parents. In a culture that has made the shelf life of husbands, wives and families as disposable and perishable as a fresh container of milk, any marriage without an expiration date of 10 years is seems unusual.2
I know that as I say these words, many people here are recalling the pain and hurt of a bad marriage. They remember all the work they exerted attempting to keep the romance and love in the relationship. They remember how in spite of their best efforts nothing seemed to work. Their divorce was not the end of the marriage but the acknowledgement that the marriage had ended several years previously. So I do not say these words to bring judgment or condemnation on anyone but to introduce the dilemma I face as I approach this passage of Scripture. Whereas divorce was once considered a taboo, our culture has now made the shelf life of marriages as perishable as a fresh container of milk. Yet, the words of our Lord seem fairly explicit. There does not seem to be any loopholes or footnotes listing the exceptions to the rule. Finding a balance between our society's perceptions and the Biblical injunction appears to require pastoral sensitivity and scholarly faithfulness. This is one of many hard sayings of the Bible over which a pastor struggles to "...teach God's law without canceling God's gospel."3
THE THEOLOGICAL DEBATE
The topic was no less controversial in Jesus day. John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, last his head over the topic. King Herod had married his brother's wife Herodias. The problem was that Phillip was still alive. John denounced the marriage, which made Herodias furious. She had taken great pains to maneuver, scheme, and manipulate her way into the marriage. She could finally enjoy the honor, prestige, and power of being first lady. She was not about to let some camel haired preacher threaten her. She knew that she was in a tenuous position. At any time, Herod could cast her aside, like a concubine and no one would support her. She had John arrested and eventually murdered.
Mark tells us that the Pharisees came to test Jesus. I call their purpose entrapment. They knew that whatever he said they could use it against him. The Law of Moses granted divorce under certain circumstances. If he took a radical approach, he was not only going against the written law but also committing the same act of treason that cost his cousin his life. If he allowed for divorce, they could accuse him of contradicting John and probably himself.
In his usual manner, Jesus cuts through the cords by which the Pharisees were trying to entangle him and goes for the heart of the matter. Divorce is not God's first choice but Moses allowed for it because of the hardness of people's hearts. To fully understand his words we must first know something about the debate that was raging throughout the synagogues. The controversy centered on Deuteronomy 24:1. It is the only OT passage that allows for divorce. The verse reads:
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house
The burning question of the day was, "what does indecent mean?" The very liberal school interpreted the term in the widest possible manner. They said that a man could divorce his wife over the trivial indiscretions of spoiling his dinner, walking across town with her hair down, speaking to a man on the street or talking with disrespect about his parents. One rabbi even advocated that a man could divorce his wife if he simple found another woman more beautiful.4 Notice that only the man could initiate the divorce. The woman had no options available if she was unhappy in the marriage, except maybe to burn her husband's dinner.
THE TWO BECOME ONE
Jesus refuses to engage in the endless theological banter by drawing the people's attention back to the book of Genesis and the original meaning of marriage. In the covenant of marriage two lives, become one flesh. A physical, emotional, and psychological union takes place. This was the intended order in the Creation. I agree with Dale Brunner, former NT professor at Whitworth College:
...if God had intended polygamous life, God would have created one man and several women, [or one woman and several men], if God had intended homosexual life God would have made two men and two women; but that God intended monogamous heterosexual life, was shown by God's creation of one man and one woman.5Later with his disciples, Jesus appears to cut off any and all exceptions to the rule. He tells
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
Such teaching is not only "out of sync" with our culture but appears "out of sync" with the character of Jesus himself. Is Jesus saying that there are now two unforgivable sins-the sin against the Holy Spirit and divorce?
I would like to suggest that by teaching God's intended purpose for marriage Jesus was seeking a response of faith that says, "I give thanks and rejoice for all that God has given me." Believers who are married should thank God for their spouse, singles should pray for guidance but also be thankful for their singleness and both should understand the seriousness and sacredness of the marriage relationship.
I also believe that we must understand this passage in light of the whole gospel and in light of our own fallen ness. The central core of the gospel is the forgiveness of sins for the repentant believer. For the repentant believer and the repentant divorcee God offers new life and new hope. On nearly every page of the NT grace and mercy are offered to the truly repentant.
When a women who had a sordid reputation bathed his feet with her tears he said, "your sins are forgiven." He later refused to condemn the woman who was caught in adultery by the religious leaders. Finally, at the heart of the Lord's Supper is the offer of grace not to the perfect but to men and women who acknowledge their broken lives. Forgiveness of sin is never offered to the religiously righteous but to the poor in spirit, the brokenhearted and those who hunger and search after righteousness.
The Presbyterian faith has always tried to hold both the sacredness
of marriage and forgiveness for the divorced in a healthy tension. The
Westminster Confession written in 1642 presents this balance:
Christian marriage is an institution ordained by God, blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ, established and sanctified for the happiness and welfare of mankind, into which spiritual and physical union one man and one woman enter, cherishing a mutual esteem and love, bearing with each other's infirmities and weaknesses, comforting each other in trouble, provicind in honesty and industry for each other and for their household, praying for each other, and living together the length of their days as heirs of the grace of life.WATERFORD CRYSTAL OR CLAY JARS
Some people have refused to accept any possibility for divorce due to a misconception of our human fallen ness. Their understanding of the human soul of the person that has received Christ would best be likened to a Waterford crystal goblet-elegant, gleaming, and perfect. Through the justifying work of the Cross, God has made the person into a new creation. The old has passed away. If the person commits certain sins they like the crystal that is dropped on a cement floor is broken into a million pieces. No matter how long or how hard you try, you cannot restore the crystal or the life to its original shape.7
I prefer to see our lives like a goblets made of clay. When a clay goblet is dropped. it breaks into rather large pieces that can be glued back to its original shape. The goblet is never the same. Many people who have gone through a divorce tell me that they are never the same. After the marriage has end, they remained scarred by the wounds that they inflicted and those inflicted upon them by their spouse. That is not to judge but simply to acknowledge the pain of sin. Divorce is never pleasant but the gospel announces that God can restore a broken and shattered life. It takes time and effort. It also takes a healing community of faith.
My hope and prayer is that we would become a community that is used by God to rebuilding shattered lives.
1. John Denver, "Annie's Song," Cherry Lane Music Publishing, 1974 from Yohann Anderson, Songs, (San Anselmo: Songs and Creations, 1982), 159.
2. Wanted: A Lasting Marriage. Only Good Chemists, Bad Mathematicians, Expert Soul-O-Flexors Need Apply" Homiletics, Communication Resources, Inc, 1999, Online: http://www.homileticsonline.com/Installments/oct0597.htm.
3. Frederick Dale Brunner, Matthew, A Commentary, (Waco TX: Word, 1990), 685.
4. Kent Hughes, Mark, Volume II, (Westchester IL: Crossway Books, 1989), 46.
5. Frederick Dale Brunner, Matthew, 670, 671.
6. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), "The Westminster Confession of Faith"
7. Brett Blair, Online: http://www.sermonillustrations.com
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