Monday, October 08, 2018

Marriage and Divorce

[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during worship earlier today.]

Mark 10:2-16
True story. The wife of a prominent Christian leader, a man to whom she’d been married for decades, was asked if she’d ever considered divorce. “Divorce, no,” she replied. “murder, yes.”

Murder, believe it or not, is a good entry point for our discussion of the topic that takes up most of today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 10:2-16, marriage and divorce.

Let me explain the connection: While we usually teach the Fifth Commandment as saying, “You shall not kill,” the original Hebrew actually tells us, “You shall not murder.” Knowing that alone helps us to better understand the command. In giving us the Fifth Commandment, God is not saying that there are no circumstances under which, in the defense of life, it may become necessary to take lives. 

For example, when a nation is attacked and its people’s lives are threatened--as happened with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, followed by Nazi Germany’s declaration of war on this country--that nation’s government has the responsibility to prevent the murder of its citizens. That will likely entail taking the lives of those who threaten such murder. 

God still prohibits murder. God still cherishes and commands that we cherish the gift of every human life He has created and He still commands us to protect life

But the hardness of human hearts--the sin in human hearts--means that people who have no desire to murder, that children, the vulnerable, need earthly protectors, like governments, which, in extreme situations such as those that came to this country in 1941, are left with no choice but to kill other human beings. And so, the God Who, in Old Testament times, commanded His people Israel not to murder, would at times, tell them to make war on those intent on murdering people.

God never bases His commands to us on exceptional circumstances that result from human hard-heartedness. His commands reflect His eternal will for those who, grateful for His undeserved grace and favor, seek to live the kinds of lives God blesses. It is God’s will that human beings not take the lives of other human beings, even to the point, according to Jesus, of commanding us not to use killing words to harm, ridicule, or dehumanize others. It’s only after God makes His good and gracious will--”You shall not murder”-- emphatically clear that He talks about the exceptional circumstances under which the sinfulness of our fallen world--the hardness of human hearts--may necessitate the taking of human life

Keep that in mind: In His commands, God always states the positive principle before talking about the exceptions. That's important to remember as we address Jesus' words on marriage and divorce in today's Gospel lesson.

And to do that, we must begin by looking at the verse in Mark's gospel appearing right before our lesson, Mark 10:1. There we’re told, “Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.” 

This verse really presents us with a key to understanding everything that Jesus says about marriage and divorce in our lesson. Context, you know, is central to understanding passages of the Bible. Where do the verses fall within the particular book? And, in the cases of narrated events, like the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection told in the gospels, we need to pay heed to where He was geographically when He spoke the words.

And where is Jesus in today's gospel lesson? He’s in “the region of Judea and across the Jordan.” 

This is the place where John the Baptist ministered and preached

And it’s the place where John got into trouble with government and religious leaders

You'll remember that John had condemned and called to repentance King Herod for having divorced his own wife and caused the wife of his brother Philip to divorce the brother so that the two divorced folks could now marry and live happily ever after. 

John called Herod out on this violation of the sanctity of marriage. 

He claimed that Herod’s entire rule was delegitimized by this unrepented violation of God’s marriage command, given in the garden, that, in marriage, the two shall become one flesh. 

Religious leaders, who saw John as a threat to their power, aligned themselves with Herod and were glad when Herod beheaded John for what John had said about Herod's marriages and divorce. 

In our gospel lesson, the Pharisees, in the same place where John had preached, try to set the same trap that brought Herod’s execution of John for Jesus.

Mark 10: 2-5: “Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ ‘What did Moses command you?’ he replied. They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away. It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,’ Jesus replied.” 

“Marriages that last for lifetimes, this is  God’s will,“ Jesus is saying. “But it’s lawful for people to divorce because God recognizes that human sin hardens hearts.” 

In other words, people do and say things that destroy marriage covenants and the foundations on which the best ones are built: faith in the God we know in Christ, mutual trust, mutual servanthood, repentance, prayer. 

When a partner says or does those things repeatedly, unrepentantly, that destroy the marriage a partner may be warranted in seeking a divorce.

A divorce decree then becomes the mere public acknowledgment of the fact that human sin has already killed a marriage. 

In the eyes of God, the legitimate grounds for divorce might include adultery, as Jesus mentions in Matthew 19:9 and spiritual abandonment as Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 7:15. I’m sure that abuse, physical or mental, is also an understandable grounds for ending a marriage. 

As I often tell couples in premarital counseling or married folks who deal with one or more spouse’s addictions to drugs, alcohol, pornography, gambling, eating, materialism, whatever: There is more than one way to be unfaithful to a marriage, more than one way for human hardness of heart to destroy a marriage

Fortunately, blessedly, people can repent. People can turn to Christ for forgiveness and the power to restore their marriages and other relationships. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, died and rose to overcome the power of sin and death over those who repent and believe in Him. They can do this even after their hardness of heart has destroyed their marriage.
But Jesus refuses to base His reiteration of God’s command for marriage and against divorce on the exceptional circumstances that might form grounds for divorce. He doesn’t want people entering into marriage or being married spending their time looking for loopholes. 

And so He says, starting at verse 6: “'But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 

Without uttering the name of the fake king Herod, Jesus, the King of all kings, tells the Pharisees whose trap He perceives, “John the Baptist was right. Marriage is a gift to be cherished for life.”

Jesus isn’t one to “throw pearls before swine,” though. He doesn’t waste His breath trying to teach people who don’t really want to be taught. So, He waits to unpack His teaching with the disciples when they’re alone. Verse 10: “When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.’”

God loves marriage and everything that He intended for it: companionship, mutual affection and accountability, mutual protection, intimacy, and sometimes, children, to name just a few things. God desires our marriages to last a lifetime. He also desires unmarried friends to support their married friends in their marriage covenants. And so, in today’s lesson, Jesus invites us to focus not on the circumstances that might make it OK to divorce and to instead, in light of God’s love for and blessing of marriage, focus on what’s needed to make marriages work.

Here are just a few of them. 

  • One: A shared faith in Jesus Christ. When husband and wife acknowledge that they are in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves and that they need the crucified and risen Savior Who, alone, makes it possible for them to be saved by grace from sin and death through faith in Him, couples are given the humility and understanding they need to forgive one another and support one another till death parts them. 
  • Two: A shared commitment to prayer in Jesus’ name
  • Three: A shared commitment to being disciples. When we’re committed to being disciples, God helps us to be patient with one another and honest about our own needs and faults. 
  • Four: A shared commitment to mutual submission. Ephesians 5 makes clear that in Christian marriages, nobody is boss. Husband and wife submit to one another and to Christ to form a partnership which makes them not two separate people pursuing their own interests and desires, but as Genesis tells us, “one flesh.”

In thirty-four years of pastoring, there are certain predictable issues that have caused married couples to talk with me about their marriages. You can probably guess what they are: money, sex, in-laws, communication breakdowns, children. But all these common points of conflict that may arise in any marriage are rarely the true sources of conflict in marriages. They’re only the secondary battlefields. 

The real source of trouble in marriages is human hardness of heart, sin

The battle for our marriages and against divorce happens in the spiritual realm. 

When both partners believe, pray, repent and forgive--all in the name of the crucified and risen Jesus, our marriages can be strengthened. God can give married couples the strength to do the hard work needed to overcome those things that threaten our marriages. God can give our married friends and family members His strength when we go to battle for them in the spiritual realm with our prayers. 

Whenever possible, it’s best that our marriages not be ended by either divorce...or murder. 

May God strengthen all the marriages of our parish.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]