The Rev. Canon Barbara T. Duncan, D.Min.
In the name of God, our Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer. Amen.
Life has a way of dealing us strange and unusual hands. It then becomes our task to sort out the circumstances and try to make sense out of what appears to be chaos or, at best, misunderstanding. The changes and chances frequently occur when we take some things and people for granted and make certain assumptions about how things are or should be.
A story is told of a young news photographer. His editor roused him out of bed and told him to get to the airport as quickly as possible. Aerial views of a late-breaking news story were needed for the paper. So off the photographer went and arrived at the airport, and sure enough there was a helicopter waiting on the pad. He dashed to the copter, jumped in with his equipment and told the pilot to take off and head for the particular location. At about 5,000 feet, the photographer began to take out his camera, lenses and other necessities and asked the pilot how soon they would be at the location. There was a dead silence. The pilot, having turned ashen, asked, “You mean that you are not the flight instructor?”
We can only imagine the thoughts that crossed both of their minds. They had made their own assumptions about the situation at the airport. Here they were, having to find a solution to both their problems. Both men were trusting the other to be the one whom they could trust to complete the journey. No doubt, both men realized they were in a dilemma requiring negotiation of the profoundest kind.
But the idea of teamwork to find solutions is not new to us. Unusual conditions and tricky circumstances can assault us at any time. And what do we do to resolve them satisfactorily? Sometimes we can’t and so we move on.
Today’s Gospel finds Jesus face to face with the Pharisees with one of their tricky questions. I imagine he could only think, “Here we go again.” Trying to entrap Jesus had become their favorite pastime.
The Pharisees were testing Jesus on the issue of the “lawfulness of divorce.” And Jesus’ response irritated these Pharisees. Instead of viewing marriage as a legal contract, Jesus refers to the Genesis (2:18—24) writings and moves marriage from the earthly to the spiritual realm.
To better understand the context, let’s take a look at the circumstances of Jesus’ reply. John the Baptist had recently been imprisoned and executed because he denounced the marriage practices of Herod Antipas and Herodias who had divorced her husband. Jesus now finds himself standing in the Herod’s territory with Herod’s henchmen, with John the Baptist’s fate probably very much on his mind. Jesus’ is careful with his pronouncement. The Jewish law provides for a man to divorce his wife; but, a wife did not have the same option. The man divorced based on his wife’s adultery or other behavior the husband considered shameful or a disgrace.
So our Lord at once removes the problem from that narrow world of social institutions and legalism in which we often like to place issues. He moves the divorce issue to the spiritual realm where God had intended, somewhat baffling the Pharisees. By a brilliant turning of the tables, Jesus forces the issue, opening the discussion by reciting the very statute they were holding in reserve to find him guilty. “Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife?”
Jesus responds by evening things up here between men and women. He simply places the facts on the table. A divorce, regardless of who initiates it, is called sin by Jesus. What it represented and continues to represent is a brokenness of relationship, a breaking of a covenant made–to each other and before God.
Moses, in what has been commonly called “law,” commented on practices of his time that were taking place. And Jesus reminds them that it was another time and another culture of behavior. Jesus makes commentary on the practices of his time. In the context of today’s lesson, Jesus neither approves or disapproves the divorce law of the time. He doesn’t discuss marriage at all. Rather than establish a hard and fast law concerning the matter, Jesus invites us to look and the equality of relationship with each other and in the sight of God. We, too, the body of the faithful acknowledge that not all relationships last for a lifetime. Divorces are often the result of two people finding themselves in a situation such as the pilot and the photographer–making assumptions about and having expectations of each other that neither can meet. The reality is that, because we are human, we sometimes fail in our relationships.
Divorce in any age is traumatic: stirring emotions of anger, guilt, defeat and sometimes worthlessness. The human realities of divorce were as devastating in Jesus’ day as in our own. It’s painful to the parties involved and sometimes embarrassing because of the perception of failure.
Today we are far more accepting of reasons for divorce than we were even thirty years ago. We understand that relationships do break down and become what we call “irreparable.” We know of abusive situations that cause deep and abiding emotional harm and possibly physical pain. As the people of God, we cannot afford to ignore the insufferable pain and abuse of women in cultures who are beaten and killed because they disagree with men and are held captive from families and careers. Others have their genitals mutilated because they are young girls. Abuses are not an occurrence in other parts of the world only. Many women in this country are battered and even killed because they dare speak up for themselves or seek safety. Not much has changed for some women since the first century. Violence destroys all that is human and disregards the worth and dignity of men and women.
But the church is a center that provides a sanctuary for healing and reconciliation. The church can’t always prevent a divorce. But it does represent God’s hope for wholeness through grace. The church is concerned with the healing of the spirit so that a couple can move on with their individual lives, so that they can find forgiveness for themselves and each other. We also have a forgiving God who not only looks upon us with pity but with love. Jesus looks not at what we have done but who we are. All of our relationships are important–between spouses, family members, friends and neighbors. So over and over, God gives us a chance to begin anew– hopefully to learn from past mistakes and see them as an opportunity for growth.
In an old W.C. Fields movie, friends visit him in hospital and are surprised to find him reading a Bible. When they inquire about his new interest, he replies, “I’m looking for loopholes.”
In the legal life of the Pharisees and our own penchant for seeking loopholes for untenable situations, it’s understandable. But when we move from the legalistic attitudes to the spiritual realm, there are no loopholes. To begin recovering from the pain and move toward healing, we name our brokenness, confess our part in it and let go the hurt. God, from whom no secrets are hid, graciously invites us into that healing presence. Jesus the Christ, our mediator and advocate, offers us the peace that the world cannot give. It is in community of the faithful and at the Lord’s Table that we are strengthened and renewed. Thanks be to God.