Scriptures for today are Here
You know the movie – it could be any movie. It could be Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. It could be “When Harry Met Sally” or the Jane Austen knockoff teen romance “Clueless.” It could be any movie romantic comedy. They all end the same way. After one problem, miscommunication, and misunderstanding after another, the lovers discover that they like one another after all. They resolve their differences. They talk out their troubles. Their hearts fill with love. The closing music swells. And in a beautiful montage, at a wedding or on New Year’s Eve or at the high school prom, they dance in each other’s arms.
And we know, even if the closing line doesn’t appear in beautiful cursive script on the ending screen, that the ending is, “They Lived Happily Ever After.” It’s all very satisfying.
I think that quite possibly, what is so satisfying about that standard ending is that no one in history has ever actually lived happily ever after like that. Every single person who has ever gotten married has discovered what I often tell new couples who are preparing for marriage: the marriage ceremony is not the end of the story – it’s the beginning. The marriage begins a long life of ups and downs, life in good times and bad. Which is why, in The Episcopal Church, we promise to marry for better for worse. Because real life is not a fairy tale, and none of us will sail through life feeling the whole time like we’re Cinderella and the Prince dancing at the ball at a quarter to midnight. Life is just not that easy.
Which is what makes today’s gospel so relevant, and possibly so startling, to so many of us today. We’ve all had relationships, and most of us have had relationships that failed. And in many ways, we can look at our human relationships – not just our marriages, but also our other family relationships and our friendships and our relationships within our workplaces and our schools and our Christian communities – as laboratories for life. As practice for what it means to be a Christian. As the best way we humans have to discover and explore what it means to love God and love our neighbors. If we want to learn how to love, God gives us plenty of chances, starting with the people closest to us and moving out from there.
But it’s not easy. Love is never easy. There are those Cinderella and the Prince moments, but there are also those for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health moments. And Christian life is a matter of figuring out how to love – not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard. After all, that’s how Jesus loved us.
So what’s going on in this gospel about marriage and divorce? The first thing to understand is that the folks who come to Jesus and ask this question are not really interested in Jesus’ views on marriage. They don’t really believe he is an authority on this or any issue. Instead, they want him to take sides on a controversial issue, which is, how do you interpret Scripture (which for them mean the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures)? Whatever he says about this controversial issue, he will make enemies.
In this case, the question they are really asking is this: Is the Bible a rule book that you have to interpret absolutely literally and follow word for word, like a set of legal regulations? And if so, how do you justify some of the unjust and difficult results that will occur? Or is the Bible something that allows room for broader interpretation? And if so, how do you justify departing from the letter of the law?
In the case of divorce, if you interpret the Bible as a word-for-word, literal rule book, then the rule is clear in Deuteronomy 24:1: a man can divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever, if he finds anything “objectionable” about her, or for no reason at all. But under Jewish law, she doesn’t have a corresponding way to divorce her husband; for example, she has no way to escape from an abusive marriage. And given the economic and social climate of Jesus’ time, a woman who was divorced by her husband had no right to any property, no right to alimony, no future rights to her children – they are the property of their father, and he can prohibit her from seeing them if he wants to. And if her parents won’t take her back, then she is out on the street with no way to support herself except begging or prostitution. In such a situation, divorce is a terrible injustice, and everyone knows it.
The other school of thought was that divorce was allowed only for adultery (this departs from the letter of the law of Scripture, and therefore this is the liberal view). The liberal view in this case is also the merciful view – it protects the weak, it ensures that women will not be thrown out on the street. But if you take the liberal view, you can be accused of not honoring the scriptures.
So watch how Jesus avoids the trap. The Pharisees ask about divorce and Jesus instead talks about marriage. He puts the narrow scripture of Deuteronomy 24:1, which allows men to divorce their wives for any reason at all, into conversation with the broader scope of Scripture as the record of God’s love for humankind. In a conflict in interpretation between one narrow scripture and a broader view of all scripture, Jesus gives more weight to the broader scripture. The way Jesus reads it, scripture is far more than a narrow book of laws and regulations; scripture is a narrative of God’s true, lived relationship with people who are continually imperfect, continually falling short of the ideal for which God has created them.
Jesus explains the ideal of God’s hope for human marriage by talking about God’s hope for humans in creation: God created world, called it “good” in Genesis Chapter 1. Yet God immediately recognized in Genesis Chapter 2 that there was something not good: “it is not good for the human being (Adam) to be alone” – and God created a partner for Adam (Eve). The Biblical story of creation recognizes that human beings are made to live in relationship with each other and with God, which in marriage means a faithful, monogamous, lifelong commitment. Yet the fact is that that ideal did not persist for long given the realities of how humans relate to each other – polygamy and divorce were common by the time of the Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs.
Jesus understands this reality, and says the reason for the law allowing divorce in Deuteronomy is hardness of heart – human sin – and the result was, in practice, that divorce was an injustice perpetrated against the weak (women) by the powerful (their husbands). Jesus speaks against this injustice by appealing to the broader purposes of God: respect, equality, love that honors the other above oneself, a marriage covenant that means a lifetime commitment.
So given that background, we need to understand in our own time, how Scripture applies. In our time: divorce is all too common – look at celebrities who don’t take the marriage commitment seriously when they make it, who seem to change partners as often as they change clothes. Who act like any romance is a movie romantic comedy – full of infatuation and warm glowing feelings. But in real life, that warm glow of romance is often followed by confrontation with the daily reality of sharing your life with someone else, and sometimes that means that strong romantic feelings, feelings of infatuation may begin to fade. If we’re not careful, we can read that loss of feeling as a loss of true love. When the fact is, as I tell new couples that daily routine of living with each other is when you really have the opportunity to learn to love.
Which begs the question: what is love, really? The Christian answer is that love is not a feeling but an action, a series of actions and decisions that you make, day in, and day out. To grow in full humanness, human beings must grow in relationship. Learning to love another person, over a long period of time, with the opportunity to experience each other’s flaws, to be in conflict and to reconcile, to compromise and to learn to put the other’s welfare before our own – for many of us, whether this challenge comes in marriage or some other relationship, this is the most difficult challenge we’ll ever face. Yet, with all its difficulties, if we figure out how to do it, the love we experience with another human being is the closest experience many of us will ever have with the kind of love God offers us.
Understanding more about what love is helps us understand marriage. Christian marriage is a covenant, not a contract. A person enters into a contract for his or her own benefit, and a contract is null and void if one provision is not met. And if marriage were a contract, it would mean that when we lose that pleasant infatuated feeling, we might as well leave – because we’re not getting what we want. From a legal sense, our society sees marriage as a contract.
But from a Christian standpoint, marriage is not a contract but a covenant. A covenant is unconditional, entered for the other’s benefit rather than our own. In a covenant, we commit to love the other more than we love ourselves. We commit to depend on each other, to make ourselves vulnerable with each other, to open our hearts to each other in trust and love. A covenant relationship requires us to ask: is this relationship fulfilling God’s purpose for us as human beings?
That question is why the Episcopal Church has decided to allow divorce and remarriage. There are some relationships that fall into patterns of abuse or addiction or mistreatment or simple human failure, and we humans can’t rescue them. One broad theme of scripture is there is always room for forgiveness and grace. God’s love for us and desire for us to flourish is why we recognize divorce and allow remarriage in the Episcopal Church; there is always forgiveness, there is always new life, there is always the hope of learning and growing.
In the case of divorce: is forgiveness available? Of course – this is the good news that Jesus brings to us. Is new life, new hope, new beginning possible? Yes, God can bring joy and hope out of despair and failure (after all, that’s one message of the cross!). We rejoice in the healing that remarriage after divorce can bring.
And a third question: is love a gift from God? Of course it is. But it’s not a gift you simply receive. It’s a gift you also give, from your heart, for the benefit of the other person, not for yourself. Because, after all, that’s the way Jesus loved us. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.