Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 27 Year B -- | DB Home | RCL Resources index |

Divorce and Christ's humanity

[See also sermons One Flesh, God's family and ours, and Loyalty in the body: Sex and faith, and the resolutions of the Uniting Church National Assembly 1997 on Marriage and Divorce and a brief sermon for a marriage service and in the Appendix.]

As we approach the Lord's Table to today we should be coming in a spirit of thanksgiving, of thanksgiving for the life of Christ that we share, for that is the essence of the Eucharist, that is what it means -- Thanksgiving. We set apart the bread and wine for their holy purpose in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving which is the high point of Christian worship. At the centre of our preparation to commune with God in Christ there is the Service of the Word with a reading from the Gospel, and "gospel" means "good news", the basis of our thanksgiving. But the Gospel can sometimes pose quite a challenge. The good news about Jesus includes some things he did and taught which are not always obvious reasons to rejoice. We are so challenged today. Where is the cause for rejoicing and thanksgiving in what Jesus said about divorce? You might say in simple terms that he was "agin it!" And being "against" something was not so much the tone of his comment as a later interpretation might make out. His point of concern was to be positive about marriage.

Surely we cannot come to meet our Lord with joyful hearts if we are thinking too much about the "do"s and "don't"s of human failings, knowing that divorce has brought distress to many families in recent years when nearly half the marriages in Australia are ending in divorce. Yet there it is, clearly confronting us in the gospel reading for today: Jesus spoke of divorce as being contrary to God's intention in making us men and women. I think, there is good news in what Jesus said about marriage and divorce, but we will miss the reason for thanksgiving if we do either of the two things which are most common in the ways that people deal with scripture of this kind.

1. One way is to reduce what Jesus said to another set of rules or moral laws to replace or perhaps to strengthen the old law of Moses. From that point of view, it is a matter of getting the moral law right and keeping it, but Jesus was doing something much more hopeful than that, which I will try to explain.

2. The other kind of mistake is to dismiss any idea of moral law which can guide us, whether from ancient writings or anywhere else , and claim the freedom of people to decide these things for themselves, limited perhaps only by some very general principles of love and tolerance which can usually be made to serve one's own interests.

The contrasting traps of legalistic moralism and libertarian self-seeking are often seen as the only alternatives. The modern liberal permissive approach is still the most popular at least in public statements, but it tends to produce a so called conservative or fundamentalist reaction.

The two contrasting attitudes of moral legalism and liberal self-serving are associated for Christians with a tendency to push people into a choice between fundamentalist and liberal ways of interpreting scripture. Both are wrong. Both take the joy out of life: at one extreme because moralism concentrates too much on human weakness and at the other because liberalism denies the possibility of sin which is a reality. It is a nasty choice. But strangely, there was something very similar going on among the Jews at the time when Jesus answered the question of the pharisees:

At that time there was a dispute among the Jews about divorce. There were only very rare circumstances in which a woman could seek a divorce, but a man could divorce his wife by his own action, sending her away with a certificate which allowed her to marry someone, but he had to have sufficient reason and there was disagreement about the interpretation of the law of Moses as it is found in Deuteronomy 24:

It was clearly this scripture, already ancient, that Jesus had in mind when he responded to his hostile questioners with another question:

By having them quote the law of Moses he avoided entering directly into the current controversy, presumably because the question was to trap him into saying something that would give the authorities reason to arrest him, and perhaps more importantly because he wanted to emphasise what God intended in the way he made men and women for each other But it is worth taking notice of the kind of dispute that was in the thinking of those who were listening in to the exchange between Jesus and the pharisees at that time. A dispute between what might then have been thought of as liberals and conservatives, it is not very different from what has been going around us. It is well described by William Barclay in his commentary on The Gospel of Mark, concerning the interpretation of the phrase a matter of uncleanness or something objectionable in Deuteronomy 24 as the approved reason for a divorce:

And did you think that was a modern problem? No, it is the sort of thing that has happened at various times in human history, though no society can survive for very long living in that way. When Jesus spoke as he did he was speaking of a burning issue, just as it is today when insightful observers are beginning to challenge current values.

History never quite repeats itself. But lest it should appear that I am only drawing a convenient parallel between what was happening in the time of Jesus and the problems we have today, let me tell you another story. It comes from my own family history, concerning the time two hundred years ago when family life was greatly disturbed by the early effects of the industrial revolution as factory work took people, especially young people, out of the home and exposed them to risks they had not known before as the economy of cottage industries was destroyed. The north of England where it began was greatly changed, London was a disorganized society, and so was Sydney in the early days of transportation. When Governor Macquarie arrived at the end of 1809 one of his instructions from the British Governemnt was to "encourage marriage" - because there was not much of it in NSW at the time.

One of my great great great grandmothers, Ann Clark, was convicted by the Borough Court of Liverpool on 3 April 1809 of stealing two pieces of printed cloth and sentenced to be transported for seven years, which was effectively a sentence to live the rest of her life in banishment, because few ever returned. She was aged seventeen at the time. After a year in goal and about six months at sea she arrived at Sydney in September 1810. She had child either a few months later or the following years (records are not clear) by an unknown father, perhaps Alexander Mackenzie, a soldier in the 73rd regiment, of the famous Black Watch, who had arrived with Governor Macquarie. Whether or not Sandy Mackenzie was the father of her first child, he was of her second, my great great grandmother, Mary Mackenzie, who was born in Sydney in 1813. They were apparently living together, but he was posted to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) within a year or so. When he completed his term of service he was discharged in Ceylon at the end of the following year and chose to return to Sydney rather than go back to Britain. He write twice to Ann in advance, but instead of joining her when he arrived in Sydney he found that she had commited another offence and had been sent to Newcastle where she had another child by a convict named Wells. So Alexander went off to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) alone to take up a grant of land in 1816. A couple of years later, Sandy wrote to Ann again and she went immediately to join him in Launceston with her three children, and already pregnant with another child by James Wells, though she might not have known it at the time. Believe it or not, a few months before that Sandy had married a 14 year old girl in Launceston, but she soon back to her mother, and the girl from Liverpool settled down at last to live with her Scottish soldier. The other child by James Wells was born in 1819. The children all were given the Mackenzie surname in the records of that time, but by the end of the year Alexander Mackenzie was dead: his burial is the first entry in the register of St. John's Church in Launceston. Tragedy? A woman left alone with four children, Ann soon found another partner, Thomas Brennan, and this time she married him, just six months after Sandy's death. With him she had three more children and they stayed together until she died "as the result of an accident by fire" twenty years later.

I don't know what you make of a life like that. She was not as licentious as some of the leading members of society in London in those days of the corrupt court of George IV and the society he kept as Prince Regent, when there were many times more prostitutes in London than there are in Melbourne today. To some degree Ann was a victim of circumstances, but she also reflected the values of her time and she exercised a good deal of free choice. You could certainly find many personal stories in Australia today which, apart from the number of children, would not be very different. Similar things have happened at other times of rapid social change, as in the Restoration period after 1660 when people reacted against Puritan restrictions in the disorder following the English Civil War. The point is that people who imagine that the ways of personal freedom, favoured by those who put little store by loyalty in relationships, are somehow more progressive, different from anything in the past and show the way of the future, are simply wrong. It is an old old story, many times repeated in our history, particularly in times of social disruption and rapid change. But people do settle down again to what the general experience of humanity has shown is a better way to live. The generations which followed our convict ancestors and their children mostly made stable marriages for next century and a half.

The time of Jesus was one of those times of turmoil when it was a real question whether the old rules applied anymore. Some people thought they could get away with a completely different way of living. One who thought that way was Herodias, the wife of King Herod Antipas. She had been married to his brother but left him for Antipas. John the Baptist like the prophets of old had spoken out against the immorality of the royal court, and condemned Herod for taking his brother's wife. Not only was it a notorious case of adultery, but she, Herodias, had presumed with the encouragement of the King to divorce her husband, something unheard of amongst the Jews. Unrepentant, she demanded the head of John of the Baptist. Here was another trap in the hostile question put to Jesus. It was well known that he was a friend of John. Would he say something similar upholding the old law and thus angering the King, or would he dare to depart from the teaching of Moses and give the religious authorities cause for action against him? You see why the question was hostile. (What Jesus said later to his disciples in private, especially Mark 10:12, could have been taken to refer to Herodias as it would have little if any application otherwise among the Jews.) What was he to do? After turning the question about the law back on those who asked it, he lifted the debate to a new level by bringing forward an idea that was both very old and very new: he went back beyond Moses to creation, to something all people, not only the Jews, had in common, while at the same time looking forward to the perfection of humankind as children of God.

See how he referred not to human weakness which might be accommodated by some sort of compromise in the law but to hard-heartedness. As I read it, he was saying that Moses reflecting the loving kindness, the compassion of God, allowed them a way of overcoming human hardness of heart, by giving the woman a right of remarriage. Without that right she would be a virtual slave of her husband or, without him, an outcast from society. The way that Moses prescribed made it possible to build a new life within the normal processes of her community after failure. Was Jesus then going to be more hard-hearted and impose an even more strict demand? Surely not! No, he was not giving a new more restrictive law that would cause people to suffer even more, but rather he was giving a higher meaning to the loving kindness of God.

A greater kindness of God than the concession Moses allowed is that he has made us male and female for each other, and if we would fulfil our potential to become his children we should recognize and honour that gift by living faithfully. That is what we should aim for. It was a matter of the aim and purpose of our relationships, what we should strive for, rather than merely having rules about what we should avoid. He offered no excuse or justification for accepting a lesser goal. The fact that it is possible to achieve that goal is cause for thanksgiving.

If it should be that we ever need to reconstruct our lives that possibility of making a new start is also something for which we should give thanks, thanks still for the possibility of fulfilment in the kind of life God has called us into. Instead of trying to please ourselves we seek to fulfil our potential in the way that God has made us, truthfully, honestly, compassionately and faithfully, reflecting his faithfulness to us, his compassion and the universal truth about the love of God in the way we relate to one another. So may it be. In the name of Christ. Amen.

1. 1 Strong's Dictionary "OBJECTIONABLE" [AV = Uncleanness]: Hebrew 6172. 'ervah, er-vaw'; from H6168; nudity, lit. (espec. the pudenda) or fig. (disgrace, blemish):--nakedness, shame, unclean (-ness). Thus indicating adultery in this context.

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APPENDIX I

National Assembly Resolutions on Marriage and Divorce

At its triennial meeting in Perth in July 1997 the National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia adopted the following statement on marriage and divorce:-

Marriage

Marriage for Christians is the freely given consent and commitment in public and before God of a man and a woman to live together for life. It is intended to be the mutually faithful lifelong union of a woman and man expressed in every part of their life together.

In marriage the man and the woman seek to encourage and enrich each other through love and companionship.

In the marriage service the woman and man make a public covenant with each other and with God, in the company of family and friends;

Separation, Divorce and Re-marriage:

An inability to sustain the marriage relationship breaks the commitment to be together for life and may be painful for the couple, the children in their care, as well as for parents, friends and the Church community.

In cases of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage, the Church acknowledges that divorce may be the only creative and life giving direction to take.

The Church has a responsibility to:

(a) care for people, including children, through the trauma of the ending of a marriage;

(b) help people where appropriate to grieve, repent, grow in self-understanding, receive affirmation, grace and forgiveness;

(c) support them as they hear God's call for new life.

The grace and healing of God are available to people who are divorced, which may free them to marry again.

APPENDIX II

Sermon at a marriage service

When Jesus was asked about marriage he replied by referring to how from the beginning of creation God made humankind male and female. We use those words of his later in the service today to proclaim this marriage. The difference between male and female is the basis of marriage. It is a gift of God for a purpose; and in human life that purpose is primarily to form a covenant relationship.

Another way to put it is to say that in human life sex is not only for reproduction. God intends a lasting relationship to be formed in love and trust. It is given for mutual support and encouragement by the partners of one another in every part of their lives, as we read at the beginning of the service. The partners are intended to delight in each other and in their physical union to strengthen the union of their lives. In this way God has laid a foundation in the way he has made us for women and men to live in communion with each other and with him.

This gift of sharing each other's lives in the covenant of marriage is one of the ways, indeed, in which God makes himself known to us his creatures who have the potential to become children of God. Learning the value of love and trust in this relationship that he has given us, we learn about the kind of relationship God desires that we should have with him. That purpose of marriage is one of the ways God has provided for the fulfilment of human life. God takes the ordinary stuff of human relationships and make them a means of grace to achieve his purpose in creation.

In this communion of a man and woman it is the purpose of God also that children may be born and brought up in security and love and through their experience of that love in a family they too might learn of God's love for them.

We pray then that God will so bless the marriage we celebrate today that their whole lives may be enriched with the love of God, and for that purpose we who are their friends and family will continue to love and support them in the promises they make to each other.

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