19 PENTECOST, PROPER XXII - B- 15 MARK 10. 2-16
What I can truly attest to is the fact that of the over 100 couples I have prepared for marriage according to the canons of the church, none have entered into the process anticipating divorce. Yet roughly half of the marriages conducted today end in divorce. Divorce is not a subject anyone likes to talk about, especially clergy. Yet it is a fact of life, even among the clergy, bishops being no exception.
In an effort to stem the number of divorces The Episcopal Church requires that as a priest I explain the Church’s teaching on marriage to those couples seeking to be wed in the church. The Declaration of Intent is a document the couple is required to sign if and only if, they understand the Church’ teaching on marriage to be a lifelong union and agree to enter into the process of the pre-marital with that intent in mind.
When I first ordained a priest some 35 years, I never asked those who came to me seeking to be married in the church if this would be a second marriage for either of them. Today that is the very first question I ask. If the answer is yes, then a petition must be forwarded to the bishop for his judgment. Only with the bishop’s permission can I proceed with the premarital and subsequently with the ceremony in the church.
The Episcopal Church records over 13 thousand marriages a year, but does not record how many of them are second or even third marriages. In my experience over half would be at least second marriages. Society has become more accepting of second and even third marriages and those accretions have crept into the church’s accepting them as well.
In roughly 50 years time the church has gone from excommunicating these who were divorced to acknowledging the fact that some marriages do end for any number of reasons. Consequently, re-marriage is an option in the church today.
During the time of Jesus, society was mixed on the question of divorce and remarriage. The Jews existed in the midst of a diverse society. Divorce was permitted within Jewish circles but could only be initiated by males. You may recall that Joseph had the option to put Mary away when he discovered that she was with child. And John the Baptist lost his head over the subject when he confronted Herod concerning his marriage to his brother’s wife.
Women had no recourse in the Jewish realm. However, the opposite was true in the Roman culture. Women could divorce their husbands. So for the Pharisees to ask Jesus “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” was a trick question, one they hoped he would answer in such a manner they could use it against him later.
The Pharisees quoted Moses as their authority for issuing a certificate of divorce (Deut. 24. 1-4). Jesus counters by quoting God ( Gen. 2. 24).
By doing so Jesus is reminding them of God’s will, God’s intent for man and woman to be one. After reminding his audience of God’s intent, Jesus returns to why Moses allowed it; “because of your hardness of heart,” Jesus said, “ he wrote this commandment for you.”
“Hardness of heart” is the inability to have one’s heart in tune with God’s best intentions and plan. Moses “permission” thwarted God’s plan that Israel should be the prototype of renewed humanity. The problem was not with the ideal, nor with the law, but with the people. Israel was just like everybody else - hardhearted.
Today’s gospel may be specifically about the subject of divorce and remarriage, but it is really about an ideal of God. The gospels are filled with God’s ideals as is the entire Bible. To love God first above all else, then one’s neighbor before self, is an ideal of God. Rather than hate one’s enemy Jesus says we are to love him, is an ideal of God.
For the past few weeks Jesus has been teaching his disciples about God’s ideals, especially in terms of discipleship, as they make their way to Jerusalem and the cross. “If you want to be first in the Kingdom of God, Jesus told them, then you must learn to be last, and a servant of all. If you expect to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus told them, you must enter as a child.
Everything that Jesus taught was an ideal of God; including what God intended from the beginning as far as one woman and one man are concerned. This is not to take away from Jesus’ response to the question; for in responding as he did he is implying that the cure for the “hardness of heart” lies in our willing to return to God’ ideal; to recognize it for what it truly is, the best of God’s intentions.
Our society today is made up of all kinds of families; single parent, extended, and blended. Second, and in some cases, third, or even more marriages have become acceptable. To the extent we can return to God’s ideal concerning marriage and family depends upon society returning to God’s original intent. For that to happen a drastic change must take place in the attitude and hearts of individuals.
Interesting enough the last part of today’s gospel is one of the Prayer Book readings assigned to the marriage service. It may seem out of place following the above teaching. However, Jesus is emphasizing the “ideal.” He not only corrects his disciples in their attempt to keep the little children away from him, but permit’s them to be brought to him, for to such belongs the kingdom of God, Christ says.
The “ideals” of God are the standards we are called in Christ to live up to and into if we wish to be His disciples. They are never easy to attain, or even sustain, and sometimes we fail at both. The “good news” is that the God of Love and Mercy does not judge us on our failures, but on our willingness to try and live our lives, as best we can, in accordance to His will.
And when we fail, and we all do, to be humble enough to ask for God’s mercy to forgive us, and the grace to sustain us in our efforts, as we continue the journey through this life in hope of the next, and in the name of Him who came to give us life and to give it more abundantly, even Jesus Christ, Our Lord. AMEN+