any of you are familiar with the TV show, The Office. It’s a funny show, but I never watched it when it was on the air, so I enjoy watching old episodes from time to time. Matt, however, hates it when I have it on the TV and within a few minutes of hearing the opening credits, will find an excuse to go do something else around the house. Why? It’s too awkward, he says, and leaves him feeling anxious and stressed out. If he can’t convince me to change to some other show, then it he finds it easier to just leave.
Unfortunately, the church, especially the mainline protestant traditions, tends to do the same thing when it is confronted by the issue of divorce. We seem to get stuck between two extreme responses. On one side is a strict condemnation of divorce, no matter how damaging or abusive the relationship may be. On the other side is the extreme of being completely permissive of divorce, as though we can casually toss aside the vows made in marriage. Neither option seems the correct response so, often to the detriment of those going through the divorce, we choose no response instead, because the whole issue makes us feel awkward and we would rather not talk about it.
This is why scripture readings, such as the gospel reading today, make us feel so uncomfortable. Jesus forces us to confront the topic that we are so good at avoiding! In order to deal with it, we need to unpack it a bit, because there are actually several things at play here.
First, marriage and divorce meant something very different in Jesus’ day than they do today, and they came with a whole set of social issues and issues of justice that would be foreign to us in contemporary society. When we read about marriage in the Bible, we tend to imagine our modern version of the institution, but we could have a whole formation series on the variety of the practice of marriage in the Bible.
Second, this passage is a display of one-upmanship between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees, who were very knowledgeable of the Mosaic laws, try to trick Jesus with a scriptural question. How do we know it was a trick? Because the Pharisees already knew the answer to the question they were asking. What they were most likely trying to do was trap Jesus into a debate as to the circumstances that divorce could be justified. So, in response, Jesus quotes to these experts in Mosaic Law from the first book of Moses, Genesis, and turns the question on them. By asking the question, Jesus tells them that their hearts are already hardened against what God intended.
Third, in this passage, Jesus is making a claim to a much older authority than the laws that grow over time to order society. By quoting from the creation story, Jesus draws upon the authority of what things were meant to be. Jesus sets up the distinction between the way things are in the world and what God has intended for us, what God’s vision is for creation.
There’s a lot going on here in this short excerpt from scripture! But what is the underlying issue? To get to that, I think it is helpful to look at the story from Genesis that Jesus is quoting, the story of the creation of Adam and Eve. It is a rather humorous and whimsical story, although those qualities are lost in the serious language of our English translations, so if you will indulge me, I’ll provide a paraphrased version:
“God said, ‘It’s not good that this human is alone. I know, I will make a companion!’ So, God set about making all manner of creatures in every shape and size, presenting each in turn to the first human (explain first human). God presented to the first human a bird, with beautiful feathers, but the first human said, ‘no, that’s not it’ with a shake of its head. God went back to the dirt and soon returned with a great elephant, but the first human, though impressed, still said, ‘no, that’s not it either.’ So it went that God formed every creature that is, presenting each in turn to the first human—cows and rabbits, dogs and spiders, sheep and cats—but each in turn was rejected by the first human, who simply said, ‘no, that’s not right either.’ God was stumped, and the first human was a bit dejected, until God jumped up and yelled, ‘Aha! I know what to do!’ Grabbing the first human on either side, God began to pull. At first nothing happened, but God pulled even harder. Then, all of a sudden, there was a loud ‘pop’ and the first human became two, Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve smiled and Adam said to God, ‘Finally, you got it right!’ God smiled and said, ‘Yes, this is good.’ And so it is that these two that were once one become one again from time to time.”
The underlying issue in this story, the great truth it contains, is that we are meant to be in relationship. As God observes, it is not good if we exist in isolation. We were created to be in relationship, whether that relationship means marriage, or a close friendship, or even the relationship of a community such as this. The Pharisees come to Jesus with questions about how to get out of relationship, and Jesus responds by saying, “but God meant for us to be in relationship!”
Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees challenges us to examine how we value our relationship. Do we treat relationships as contracts that can be entered and broken at will, like a piece of paper tossed aside when it no longer suits you? Do we treat relationships simply as means for getting what we want, whether it is for financial, social, or sexual gain? Or do we value our relationships greatly, as God-given gifts, whether they are the relationships that bind together an entire community, the relationship of old friends, or the committed relationships such as we find in marriage?
Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees is also a call to us as a church community. From the letters of Paul, we know that from the very beginning Christian communities struggled with how to be in right relationship with each other. That challenge has continued for two millennia, and part of the work we are called to today as a community is to do the work of staying in right relationship with each other.
We are also called as the church to support the relationships in our midst, whether they are old friendships or committed relationships. That means celebrating when there is cause for celebration, shepherding relationships so that they may mature and grow, and seeking reconciliation in relationships where there is conflict.
What of divorce or the breaking off of relationships? It is sometimes necessary, but it is always sad and traumatic for those involved. We are called as the church, not to turn away from those in broken relationships because it makes us uncomfortable, but to be in right relationship with both sides, to hold them both in love and support.
For Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees is ultimately a reminder to us all that those who surround us in our lives are all gifts from God, because God saw that it was good that we not be alone, and that we are to be good stewards of those gifts, for they have been entrusted to our care.