Sunday, October 3, 2021
I was reading an article recently that research indicates a person’s belief in “soul mates” or that there is just one person out there in the whole world who is right for them is directly connected to a higher breakup rate. In other words, the more idealistic we are about a relationship, the more likely we are to be disappointed and end the relationship. I was not surprised by this finding, partly because I believe we do not talk helpfully very often at all about romantic relationships in church. “Don’t get divorced” without painting any picture of what a healthy marriage can look like sets up an unfair expectation. Partly, I was not surprised because in the work I have done with couples in premarital counseling, we talk about something called “idealistic distortion.” When we are “in love” with someone, when a relationship is new, it is a human tendency to overlook that person’s faults and think in all or nothing terms: “I will ALWAYS feel as attracted to my spouse as I do today.” I will NEVER feel about another man or woman the same as I feel about my partner.” And so on. Part of my job is to counsel couples to realize marriage is a long-term commitment that takes work, and WILL include disappointment and recognizing another person’s full humanity, and that no matter how perfect our partner seems now, we indeed, none of us, are perfect. We should expect imperfection in our partner, no matter how great and compatible they are with us. Commitment despite the challenges and healthy communication are key to building a lasting relationship.
In some ways, perhaps, when we hear Jesus’ words about divorce in today’s gospel, we are also tempted to idealistic distortion: no one should EVER get divorced! I will NEVER get divorced! But we know the reality: 50% of marriages end in divorce, and these statistics are the same whether you are Christian, Jewish, atheist, agnostic, and so on. People got divorced in Jesus’ time. People, GOOD people, get divorced still today. A failed marriage is a human tragedy for everyone involved! The emotional pain and stress around a divorce is as severe as grief after a death of a loved one. Divorce is a reminder of our human brokenness. But unfortunately, this passage from Mark has been misused to keep people in abusive, unhealthy marriages for much longer than they should be, to exclude divorced people from sacred rites in the church, to stigmatize and shame people who have gone through a divorce and their family members – siblings, parents, children, and so on.
So what is Jesus trying to tell us, really, other than that divorce is not God’s intention for human relationships? We need to unpack some of the background of what is going on here in the gospel of Mark for us to better understand. A few weeks ago, Jesus brought children into a conversation with the disciples who were arguing about being the greatest as a visible sign of God’s love for the lowliest and least – children were considered property and not valued like they are today. Jesus does the same thing today with children AND women in his firm words to men about divorce. Perhaps you are already aware that women, too, were considered property and had far fewer rights than men. One of the “culture wars” of Jesus’ time was arguing about this very issue, whether women could also divorce a man as easily and for whatever reason like a man could, because unmarried women were extremely vulnerable – they couldn’t own property, find employment and could easily be left homeless to beg on the street or worse if divorced. Jesus is trying to protect women and children in his answer to the Pharisees, because divorce could mean deadly consequences for them.
It’s also important for us to understand that marriage as an equal union between two people who love each other without any input from outside the couple is a relatively recent, Western concept of marriage. Think how much our definition of marriage has changed just in the past few decades! Couples did not get married because they loved each other in Jesus’ time. This doesn’t mean that there weren’t good marriages where people loved each other, but we need to try to wrap our heads around how different views of gender roles and expectations for a marriage relationship were in Jesus’ time, because this impacts the meaning of what Jesus is telling us about divorce. Marriage was primarily a legal contract; an agreement between families. Here is what I believe Jesus is trying to tell us about marriage: Marriage is not just a legal contract. Some people still today certainly get married without expecting it to last – hence, prenups. Divorce is not an easy way out because we’re bored or frustrated or going through a rough patch. Jesus is also telling us that marriage is also not a romantic happy ending based only on physical attraction and infatuation like we see too often in the movies and on TV shows. It’s important for us to tell our children and grandchildren that the actors we love in those romantic comedies are more likely to be divorced than the average population! Pop culture does not give the best advice for building a healthy, lifelong, mutually loving relationship. There’s a reason there’s not that many movies about people who are already married. Day to day married life can be quite boring!
When I was in confirmation, we had a project to interview an older member of our congregation about their marriage. I interviewed Anna Jensen, who was in her nineties at the time. Her husband had recently passed away. I still remember her advice. She had been happily married to her husband for decades, but she said of course they argued, no one can get along all of the time. She told me, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Work it out so you can start over again in the morning.” I barely remember anything about confirmation class, I confess, but I still remember that conversation, and take Anna’s advice in my own marriage! I wonder, if we had the courage to have more honest conversations like this, those of us who have been married, with our kids and grandkids and confirmation students and so on, if it might be a starting point to encouraging healthier, more realistic loving relationships? Marriage is not just a legal contract, and it’s not just about romantic love. God’s love sustains us when human love fails. And we can keep striving to build healthy marriages because God created loving, faithful relationships as a gift for us to enjoy.
Let’s remember why Jesus is talking about divorce in the first place: the Pharisees are trying to test Jesus and trip him up. They’re not thinking about real people and how the pain of divorce affects them, this is a theoretical legal exercise to prove they’re smarter than Jesus. Jesus confronts them for their hardness of heart. Hardness of heart is as great a sin as divorce or adultery. If we happen to be blessed with a happy marriage, we don’t need to put ourselves on a high horse to look down our noses at people who are single or divorced. Let’s remember, Jesus himself never got married. Isn’t it interesting that right after this difficult discussion of divorce Jesus turns to the children again?! In their hardness of hearts, the disciples want to stop them, but Jesus tells us the kingdom of God belongs to such children. We enter the kingdom of God not through some striving to follow God’s laws perfectly like the legalism of the Pharisees. We enter the kingdom of God when we humble ourselves like little children, recognizing that we are all of us sinners, no matter what our relationship status, and fully dependent on God as a child is dependent upon her parents. And we reject hardness of heart when we make a way for all sinners, divorced, single, happily married, and so on, to be welcomed by Jesus with open arms. May Jesus bless us as he blesses the children in our striving to love each other and God faithfully and well. Amen.