This Sunday's gospel has words that are likely to make us cringe. It is hard to hear them as good news! It sounds, on the face of it, that Jesus is ruling out divorce. And so many of us are divorced, or our friends and family members are. Where does that leave us?
First we need to think about the readings we have just heard. In the Hebrew Scriptures we heard about how God created man and woman to help and to care for each other. And that their relationship should be primary and permanent. This is the ideal for relationship created by God for us. And when we prepare for commitment to another person we long for the reality of this ideal. It is not likely that anyone who comes to church for marriage preparation does not hear this and intend it to be so.
But in the Gospel we hear the echoes of the same story in the context of a sparring match between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees never seem to really hear Jesus and like to accuse him of blasphemy. In this particular scrap, they are trying to catch Jesus about his knowledge of the law of Moses. They ask if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus tells them that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her. But he then goes on to say that allowing that was because of their hardness of heart. Now what does that mean?
Well, remember that in creation God gave us the ideal of man and woman in a mutually responsible and caring relationship. But in the time of Moses the status of women had dropped from that ideal to such an extent that a man was able to divorce his wife on any pretext whatsoever. She had absolutely no say in the matter. For Moses to say that a man had to write a certificate of dismissal meant that the wife's status was raised so that she was at least not regarded as a prostitute. Which is the way she would have been regarded had she just been cast off.
Now we come to Jesus. He says that Moses gave his law because of the hardness of men's hearts. They had been treating their wives as a possession which they had grown tired of and had not even cared if she was regarded as someone fit to be stoned. Moses' law raised the status of women a notch. But Jesus says that God made man and woman in the beginning of creation. And in the relationship of husband and wife, they shall leave mother and father and be joined as one flesh. Now, to be one flesh is clearly a condition of equal value for both the woman and the man. They are to be mutually responsible in caring for each other. Here the status of men and women is equally valuable and so Jesus is raising the status of women even more and telling the Pharisees that they must exceed the letter of the law.
This, of course, upholds the ideal of life-long, mutually loving relationships. And the pain that is experienced by anyone who is going through a divorce only speaks to the validity of that ideal in all of our hearts. Because we know that it is painful to divorce. We hate it when a relationship is no longer mutually loving and caring. We agonize about the hurt that will ensue from a rupture between a couple. We work to lessen the difficulty for the children caught in such a situation. Almost never have I heard of people who think nothing of getting a divorce. It hurts.
God said in creation that it is not good for a person to live alone. When one lives alone there is the chance that there is no one to listen when we are upset. Or to celebrate the small joys of our lives with us. To fix us a hot drink on a cold and wet night. We know that it is better to have someone who cares deeply. Yet, when two people are caught in a broken relationship it is painful. There is still the loneliness. There may be harsh recriminating words. There may be abusive behavior to their partner of their children. There may be abusive action toward the self. No matter what one thinks their is pain. It is real and present. There is no easy way to make thing right.
People who make a decision to divorce have to live in the pain of realizing that they have failed in living up to the ideal God desires for us or that they desired for themselves. But they also might have to live in the pain of a frustrated and deadened life. One leached of meaning and satisfaction. There is no easy solution here. None that is not painful.
We live in a world full of ambiguity. We also live a world we wish to make better. One that can fulfill our dreams. We are constantly faced with choices that are difficult to make. And choices that may have the possibility of avoiding pain, both for ourselves and for others.
Jesus does not offer us an easy world. One the has simple choices. He did not face such a world himself. He was constantly faced with the need to respond to those who were hoping to make him seem wrong or foolish. He was steadfast in his faithfulness to God and set before us a way of forgiveness and hope. He held up to us the responsibility to be loving and just. And he held it up to us by living it out for himself. He also held up for us the necessity to choose.
Throughout his public ministry he was harassed. Not only by the Pharisees but by many others as well. In the letter to the Hebrews we heard that Jesus was just like we are. That it was necessary for him to be so in order for us to be saved from the power of death. How often have we heard that Jesus only seemed to be like us, that if he was really God he had to know what was coming and his death had to be easier for him knowing that. This passage tells us, not so! He was just as we are. Facing all the vicissitudes that life has to offer us. One of the church's greatest heresies was that Jesus only seemed to be human. He was a real living human being just as we are. And he did not have an easy painless life. His life was not one without choices all along the way. His was even a life wherein he could not be any surer than we are that his decision was just the right one. He could only pray and try to remain faithful to what he knew and understood to God.
We are called by God to love him and be faithful. But not to live in an unambiguous world in which the choices are spelled out for us in the beginning and are easy to figure. For someone deciding whether to end a broken relationship the choice is never easy. But we know that God loves us and dreams a creative, meaningful life for us. And all along the way we must decide.
The letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus died that we might be saved from the power of death. Death haunted those around him as deaths sometimes haunt us. Death for us takes many forms. Physical death is just one of those forms. Death of a relationship is another. We must live trusting in God's gift of freedom to us through the life of Jesus. A life of freedom is a life that is full of responsibility, and a life that is full of choices. Let us live in response to that good gift.
In the Book of Common Prayer, in an Outline of the Faith, sometimes called the Catechism, (page 841) our human nature is described in this way:
Question: What are we by nature?
Answer: We are part of God's creation, made in the image of God.
Question: What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
Answer: It means that we are free to make choices; to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.
Holy and eternal God
give us such trust in your sure purpose
that we measure our lives
not by what we have done or failed to do,
but by our faithfulness to you.
(A New Zealand Prayer book)