This is one of the weeks in the lectionary when a tradition of clerical celibacy would be a real help to the preacher. Back when I was young and single, I felt perfectly comfortable taking a “that’s what the man said” approach to Jesus’ teaching on divorce because I knew nothing at all of the stresses and earthquakes that can sunder the marriage bond. Today, as a 49 year old woman still married to my first husband, I have more sympathy with those who have divorced. There, but for the grace of God, went all my promises and hope as well.
On the opposite hand, it is tempting for the preacher to deal with Jesus’ teaching on divorce in this week’s gospel lesson by asserting that it is harder for us to hear and to follow than it was for Jesus’ original audience. However, that is what we used to call a cop-out. What we know about marriage and divorce customs in the late Roman empire indicates that divorce was as common, and legally and socially simple as it is today – perhaps even more so.
Jesus’ teaching on divorce has always troubled Christians, especially in its most pitiless form, as it is expressed in the Gospel according to Mark. Mark’s Jesus leaves no outlet for victims of adultery, for spouses of addicts or even for abused spouses. It is an uncompromising, even harsh prophetic word on the permanence of the marriage covenant.
If you, as a preacher, perhaps even as a preacher who is divorced yourself, feel uncomfortable preaching the 200-proof unadulterated message of this Sunday’s gospel lesson, then you are in large company, as Lucy Bregman reminded readers of Homily Service in 2009.
Strikingly, early on Matthew’s community did rethink, and included an escape clause. Should adultery be proved, then it is permissible to divorce, although only the wife’s adultery is explicitly mentioned (Mt 5:31-32). Calvin extended this, using a standard of gender equity foreign to Jesus’ day, so that anyone’s adultery, husbands’ or wives’, was ground for divorce. Luther, on the other hand, stuck by Matthew, even when utterly inconvenient. He did, notoriously, advise one of his noble patrons to commit bigamy instead of divorce, on the ground that nowhere does Jesus explicitly forbid the former. This will not do for us, and it probably shocked and horrified most people in Luther’s day. The other tack church leaders could take is to follow Paul, who permits the divorcing of a non-Christian spouse under certain conditions. Paul assumed that in such situations one partner converted, and that the most desirable outcome would be the conversion of the remaining spouse. Should that not happen, it was better to live “unequally yoked” than to divorce, but if push came to shove, a divorce was a permissible option (1 Cor 7:12 ff) He did not seem to worry about remarriage of the divorced, although elsewhere in the Pauline writings, there is a sense that one spouse per individual is the maximum.
How do you intend to deal with this “hard teaching” in your preaching?
Bregman, Lucy, 2009. Homily Service 42:4, 50.
Lucy Bregman, professor of religion at Temple University, is the author of several books most recently Preaching Death: TheTransformation of Christian Funeral Sermons.