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Divorce and Christ's humanity

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 he was "agin it!" And being agaist

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.

-- a life-long pledge to mutual loyalty and support, the valuing of continuity and long term caring, commitment to marriage as a child-bearing institution. Those old values now stand for little, particularly for the young.

Another expression of the same attitude is the report by social researcher Hugh Mackay in The Australian a few weeks ago when he described how a group of young women in his research had scorned marriage and insisted on an absolute right to do as they pleased. They would have nothing to do with any rules of morality.

The contrasting and stupidly competing traps of legalistic moralism and libertarian self-seeking are often seen as the only alternatives, especially in the popular media, although sophisticated social scientists like Hugh Mackay, and commentators like Bettina Arndt, who is a good professional psychologist whose fame dates from her time as a sex therapist in the days of the sexual revolution, or Don Edgar, who was for many years Director of the Institute of Family Studies, know that there is value in looking for other alternatives. The modern liberal permissive approach is still the most popular, but it tends to produce a so called conservative or fundamentalist reaction. Ironically, those who think of themselves as progressive are not likely to be showing the way of the future, but more likely to be setting up conditions which will ensure that the next generation behave quite differently.

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 that seems to be typical of the modern era. 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 thought it was irrelevant to the emphasis he wanted to make about 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:

There were two schools of thought. There was the school of Shammai. They interpreted the matter with utter strictness. A matter of uncleanness was adultery and adultery alone. Let a woman be as be as bad as Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, unless she was guilty of adultery there could be no divorce. The other school was the school of Hillel. They interpreted that phrase as widely as possible. They said that it could mean if a wife spoiled a dish of food, if she spun in the streets, if she talked to a strange man, if she spoke disrespectfully of her husband's relations in his hearing, if she was a brawling woman, which was defined as a woman whose voice could be heard in the next house. Rabbi Akiba even went the length of saying that it meant if a man found a woman who was fairer in his eyes than his wife was. Human nature being what it is, it was the laxer view which prevailed. The result was that divorce for the most trivial reasons, or no reason at all, was tragically common. To such a pass had things come that, in the time of Jesus, women hesitated to marry at all because marriage was so insecure.

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. Bettina Arndt ends her piece on adultery and the question of divorce, faced in her true modern morality tale by a modern couple, their children and a pregnant mistress, with these words about the dilemma of a betrayed wife who felt she had a right to protect her children:

It was her husband who gave away that right. But perhaps it was also our society's new values -- the championing of individual rights to pleasure and self-fulfillment and women's rights to bear children outside of marriage, to choose their own path. That's what led to the tragedy of these two women, set to fight tooth and nail for their children and against each other, with pain the only possible outcome.

As I quoted from Don Edgar in my sermon on the Holy Family (God's family and ours, 29 December 1996) last Christmas,

We cannot return to some old-fashioned, nostalgic picture-postcard community. But we can restore some sense of common good. In fact, we are not just free to choose, and it is a lie to say we are. The failure of the liberal approach to freedom leaves "the naked public square", and fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread.

History never quite repeats itself. We do face new challenges and some lasting benefits may well come out of the pain that is widely experienced in our time of social dislocation, especially in regard to improvement in the status and role of women. You will note that Jesus struck a blow for women when he refused to accept the easy interpretation of the law that allowed men to do as they pleased. 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 nearly two hundred years ago when family life was greatly disturbed by the early effects of the industrial revolution which was then beginning in the North of England 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.

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 but probably not Alexander Mackenzie, a soldier in the 73rd regiment, who had arrived with governor Macquarie at the end of 1809. It is worth noting that one of the instructions the British Government had given Macquarie was "to encourage marriage" and Ann's life illustrates some of the reason why. 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 writing twice to Ann in advance, but the next thing we know is that she had gone to Newcastle where she had another child by a convict named Wells, so Alexander went off to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) to take up a grant of land on his own 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, 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, 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 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 provided 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. There is 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. We can only make a new start if we truly repent. That is more than just saying we are sorry; it means that we change our ways, turning away from an old way of life, and 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.

[David Beswick, Templestowe Uniting Church]

See also sermons One Flesh, 14 July 1996; God's family and ours, 29 December 1996; Loyalty in the body: Sex and faith, 19 January 1997; and the brief sermon for a marriage service and the resolutions of the Assembly 1997 on Marriage and Divorce which are attached.

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National Assembly Resolutions on Marriage and Divorce

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


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;

the couple affirm their trust in each other and in God;

the church affirms the sanctity of marriage and nurtures those who pledge themselves to each other in marriage and calls upon all people to support, uphold and nurture those who pledge themselves to each other in marriage;

where sexual union takes place the partners seek to express mutual delight, pleasure and tenderness, thus strengthening the union of their lives together;

in marriage, children may be born and are to be brought up in love and security, thus providing a firm foundation for society.

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.


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 the 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 so 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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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.