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My father-in-law, who is a minister, quotes Jesus at the end of every wedding he performs: “What God has joined together, let no man tear asunder,” and he proclaims it with this mystical authority that makes you believe it. I love that line; I love the way he says it with deep sincerity, the conviction of a man who has faithfully loved one woman for 32 years. The man, who every Christmas, tells us kids and kid-in-laws how he met his Sarah, and every time he chokes back tears as he talks: he is so in love with her. I guess he’s been telling that story for thirty-two years and crying every time.
But what I find myself wondering is what about the people who don’t get thirty-two good years, maybe not even ten? We all know that not all marriages work out. We all know someone, or have been someone, for whom true love didn’t last, for whom marital vows didn’t stick, whose hearts have been broken and shattered and whose lives have been torn in two. And then on top of all that pain, they have often endured the scorn and skepticism and gossip of the church.
What about when real life crashes into our ideals? We all know the ideal for marriage: life-long commitment and ever-lasting love. We don’t need the Bible to tell us that. We have fairy tales; we have our own yearnings. We dream of happily-ever-after whether we are religious or not.
But not everyone’s dreams come true. Sometimes love disintegrates. Sometimes the person you married becomes a bully. Sometimes a startling betrayal leaves you reeling. Sometimes a dark secret slowly eats away at the bond. Sometimes the other person just leaves, whether or not you beg them to stay. For all kinds of inexhaustible reasons, marriages fail. Yet just about everyone who gets married wants it to work, wills it to work, works to make it work, and for some people it works and for some people it fails, and for those who eat failure, the church delivers them scorn for dessert.
I find myself wondering what if we showed up with casseroles of comfort, baked them a cake of acceptance topped with three heaving scoops of extra-sweet grace, instead? I mean, what would Jesus do? Show up on your doorstep the day after with scorn or with grace?
Intuitively, theologically, biblically, experientially, we know Jesus to be a dispenser of extravagant grace, but then he has to go and call remarried folks adulterers and the church has been in a muddle ever since.
We know what Jesus said, but what would Jesus do? I have never preached a sermon with three points in all my life, but today there are three things Jesus does in this text that I want to point out to you:
Number One: Jesus redirects the conversation. Let me assure you, the Pharisees did not ask Jesus about divorce because they were interested in his wisdom. They were hoping to land him in hot water, and the waters of the times were boiling: John the Baptist had just been beheaded for criticizing King Herod, who divorced his wife in order to marry his brother’s former wife.
Preaching on divorce could get you killed, so the Pharisees tested Jesus to see if his views were as extreme as cousin John’s. We can assume they were hoping Jesus would get riled up about King Herod, and then King Herod could see to Jesus’ demise and the Pharisees wouldn’t need to get involved. Only Jesus did not take the bait. He turned the tables and asked them, to which they hastily replied, “Moses permitted a certificate of divorce.” Jesus then said, “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law.” Jesus is not going to mess with the morals of celebrities and politicians; he is going to address the men for whom the laws were written, and he says these laws were written because your hearts were hard. (Who is in hot water now?)
Jesus redirects the conversation away from judging others and toward examining one’s self. Whatever this text is trying to tell us, it is not telling us how to judge King Herod or any other person for their relationship decisions. It is telling us to look at our own hearts. If you are married, you know how complex it is just to sort out your own relationship, and that it is best to never presume you could possibly understand the complexities of someone else’s.
Number Two: The Pharisees bring up the letter of the law, but Jesus addresses hearts. “Your hearts were hard,” he says when they bring up the law Moses. It is worth noting that Moses’ law only allowed men to divorce their women. A man could send his wife away simply for disliking her; a woman, by contrast, had no such allowances. She was stuck, like a piece of property.
Jesus does not care about rules for the sake of rules, and he certainly has no tolerance for rules that reinforce wrong attitudes. Jesus cares for the people behind the rule—both the men and the women—so Jesus takes us back before Moses’ laws were written, back to the beginning of creation, back to people, back to the ideal: God joins two people together and they (gradually) become truly and inseparably one. This is less of a law and more of a promise. But a hard heart can make you give up on the promise way too soon. If your heart is hard, divorce may just give you license to let your bitterness fester rather than pursue the purity oneness requires.
A hard heart is different from a wounded heart, however, and some marriages will keep wounding you if you don’t get out. It is plain silliness to think Jesus didn’t know that; he came, after all, to set the prisoners free and some marriages are prisons.
If we fast forward from Jesus’ day to the present day, our laws are much more equal—legally-speaking a woman can divorce her husband; in fact, most divorces in this country are initiated by women. But I think it is significant that if you look past the law to the heart, divorce is not caused equally by both genders, even today. Statistically, men are more often the abusers, men are far more often the source of infidelity, men are more likely to have an addiction or a workaholism that drives a wedge in the marriage. So perhaps Jesus’ words to the hard of heart are as poignant as ever: God intended that a man would leave his family and cleave only to his wife, not send/push her away whether by attitude or by infidelity or by lack of respect. Conversely, women are culturally conditioned to be more accommodating than men and thus are more likely to stay in situations were they keep getting wounded, and those women, as well as any men who suffer abuse, need to be told explicitly that Jesus wants to deliver them, not keep them in bondage. Rules are meant to protect you, never ever to harm you.
Number Three: The Pharisees want to talk policies; Jesus wants to talk to theology. It is God, after all, he reminds them, that draws you together. This, I believe, is Jesus’ most crucial point: What God has joined together, let no one tear asunder. I still believe my father-in-law in that regard, and I certainly believe Jesus. God unites us. God is the Spirit, the Energy, the Source. God is the Love that makes love possible. If we are empowered to love another human being at all, it is God. Even hard hearts are not a lost cause to the influence of God’s love.
The Spirit is in you, and believe it or not, in your spouse, and that is a pretty powerful thing. Powerful enough to catch you by surprise, to create unity where you thought none was possible, to open paths forward when you thought the way was closed, to resurrect attraction where you thought it was dead, to foster conversation where there had only been fights, to enable forgiveness where bitterness had a stronghold. It is not about trusting God that your marriage will work out because God-fearing people still get their hearts broken and their marriages torn asunder. But you can trust that God is working. Spouses might abandon you; God will not. God is always in the unfaltering business of unifying: whether God is repairing your shattered heart or your fractured relationship, God is glue, God is magnetic force, God is stitches, God is white blood cells. No matter how savage the powers that broke you in pieces, God is the Energy that makes all things whole, and God-energy is stronger than anything other thing. Divisiveness is a leech that feeds by shattering good things; God is goodness itself with the power to heal and heal again and heal again.
These are the three things Jesus does when it comes to marriage: he takes the focus entirely off judging others, he encourages you to examine the state of your heart rather than worry your head with adherence to a set a rules, and most importantly, he points you to God, the source of Love. As far as I can tell, this is what Jesus was after: If the religious law doesn’t point you to God, the law the useless. If the religious law diverts you from the way of grace, somehow justifies your bitterness, or prevents you from healing, you know for sure you’ve misinterpreted. And if you try to use religious laws to get Jesus in hot water with King Herod, well, you’re on the wrong track. He’s got better things to die for than that.
After this whole spat with the Pharisees, next thing you know, people started bringing Jesus their children. This time it was not the Pharisees who got all hot and bothered; it was the disciples. They rebuked Jesus because in that day and age children did not enjoy the place of privilege and adoration that they do today. Children didn’t deserve time on the blanket with the pastor (like we do here); children needed to wait in the background, out of the way. Children were inadequate pre-adults, waiting to grow up so they could matter. So it was not surprising that the disciples wanted to send the children away. The surprising thing was that the parents thought to bring them at all.
Apparently, Jesus’ teachings were changing families. People were noticing each other in new ways; you might say, their hard hearts were softening.
Jesus affirmed the instincts of these parents who brought their children. In fact, he told the adults to become like children, which in that day and age was like telling you to become a nobody, no status, no power, no nothing. Receive the Kingdom of God like children, Jesus encouraged, and then he reached out his hand and blessed the little tikes as if they were worthy. Jesus emphasized receiving like children, children who would literally starve if it weren’t for parents who fed them, and yet, they seldom think twice about whether the next meal will come. A baby never stops crying for fear that you can’t afford to feed him; he’s not worried about hurting your feelings or taxing your resources or asking too often.
What would it be like in your life, or in your marriage, if you, like a child, expected your needs would be met by a Heavenly Parent? That it’s really not all up to you; that there is Someone who watches over you, cares for you, and provides grace and guidance for the journey? What if we are all just a bunch of needy children, who would literally starve if it weren’t for Grace, but the blanket is wide, enough room for you (and a partner!) if you wish, and Jesus is there to bless and soften your hearts?