What did Moses command?

April 3, 2103

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Mark 10:1-12.

He set out from there and went into the district of Judea [and] across the Jordan. Again crowds gathered around him and, as was his custom, he again taught them. The Pharisees approached and asked, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” They were testing him. He said to them in reply, “What did Moses command you?” They replied, “Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.” But Jesus told them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife], and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” In the house the disciples again questioned him about this. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

I guess our hearts are still hardened! Jesus leaves no doubt that God intends marriage to be permanent, the union of two into one. This is probably one of the very hardest teachings of Jesus for us to accept, because most of us have experienced divorce ourselves or been touched by it among family and friends. We all have heard the statistics about the divorce rate in this country and elsewhere in the world. The incidence certainly isn’t declining. Even the Church allows for divorce, only it uses the term annulment, determining that the marriage was invalid for any number of reasons.

Jesus recalled for the Pharisees and the crowd of listeners the intent of God’s original creation — a state of harmony among all people and creatures. As Jesus talked about the imminent kingdom of God, he also invoked harmony: love one another as I have loved you. He was consistent in this regard. God intended us to mirror His love for us in our love for our spouses and others. Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees was that divorce was lawful only as a concession to our human weakness, our human inability to love one another even those to whom we have been joined as one flesh, the impermanence of our promises, and the fleeting, shifting emotions we let rule us.

The Bible often compares God’s love for us to that of two lovers, enraptured and enwrapped. The ultimate human experience of intimacy. Divorce creates separation just as sin opens separation between us and God. There is room and opportunity for reconciliation in both circumstances, but too often the hardness of our hearts stands in the way. According to Tyler Okimoto, one of the authors of a recent study on apologizing, “When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered. That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth.” Refusing to admit our mistakes, the hurts we have caused another, can make us feel more in power and in control.

That’s just what Jesus was trying to get his disciples and followers to understand. When we strive for power and control we keep the kingdom of God at bay. God’s kingdom is all about humility and service, about placing others before ourselves. We probably can best practice that in marriage; it’s the supreme test at times! I think that’s why Jesus was so explicit and hard fast about this issue of divorce.

The times that I have thought about divorce and even threatened divorce were times when I wasn’t getting my way or getting my needs met. It was all about me. My heart grew harder and harder, colder and colder. It was only when I was finally able to overrule my feelings and tell Cindy that I was sorry that reconciliation was possible, a reunification of two into one. Sometimes it only took hours or days, but sometimes it took years. Typically during those times my relationship with God was also distant, tense, unreconciled. It’s impossible to be in intimate relationship with God if I’m trying to separate myself from my wife. Intimacy with one another and with God is the hallmark of the kingdom of God. That’s why the issue was so important to Jesus.

It’s easy to get muddled about this. There can be all kinds of justifications for divorce: adultery, dishonesty, alcoholism, drug addiction, abuse, and the list goes on. I sure don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong in situations like those. It seems clear, though, that if the decision to divorce is made with a hard heart, full of anger and resentment, focused only on irreconcilable differences, that the Holy Spirit is not a part of it. I can’t bring myself to believe, though, that God approves a situation in which one or both partners despite honest efforts at reconciliation and reunification are unable to love themselves, love each other, or love God. That’s not the kingdom of God.

We are human; we are weak and frail. We regularly break God’s commandments. When we don’t live up to our promises, we can still ask for forgiveness and it will be given. Above all else, Jesus assures us of God’s everlasting, unconditional love. That always trumps everything else.



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