I grew up in a conservative church and, as far as I can remember in my childhood, divorce was to me a scary word. I especially remember that I had an uncle who would sit through the service whenever he came to Mass with us. He wasn’t allowed to receive communion because, as my parents explained to me: “By divorcing, he had also broken his communion with God”. I used to wonder if he would go to heaven anyway. I felt sorry for him, but also wondered why he had taken such a risk to be at odds with God. Marriage was such a serious business, you had to make it work no matter what. And I clang to my parents’ belief for a long time.
One day though, without any warning, this conception of things shifted. The phone rang and it was my sister. She was crying. Her husband had been locking himself in his office for three days in a row giving her the silent treatment. He was drinking too, and she said he was smoking so much she could barely breathe in her own apartment. Now, I should have gotten used this, she had been calling and crying for six months. But on that day, suddenly, I just heard myself saying: “You know, I think you should divorce him”. Suddenly, I just could not stand anymore to hear my sister crying, it was too heart breaking. Divorce felt like the only right thing to do.
And so, she did it, eventually, she divorced the abusive man. As for me, it led me to think quite differently about what we are taught to do at home and at church. Mainly, I learned that it is always tricky and sometimes even dangerous, to turn to religion to be taught exactly what to do by clinging to a set of codes, laws and rules, generalities about right or wrong. And this is interesting because looking at the Bible for quick answers, this is, actually, what the Pharisees used to do – this is what they are doing in our Gospel today when they ask Jesus what the rules about marriage and divorce are, and if they should stick to what Moses wrote about them.
We don’t know how the question came up. What we know is that the Pharisees asked because they were trying to test Jesus, a very weak word to say that they were looking for a reason to put him to death, and so I was wondering if they decided to ask him about divorce because it was actually a question about divorce that led John the Baptist to his condemnation – if you remember John accused Herod to have stolen his brother Philip’s wife and they got John arrested and killed for this. Would Jesus accuse Herod as well?
Well, Jesus is going to give another kind of response – a response that can be hard for us to hear, not because the words are harsh, but because, as the Pharisees, we can have a tendency to look for rules and definitive answers, and so we don’t hear what Jesus is really saying. As my family and I when I was a child, we only hear in Jesus’ words a condemnation of divorce. Yet, if we know the Jesus who forgave the woman caught in adultery, who never reduced people to their worst sin, who forgave the thief on the cross, we’ll suspect that this is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not giving the scarlet letter to divorced people, and he is not replacing a law, Moses’ law on divorce, by another law even tougher, the law of no divorce at all. Laws are laws, they frame our living together, but as a famous philosopher put it, basically laws are here because man is a wolf to man. What is legal is just the bare minimum we can expect, it is not a guarantee of morality. This is why we have so many debates on death penalty and euthanasia, or the right corporations have to pollute or how fair it is that traders can speculate with our money.
And so I think that Jesus agrees that we need laws to frame our society, but as people of God we have to look beyond what is legal to find what is truly moral, loving and life-giving, because, as Jesus reminds the Pharisees, laws are only there because of our toughness of heart, because man is wolf to man, when Jesus points to another dimension, how it all started when the world was created, how God intended relationships for partnership and joy. At Jesus’s time, divorce was used as an easy way to get rid of your wife when you did not want her anymore – whatever the reason – condemning her to a life of isolation, poverty, sometimes prostitution. This is still true in many parts of the world: a divorced woman has no status and no resources. But as people of God, we have to take care of one another. Basically, what Jesus is saying is: You can’t just get rid of people – this is true for men and women, and not only for marriages, but all kind of relationships, and still today. I heard a new expression recently: “Ghosting people”. It is used to describe the way now people ditch you on line, putting an end to a relationship simply by ignoring your messages, not responding to you anymore – with no warning and no explanation. Well, Jesus tells us: you can’t do that. You can’t ditch people. People are precious and unique. And fragile too.
And I think this is the reason why Jesus puts a little child in the midst of the disciples, to illustrate this truth: You have to take care of the vulnerable ones. It can be a child, it can be a woman who depends on you, it can be the disabled, the poor, the prisoner. You know we live here in DC in a society where a lot of people would define themselves by their relationships meaning: the important people they know. Well, it’s interesting to realize that for Jesus, it’s exactly the other way around: the vulnerable people you’re friends with, that’s the ones who define what’s in your heart and who you are. Do we have friends among the little ones, people with no money, people in jail, people of another race or sexual orientation? Then we may be far from the kingdoms of this world, but we’re not far from the Kingdom of God. We are not defined by our most important relationships, we are defined by the least of these – the most vulnerable our friends, the closer we are to God’s heart.
And so I think this Gospel is much more than Jesus’s teaching about marriage. Using the context of a legal, concrete and precise matter, Jesus gives a lesson to all of us. Not a lesson to shame and condemn, but a lesson to open up and let our hearts be touched. Jesus reminds us that relationships are not first made to be framed and controlled, but to reveal God’s glory.
Now we know that some marriages, as some other kind of relationships, are so broken, they can’t reveal God’s glory anymore, and it’s probably not God’s will we stay in them. I can’t help thinking how I felt for my sister, and since Jesus calls God “our father”, I believe God feels the same way for us when we are caught in abusive relationships. If you have ever married your son, or walked your daughter down the aisle, you probably have wished with all your heart that their marriage would last for ever, not because you wanted your family to have a good reputation, but only because you wanted your children to be happy, you wanted things to work out so your children would not go through all the pain of failed relationships. Well, it is the same for God. God’s intention is for our marriages to succeed, not because God wants us to play by the rules, but because God wants us to be happy, to mirror his glory, to live our relationships to the deepest and to the full. God wanted things to be good from the beginning of creation. Unfortunately, because of our brokenness, things can take a turn for the worst.
This is why I think that when Jesus says that the Pharisees’ understanding of relationships is adulterous, he talks about much more than the technical act of sleeping with somebody, he talks about all the ways we spoil God’s first intent for humankind. In the Bible, adultery is about all the ways in which we are unfaithful to God’s desire, when we use religion, law and people to meet our own needs, to serve our selfish interests. Adultery is not so much about sex than it is about disrespect, violence and abuse of power – exactly what Herod’s was doing when he took the wife of his brother Philip. We talk a lot these days about sexual assault, and it is immoral not so much because of the sexual part, but because it’s violent and an abuse of power too.
Today we will be praying for the healing for bodies, minds and hearts, and as the prayer puts it, the mending of broken relationships. We often hear that marriage is hard work, I don’t know about that, I am not sure anymore we have to make things work no matter what, but for sure, our all our relationships need care and nurturing, a plant cannot bloom if you don’t water it, so we can’t be surprised our relationships get bad if we don’t take care of them before it’s too late. And so today we should ask God to help us to do just that, to pour God’s love in our marriages, families and friendships, in the way we treat each other in our society, because indeed God has intended relationships for our own happiness and to his glory. May we reflect God’s glory as individuals and as a country too. Amen.