“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife,
let him give her a certificate of divorce.'”
(Matthew 5:31 NRSV)
Preaching on Divorce?
In all my years of preaching, I don’t think I have devoted a sermon just to the topic of divorce. Why? People don’t like to hear about that painful moment they struggled through personally or about someone they love dearly who had to endure the heartbreak which comes from divorce.
So…well… I’ll give it a try nonetheless. And yes, I will also talk about marriage. Both issues are worth reflecting upon since Jesus taught on these topics and since they are an essential part of humanity and the Christian life.
Jesus Teaches About Divorce
Jesus’ words in today’s gospel are in the Sermon on the Mount. His comments on divorce come right on the heals of his explanation and expansion of the meaning of the Sixth Commandment concerning a prohibition of adultery. Jesus reminds the crowds what Moses said long ago about a man giving his wife a certificate of divorce. But then he went even further to explain that unchastity was the grounds of divorce and the consequences of marrying a divorced woman.
But Some Scholars Say…
But some scholars say that these words on the lips of Jesus concerning divorce were not his real words, but were written by followers of Matthew who wanted to crack down on divorces in their community to keep it stable. Moreover, this group of scholars say that Jesus does not emphasize divorce in his teachings, but instead they believe that Jesus more likely taught about the goodness of marriage (See Mark 10). But no matter what you think about these words from Jesus in today’s gospel, there can be no argument that Jesus understood that divorce was a reality in his time and long ago in the days of Moses.
First Century Rabbis Teach on Divorce
First, it is important to know that in the first century there were famous rabbis, Shamnai and Hillel, who had opposing views on divorce. Rabbi Shamni believed that a man could divorce his wife only on the grounds of infidelity while Rabbi Hillel believed that there were many reasons for the husband to divorce his wife including if she spoiled his food or if she went out of the house without wearing a head covering or is she talked disrespectfully about her husband’s parents. Clearly, these two rabbis were far apart on when the husband had the right to divorce his wife.
Remember that it was only the Jewish husband who had rights to divorce. The wife had no power to divorce her spouse. So in the first century the views on divorce were mixed. But Matthew recorded that Jesus said there was only one reason for divorce and that was infidelity on the part of the wife. As I said before, some scholars debate that these words on divorce were not Jesus’ words on the topic, but those who wrote this gospel who followed Matthew added these words to make their community more stable when it came to marriage.
But we know that as the years and centuries passed, women in Jewish communities had more rights and by the 11th century women could sue for divorce.
Divorce in the USA Today
But let’s get a picture of divorce in our country today. Believe it or not in the US today, statistics from the CDC reveals that divorce in our country is 3.2 divorces per 1000 people. That divorce rate has decreased by 18% between 2008 to 2016. The popular belief in recent years was that half of marriages end in divorce, but according to the CDC that is no longer true. That’s good news.
So what’s the reason for the decline? Phillip Cohen, a professor at the University of Maryland, said that millennials are waiting longer to get married and when they marry, they are more established and stable which leads to fewer risks for divorce. Moreover, millennials are more open to co-habitation. That rate has recently increased 27% since 2007.
It’s good to see the divorce rate has declined, but the marriage rate is also declining. CDC reports that one-half of Americans 18 years of age and older were married in 2017, but that is down 8% since 1990.
What Does Our Church Say About Divorce
So we have heard about the reasons for divorce in the first century among Jews and had a brief update about divorce and marriage today in our country. But what has our church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said about divorce? In the 2009 Social Statement entitled, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” it said “This church recognizes that in some situations the trust upon which marriage is built becomes so deeply damaged or is so deeply flawed that the marriage itself must come to a legal end (Matthew 19:3-12). This church does not treat divorce lightly nor does it disregard the responsibilities of marriage. However, in such situations, it provides support to the people involved and all who are affected. Divorced individuals are encouraged to avail themselves of pastoral care, to be assured of God’s presence, forgiveness, and healing, and to remain in the communion of the church, recognizing the all-encompassing mercy of God.”
So this church understands that the vows and trust in marriage can be broken. When that brokenness happens, there is much sorrow because God intended for husband and wife to have a life-long trusting and loving relationship. But when there is no hope for reconciliation, there must be a legal end to the marriage.
A Merciful God and Church in Times of Divorce
But that is not the end of the story in the church. The church supports all who have been divorced. The church proclaim forgiveness. It promotes healing. It reminds us of a merciful God who binds up wounds and helps us move forward again in life. The church is compassionate and offers care from both the laity and the clergy.
So if you are divorced or know someone who has been divorced or are contemplating divorce, remember that God hears your cries of anger and sorrow. God in Christ understands what you are going through because Jesus himself endured so much sorrow when he was betrayed by Judas, when the crowds shouted out to crucify him, and when the disciples abandoned him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus went to that cross for you and for all who suffer so that he could offer forgiveness, hope, and promise to send the Holy Spirit to comfort you, heal you and lead to new life to start over again with a confidence and faith for the future.
A Brief Word on Marriage and Divorce from St. Mark’s Gospel
In Saint Mark’s gospel we see a moment when Jesus taught the Pharisees about divorce and marriage (Mark 10:2-9). The Pharisees asked Jesus if it was legal for a man to divorce his wife. His answer reminded them to look to Moses who first allowed Israelite men to write a certificate divorce because their hearts were hardened.
But Jesus didn’t stop there. Instead he went on to talk about the gift of marriage from God. Jesus said, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no on separate.” (See Genesis 1 and 2)
Genesis 2 and the Gift of Marriage
God’s promise in marriage is an intimacy of oneness. In fact in Genesis 2, after God had just created Eve by taking a rib from the sleeping Adam, this first man wakes up and says (probably with a joyful shout), “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh this one shall be called Woman, for out of the Man this one was taken” (Genesis 2:23). God created man and woman to be one in marriage. This is a divine gift. This is the intimacy of oneness created by God for man and woman to enjoy. In fact to show this close and intimate relationship, the Hebrew word for woman in verse 23 is “ishshah” and the Hebrew word for man is “ish.” So ishshah (woman) was taken from ish (man). The Hebrew text demonstrates the oneness God intended.
Hope after Divorce
The emotion of joy is God’s gift in marriage. But when divorce happens and the trust, commitment and joy is lost. there is so much sorrow. The goodness of this life-long relationship in marriage comes to an end and all seems lost.
But God in his mercy never forgets about all who cry, all who suffer and all who have tasted the pain of divorce. When God remembers us there is healing, comfort, joy and a life restored to move on.
Who knows? With God’s help another marriage may be in the future for those who have known divorce.
Thanks be to God.