On Divorce and and All of Us Little Children

Mark 10:2-16

When I was a young pastor this was a particularly challenging Gospel to preach. It still is, of course, but close to thirty years ago one was especially aware of the mere handful in our midst who had been divorced. Now, though, I am hard pressed to think of a family which in one way or another has not been touched by this: if not they themselves, then a child, or a sibling, or a parent. Somehow, though, I have to say that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to speak of this.

And yet, having suggested that it is more common today, I do have to wonder. For, in fact, there was a stretch of several years relatively early in my ministry when every couple I married divorced shortly thereafter. Every. Single. One. I started to wonder what I was missing. Most of them are a blur now, but one I do remember distinctly.

The bride to be was a little older than I was. Her fiance was quite a few years older than her. They had both been previously married. She had young children.

I was not yet thirty years old. When I sat down with them the first time, I remember him veritably sneering at me — asking what it was I could possibly offer them, given my age and inexperience. I shouldn’t have agreed to do the wedding, and yet I did. Within a year, they were divorced. I remember not being especially surprised. I remember wishing I had shown more courage those months before.

And yet, I have also had cause to celebrate with couples who have been married fifty and sixty years and more. I have offered blessings at parties and before the altar. I have witnessed devotion deepen and grow through good times and hard times both. And yes, I have to say I have also seen those who choose not to marry build a devoted partnership together.

At the same time, I have seen those, I have known those, who chose not to divorce and who certainly should have — for the hardness of heart which Moses addressed so long ago had turned to resentment and cruelty — sometimes dangerously so. And yes, I have known those who have divorced and who really needed to do just that to have any chance at the fullness of life and love God intends for us all.

And so it is that Jesus speaks of divorce in today’s Gospel. His words fall hard on our ears for when we hear them the faces of loved ones or yes, our own hard earned experiences pass before our eyes and pierce our hearts. And yet, we certainly know what lies behind the words of Jesus today, perhaps especially if they hit close to home. I have not yet officiated a marriage celebration which was not marked by great hope. Couples bind their hearts, their habits, their finances, their dreams to one another. If they are so blessed they are joined by children who are reflections of them now and who catapult them into the future. Divorce is no simple breaking of a business contract. No, it is a tearing apart of much more than that. And it is so that while there are exceptions, very often children are the ones who suffer the most. For far too often one parent is more absent in every way than what can possibly be life giving for those who are most vulnerable.

Jesus speaks of divorce in today’s Gospel. As he does so, it seems to me he reminds us of the preciousness of each and every one of us. That people are not meant to be used but are to be cared for and treasured as though the one we commit ourselves to were as dear to us as though we were actually physically joined to one another. Oh yes, Jesus is saying that the pain reflected in divorce was not and never will be part of God’s intent. And yet, of course, normally that pain began long before attorneys were called and settlements and custody agreements were notarized.

Thirty years ago and more the words of Jesus were heard as judgment on those whose lives were reflected in them. And yes, perhaps, too often, those of us whose pain was not so public, were a little quick to judge. Today we may still hear these words as judgment, yes, but not only on those whose hearts and lives have been so broken. Certainly these words fall on all of us as we seek to support those who enter into such tender and fragile bonds with one another. Perhaps we do not do enough teaching, enough modeling,enough praying, enough upholding of each other. Perhaps. Oh yes, perhaps these words are a call to all of us to hold precious those closest to us. Like the little children we all are — as Jesus urges us to be like in his welcome a few sentences later.

  • What experience do you have of divorce? How does that shape your hearing of today’s Gospel?
  • Why do you think the image of Jesus welcoming children comes right after his teaching about divorce?
  • At first glance, it certainly is easier to hear more judgment than grace in this Gospel. Where do you find the Good News today?

2 comments

  1. Raye says:

    My dad and mom divorced when I was 9 years old. My mom moved back to CA with one of my younger sisters. She sent us cards, but we weren't allowed to answer back. My dad thought it was best that way! I didn't see her again until I was 24 years old. She and my sister came to Rockford on the Grayhound Bus! It wasn't the happy reunion I had hoped for. I know that my dad did what he thought was best, but it was very hard growing up without our mom. My dad remarried when I was 13. That lasted 5 years. Then he stayed single for 6 years. He married my stepmother when I was 24, just a few months before my mom and sister came to Rockford! Our younger son divorced after about 18 years of marriage. He felt like a failure even though we assured him that he was doing the right thing. Our granddaughter was also hurt by her mom leaving and the things she had done prior to leaving. It was a very dark time in our lives! The way I hear this Gospel is that God does not want us to tear each other apart, but to show love and forgiveness toward one another. But, that takes both the husband and wife to work on it together. It can't be one-sided. Then Jesus talks about welcoming children! Children were not considered to be very important in Jesus' day. But Jesus shows by his words and actions that children are important! They are to be loved and cherished! So where do I find the Good News today? In Jesus' promise

  2. ISTM that this is misread as the issue of marriage/divorce. It's a Pharisee/Jesus encounter of testing – much as the 'which commandment is greater' conversation. The Pharisees are presented as trying to get Jesus to commit to a standard for divorce – for the guilt free setting aside of a woman into poverty and isolation. It's the use of the law to escape responsibility for an action that's at stake. In 'Ethics,' Bonhoeffer says that everyone who acts responsibly becomes guilty. We only make responsible decisions – decisions about what we need to do to care for the other and for ourselves – when we step away from self-justifying rules and rationales and embrace the ambiguity – and yes, the guilt – of making hard choices. The Pharisees among us don't get to walk away from the pain and suffering their actions cause, any more than the libertines. The next text is about selling all you have and giving it to the poor. The disciples say, 'then who can be saved?' And it certainly isn't those who can be righteous.

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