Tuesday, October 06, 2009


One day, a long time ago in a land far, far away, some Pharisees and religious scholars set out to trap Jesus in his own words. Jesus escaped their trap. But preachers have been falling into their snare ever since.

Marriage in 1st Century Palestine was no laughing matter. John the Baptist went to the gallows railing against Herod because Herod had married the woman who divorced his brother. John the Baptist could not let Herod get away with breaking a rule that no other Jew in 1st century Palestine could get away with unless they had money and power.

There were also two main schools of rabbinic thought about divorce in those days, one lenient and one severe.

This was the context of the "test" that was put before Jesus. They wanted to trap Jesus in his own words. They wanted to find out when he would permit divorce, his view of the rules, how harsh or lenient he would be, and—if they were lucky—get him to say out loud what he thought of Herod's scandalous marriage. They knew that whatever he said, they'd be able to criticize him for it.

This was not the first time they set out to trap Jesus in his own words. And while Jesus was able to avoid their net, their trap has been catching up preachers (like me) and ordinary Christians ever since.

They asked Jesus about money: is it lawful to pay the occupying and heathen Roman government their taxes? And we preachers have been scratching our heads about money ever since.

They asked Jesus about eating or healing on the Sabbath, and we preachers have been hung up on rules on food and work and rest ever since.

Today they ask Jesus about divorce. And ever since they tried to trap Jesus in his words back then, Christian preachers have been falling into that very same bear trap for the next two millennia.

Unlike the rest of us, Jesus would not get hooked into a question about when it is allowable to escape a marriage. Instead, Jesus answered a different question: what is marriage—what are these special, intimate relationships—for in the first place?

Let me gently but firmly put aside some of the ways that preachers and the Church have fallen into the trap they set for Jesus.

Remember that there is no single, uniform teaching in the Bible concerning the permissibility of divorce.

  • Moses says that you can divorce a wife (Deuteronomy 24:1)
  • Paul says that divorce is permitted in some instances -- when an unbelieving partner requests it (1 Corinthians 7:15).
  • Jesus says that you can't separate what has become one (Mark 10:8-9)
  • In Ezra, it is the sign of a good husband to divorce his foreign (unbelieving) wife (Ezra 10:2-3, 44).
  • On the other hand, Paul says that it is the sign of a good spouse not to divorce his or her unbelieving mate (1 Corinthians 7:12-13).
  • And don't forget Joseph, a "righteous man" who felt that it was his duty to divorce Mary as quietly as possible(because he assumed she had been unfaithful to him) (Matthew 1:19).

It is important to remember that the Bible is in motion on this subject. Also bear in mind that the Church had no formal marriage rite until the middle ages, and at first it was reserved for those with land and means.

Eventually, we came to a point where we tried to enforce the impossible by doing the ridiculous. Here is the rule that we came to: we decided that God said that every person was entitled to only one marriage per person per lifetime. When relationships broke down and divorce happens, we in the Church have had to find ways to accommodate that reality while still holding on to that rule. And so we'd look into the past to find some moral defect, some reason that allowed us to say (sometimes contrary to all outward evidence) that what was apparently a marriage was not really a marriage at all.

Here is the truth. People make promises and sometimes they just don't work out. So we try again.

Here is another truth: the church has often beat up on people who have not met our ideal.

The Episcopal Church requires pre-marital preparation for everyone seeking marriage or the blessing of a civil marriage in our church. We will be taking at least three, if not six, years to think study and pray over how to bless same sex unions precisely because we take marriage seriously. We want marriages to be healthy and to last and grow. We know that when everything works, we see something of the mystery of God and the Church reflected in it. And we also know that not every marriage is healthy, not every marriage works and that faithful people divorce and often, against all past experience, re-marry, seeking after what God has in mind for us. We want people who do experience divorce to find healing and hope.

The Episcopal Church teaches that the purposes of marriage are for mutual joy, for help and comfort given to each other in good and bad times and, if it is God's will, for having children and raising them in the Christian life. The question is how we can best live into the purposes for which God created marriage—and everything else.

Because the Bible, like the cultures it came out of, evolved on marriage Jesus reminds us to step away from rules and exception dealing with how to escape marriage and focus instead on what marriage is for.

Jesus holds out an impossible ideal to drive home the point that God wants something more for us in our relationships.

When Jesus is asked about the Roman money, he changes the question from taxes to how we use our wealth, our stuff, and our time for God. When we render to God what is God's, he is saying that we must live as if everything we have belongs to God.

When Jesus is asked about whether it is okay to eat or heal on the Sabbath, Jesus turns around and says that the law is made for man; man is not made for the law.

This is what we see at work here today: When Jesus is asked about divorce; he focuses on the purposes of marriage and says what God has made something that is more than what humans can make or break. Marriages then were based on family ties, honor and property. Jesus says that God wants more for us than to treat each other as property.

We preachers and the church as a whole has been tripped up by the trap laid for Jesus, because sometimes (okay, lots of times) we forget the main question. The question is not how we get out of stuff: whether it is paying taxes, working or our relationships.

The most important thing is this: that we see God at work in all that we are, all that we have been given, and all that we do.

If everything we have is from God, then strive to do God's work with what we have.

If all our time and all our skill and talent is from God, then strive to make all our time God's time and strive to make a difference in God's world.

If our relationships reflect God and show off God's presence among us, then seek God's face in the people God has given to us and pray for the grace to be the face Christ to those who seek him.

When we see God blessing and transforming our relationships in our homes—however they are constituted—in our friendships, and in our communities, then we see that God is building something that no one on earth can put asunder.

Jesus is doing what Lily Tomlin once joked, "If love is the answer, could you please re-phrase the question?"

It is to re-phrase the question that Jesus brings the children into the equation after talking about divorce and God's purpose for marriage. We have a choice: we can try to figure out a spiritual protocol for every possible contingency. Or we can enter the kingdom as little children.

We can say, for example, that the goal is "One marriage per person per lifetime" and then come up with exceptions and contingencies for every possible thing that can happen in life—good and bad—to make the rule look good. Or we can allow Christ's redemptive love to not only transform our relationships when they go right and heal us when they go wrong.

The Episcopal Church gave up the annulment game at least 40 years ago because we gradually came to the realization that marriage was made for people; not people for marriage.

We can try to look perfect, or we can come to God as little children. We can choose to come with openness, trust, playfulness, and wonder. We can come to God in Christ not knowing anything except that we love and need love, and that we nurture and we need nurture. We can come wanting to learn and try new things.

Our baptisms, often as little children, tell us that when we come to Christ (whether as infants or as adults) we are helpless, we are new, and we are dependent. And while we have many skills and much history as adults, before God we need to come as one ready to learn, ready to discover and create, and ready to play.

The cross and resurrection, in healing the breach between God and humanity, tells that God starts with us where we are and draws us, nurtures us, encourages and empowers us to become more and more like him. We don't start out perfect. We start out both small and helpless and ready to grow at the very same time. Kind of like children.

Preachers like me and Christians like all of us get trapped when we try to turn God's ideal into intricate (often goofy) human rules. Guidance is good, but let's not get carried away. If we would let go of our anxiety about loose ends and listen, we'd discover that the way that we reach Jesus' impossible ideal is coming to him with the sense of wonder and awe and anticipation that only a child can bring.

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