Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC
Proper 21- Sunday, October 7, 2018
To hear the sermon in its fullness click here.
I’ll focus on the first pericope of today’s gospel passage. The one that deals with divorce, or is that what it deals with? Jesus talks about what is permissible under Mosaic law and what is intended for the Kingdom of God. What is intended for Kingdom-living is God-loving, life-giving relationships among humans.
|Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC|
But first, the Good News. We are all God’s Beloved regardless of our marital status or sexual orientation. And the Episcopal Church welcomes all of us regardless of the same.
And the Table of the Lord is open to all baptized Christians here regardless of marital status or sexual orientation. And if you are not baptized yet, let’s talk about that as soon as possible after the service. The context of the discussion of divorce and adultery in today’s passage is one of many in the Gospels in which various authorities try to trap Jesus by asking him a question that they know has no good answer.
I believe The Episcopal Church achieves both appropriate pastoral care to its divorced and remarried members and, faithfulness to the will of God for right relationship amongst lovers. In discerning the will of God through this pericope on divorce, it is important to consider the context in which Jesus made his comments on divorce. And that context is that of a very patriarchal society. In Jesus´ time, marriage was mostly an economic transaction between two families in an economy where honor was the highest valued commodity.
The married woman, for all intents and purposes, became a second-class member in her husband´s family. At least until she produced a male heir to her husband. At that point, her son eventually became her best chance of protection against neglect or abuse by her in-laws.
On the other hand, a married man could pretty much treat his wife as he pleased. He could use the services of prostitutes without affecting the honor of his wife (which in any case was of very low concern to the whole social group they belonged to). If the married man committed adultery with a married woman, the husband of that woman was considered the injured party, not the wife of the adulterous husband. Married women were entirely dependent on the honor “bank account” of their husband and/or their son’s for their own honor. Married women were also entirely dependent on these relatives for the provision of their needs.
Despite verse 12 in our passage that has Jesus say ¨and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery,¨ only men could divorce their wife in the Israelite society of his day, not the other way round. Verse 12 has Jesus address the situation of Hellenized Jesus groups in the time of Mark´s redaction. Non-Jewish women who joined the Jesus movement at that time were free to initiate divorce under the civil law.
In Jesus´ lifetime, divorce amongst Israelites was only available to men. You might think: “well, what about Herodias?” Herodias was a high-ranking woman in the royal family. She divorced Herod Philip II to marry his brother Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. Herodias’ divorce and remarriage were considered by most as abhorrent abnormalities.
Ordinary women who were divorced for any reason were in great danger of not being taken back by their father´s family. They were easily perceived as having sullied the honor of their biological family by failing to satisfy their ex-husband and his family. In such cases, many divorced women had to resort to begging or prostitution to survive.
The very partriarchal society in which Jesus lived and ministered treated women as property that accrued (or decreased) honor for their responsible males. Some refer to the kind of marriage that was then available as “chattel marriage.”
The marriage and divorce landscape that Jesus addresses is very different from marriage and divorce in our contemporary society. And this is not to say that patriarchy no longer applies in our society. As a multitude of events in the last year have only made too clear, patriarchy is still an active structure in our society.
So Jesus engages his audience to go beyond the letter of the law in order to live the kind of loving relationships the Kingdom of God ushers in. Divorce under the law remains permissible under the law. Jesus doesn’t repudiate the law as he himself insisted upon. But Jesus engages his audience to go well beyond the law. What is permissible under the law? The Pharisees who ask him about divorce already know the answer to that.
What is intended in the Kingdom of God? God intends human lovers to have non-exploitative, supportive and nurturing relationships as a reflection of God’s care and concern for all. In the process, we note that Jesus advocates greater social safety and well-being for women in the framework of his day’s family institutions.
I use gender-neutral terms to refer to marriage because I do believe that The Episcopal Church also achieves both appropriate pastoral care to its same-gendered couples and faithfulness to the will of God for right relationship amongst lovers.
True, Jesus does not address LGBT relationships in the pericope we are reflecting upon. The kind of loving and committed LGBT relationships we now know did not exist in his time. But I believe Jesus’ intent for right relationship amongst lovers extends to all-gendered love relationships.
In anglican tradition, marriage achieves three goals. First, it offers companionship and covenantal union between two humans. Second, it provides a context for procreation and the raising of children. Finally, it provides a legitimate outlet for sexual desire. Hopefully, all this is achieved on a foundation of mutual respect and love. I believe we do well to provide the benefits of marriage to all who desire them and love each other regardless of gender.
All this being said, I also believe that Jesus’ intent for the Kingdom of God means married couples should avoid a frivolous divorce. Sometimes, we need to stay the course, forgive and try again. It’s one of the things that we monks undertake with our vow of stability.
Also, Jesus teaches us that sexual or romantic desire for a third party should not be the reason to seek divorce. In such cases, we should seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
But divorce can be contemplated when injury (moral or physical) has durably eclipsed mutual respect and love between the spouses. There is no reason to endorse on-going abuse in any human relationship.
Marriage can work as a metaphor of the relationship between humans and God. But when the relationship has deteriorated beyond repair, separation and divorce can offer each spouse new chances for integrity to build up Kingdom-of-God relationships.
One of the many things I love in this Episcopal Church of ours is that all are welcome to the table of the Lord; singles, married folks, divorced folks, remarried folks, whatever their sexual orientation may be. With the grace of God, we refrain from judging each other on our differences.
God of love, teach us to be in right relationship with each other, in marriage or outside marriage. Help us be loving to all parties to a divorce or a remarriage. And help us nurture marriages that are fruitful in love and radiate your love to those who surround them.