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?