Collect for Trinity XVII
ALMIGHTY God, you have built your Church on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.
Join us together in unity of spirit by their teaching,
that we may become a holy temple, acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Job 1, V1 and 2, Vv 1 - 10
Hebrews 1, Vv 1 - 4 and 2, Vv 5 - 12
St Mark 10, Vv 2 - 16
In our Gospel proclamation we heard Jesus being questioned by his opponents on the vexed question of divorce. In the early centuries of our era this matter was seldom raised, simply because divorce was almost never encountered among Christians; indeed it was unusual even in the general population. Today, however, it has become a very real problem, even in Christian circles. Infidelity is no longer rare, even among church leaders, and we hear frequently about some new pastoral ‘affair’ and its traumatic effect on church and congregation. Such bad examples among the leadership are bound to have an effect on ordinary members, and the resulting decline in the stability of the Christian home is surely one of the more alarming signs of the times.
In the Jewish community there were two different sets of rules about divorce. Advocates of the Shammai School saw adultery as the only ground for divorce. At the other extreme, those Jews who followed Hillel were allowed divorce for the most trivial reasons, for example, a woman could become divorced for burning the meal that she was cooking, or merely because her husband found some other woman more attractive.
In the past, attempts to deal with this question on a Biblical basis have tended to be somewhat academic, probably because the very idea of divorce was so alien. Throughout its first four hundred years, the early Christian church took a hard line. Emperors who converted to Christianity, notably Constantine and Theodosius, severely restricted grounds for granting divorce, a stricture that remained in force until it was relaxed by Justinian in the sixth century. The Christian church’s continuing influence on family life ensured that divorce was uncommon. As the twentieth century dawned, civil courts became the arbiters of marriage issues, yet even they incorporated many Christian attitudes into their policies by limiting divorce to specific reasons, such as adultery or desertion. These restrictions held until the liberalised times of the 1960s and 70s, Then many societies adopted the ‘no fault’ standard, allowing for the dissolution of marriages by one partner without there being any legal burden of proof to establish a specific reason. Nowadays the tragedy of divorce has spread so widely that almost everyone has encountered it, not only among their close friends and relatives but also within their church. If and when we meet it, it is vitally important that we seek to deal with divorce both Biblically and sympathetically.
God’s standard, the divine standard, for marriage is lifelong commitment to one’s spouse, and no one else. Even though divorce was permitted in some cases in Old Testament times, Jesus made it plain that this was not God’s ideal. When he was asked this very question, Jesus said, as we have just heard, ‘Because of your hardness of hearts Moses wrote this commandment for you. 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, let no-one separate.’
This ruling seems very comprehensive and conclusive, yet Jesus immediately followed up his statement with an acknowledgement that divorce does exist: ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’ Thus it s that the very discovery of extramarital un-chastity on the part of ones spouse gives possible grounds for divorce on the basis of the adultery, provided, of course, that neither party re-marries. Despite this, God places a very high value on faithfulness, on the part of both man and woman, as a basis for a happy and lasting marriage. Fornication is condemned as a sin in both Old and New Testaments. In these days of widespread sexual license, however, this provision has become a rather common ground for divorce, even among Christians. It does, indeed, dilute the principle of ‘one flesh’ used by God to describe a true marriage. Saint Paul, in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, wrote, ‘Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself’. This passage, incidentally, suggests that a woman who submits to extramarital sex becomes, in God’s sight, a prostitute, whether she offers her body for money or some other reason. Seen by many as a misogynist, Paul makes no parallel statement here about promiscuous men.
It is noteworthy that Jesus, on a different occasion, an occasion reported by Saint Luke, did not accept fornication as an excuse for divorce. Since we may assume that our Lord would not contradict himself, we should conclude that, while there may be some situations in which extra-marital sex would create such problems in a marriage, divorce would be better than continuing in some unhealthy or even dangerous relationship,. In general it would be better to forgive earlier indiscretions (if accompanied by repentance and a new faithfulness) rather than to break up what might otherwise still be a good marriage. In both cases, however, Christ warned that remarriage after divorce amounts to adultery, a sin which is explicitly forbidden by God’s seventh Commandment. Both divorce and remarriage, therefore, are extremely serious steps, and both violate the divine principle of permanent, matrimonial union and enduring, unending faithfulness.
However, this is not the whole story. In Psalm 103 we may read, ‘The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, for he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust’. And Saint John tells us, ‘If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’. This promise of absolution includes even the sin of adultery, if there is genuine contrition and true repentance. Jesus made this very clear in his dealing with the woman who, ‘was taken in adultery, in the very act’. He reminded her accusers that they were also sinners and had no warrant to punish her. Then he told the woman: ‘Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more’. Jesus did not condone her sin, but he did forgive her when she gave evidence of sorrow, contrition and determination not to sin again in this way. In this particular instance, Jesus put no further conditions on the woman’s freedom, either to return to her husband if he would have her, or to marry another if she were already divorced.
After dealing with the thorny subject of divorce, and no doubt making himself highly unpopular with some sections of Jewish society, Saint Mark, in his gospel, next shows Jesus in another, kindlier light. People were bringing children to him in order that he might touch them. Perhaps because they had been listening so intently to the arguments about divorce and, maybe wondering how these factors might affect their own lives or those of their friends and acquaintance, the disciples spoke to them sternly. If we accept the chronology of Saint Mark, if we accept that these two events naturally followed one another, then we must assume that Jesus, having had his say on divorce, turned to other things – life had to go on. Maybe the local people, fed up with arcane disputes about marital matters raised by the Pharisees, men who were well know for their hair-splitting and pedantry, would have wanted to have their time with this itinerant teacher and healer. Were some of these children ill? Were they expecting Jesus to heal them as he had so many, just by his touch? Did they wonder if their children would be quieter or better behaved in the presence of this holy man? We don’t have the details, but such thinking seems not unlikely. For the disciples, hordes of children were obviously a distraction from the teachings that they had been witnessing. Saint Mark says that Jesus was indignant. ‘Let the children come to me and do not stop them.’ Then Jesus made what may seem to be a rather strange statement: ‘for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs’. This must have come as something of a shock, especially to any of the Pharisees who were still listening to him. After all, they were the leaders of the people. They were the ones who interpreted God’s many laws for the common people. If the kingdom of God belonged to anyone, it was surely to them, the religious elite. But, Jesus said it belonged to the children. He went on to amplify his statement. ‘Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ So, are we adults then disbarred from membership? Or, are we already members through our infant baptism, if, that is, we received infant baptism? Jesus is here speaking figuratively. To enter the kingdom of God we have to have childlike innocence. We have to take it on trust, much as children do. We have to have faith and not wait for adult style proofs and certainties. We have to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into God’s ever open arms in simplicity and confidence, knowing that he will keep us safe and guide us to our ultimate destination.
So, we have had a Gospel of two parts. We have heard strong and stern condemnation of those who fail to keep their marriage vows, ‘till death do them part’, meanwhile knowing that God will forgive even the fact that they may break his Commandments, if they are contrite and beg his forgiveness. Then words of encouragement to know that, even in our ignorance and blindness, Jesus will take us up into his arms and protect us from the ravages of a cruel and hostile world, just as if we were children, if only we will let him.
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