Monday, February 28, 2011

Jesus and Divorce- Why so harsh???


In 1999, the Barna research group released a comprehensive report that studied the relationship between religious beliefs and divorce rates. The report found that "We rarely find substantial differences" between the moral behavior of Christians and non-Christians. Barna Project Director Meg Flammang said: "We would love to be able to report that Christians are living very distinct lives and impacting the community, but ... in the area of divorce rates they continue to be the same."

Given the high divorce rate, both among Christians and society as a whole, Jesus’ teachings on marriage and divorce may be among the most difficult and emotional to discuss. The process of ending a marriage can result in festering wounds for the couple who legitimately believed their marriage would last till death, for the children who see their family torn apart, and for the friends and family whose loyalty is now called into question as they are forced to pick sides.

And thus, when reading the sermon on the mount, I was particularly struck by the 32nd verse of chapter 5- But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.What a seemingly harsh and condemning statement by Jesus. What makes it worse is that many experts consider that Matthew has actually liberalizedJesusoriginal message. You see, Matthew reports that Jesus says that divorce can be justified in cases of adultery. Luke and Mark, however, remember it differently- Luke 16:18 and Mark 10:11Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. Between the three, experts believe it is most likely that Matthew softened the original saying of Jesus so that it would be more understandable and acceptable to the community for whom he was writing. So, how are we to understand this seemingly impossible demand by Jesus?

First, we have got to understand a little bit better the context of marriage in Jesus and the ancient Israelites’ time. Though many will claim that marriage is an eternal, unchanging institution, the reality is that our understanding of marriage is significantly different than that at the time of the Bible. Rather than a relationship primarily based on mutual love, marriage was in many senses an economic transaction in which the security of woman would be bought by becoming faithful to one man. Marriage contracts were typically decided between men- either the fathers of the two to be married, or by the groom with the father of the bride. Woman had little if any right to pick their partners, and they almost always were forbidden to hold title to land or a business. This is why scripture is particularly concerned about the widow- without her husband, she must rely on the generosity of others to survive.

So, if and when a marriage ended, the woman involved lost all economic security. Furthermore, sense she was no longer a virgin, the prospects of her finding a new mate to take care of her with extremely slim. If she was lucky, she could return to her father’s house and hope to be taken care of. If she was unlucky, she was confined to an existence of extreme poverty likely resulting in an early death.
Unfortunately for the woman, she had virtually no say in either starting or ending a marriage. The man, not the woman, had the right to give a bill of divorce. The passage from Deuteronomy that Kay read today, probably sounds harsh to our ears- “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house;” but believe it or not, this is actually a feminist manifesto for its time. Instead of men having the unlimited right to divorce, the book of Deuteronomy legislates that there must be grounds for divorce that will stand up in court; that proper procedures must be followed throughout all proceedings; and that divorce and remarriage are subject to restrictions regarding another marriage partner.

Though love could of course be part of these marriages, the law and custom essentially treated women as a commodity. Divorce essentially was a part of buying and selling that commodity.
It is in this scenario that Jesus’ statement must be heard. Rather than endorsing this worldview, he instead objects to what amounts to the abandonment of woman. Furthermore, the restrictions on remarriage help to break down that commodity process- if a man cannot trade in his wife for a new one, he are less likely to abandon their first wife.

However, even if we understand that Jesus is speaking in a historical context about a historical institution, what does that mean for us today? Does Jesus’ statement simply not apply? This is where it gets tricky- you see, Jesus grounds his understanding of marriage in the creation story of Genesis- “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Furthermore, if we examine marriage from the perspective of the bible as a whole, I think it is fair to say that the bulk of the tradition is that marriage is “relationship in which companionship and a variety of physical and spiritual needs are met and in which personal identity is formed and personal growth takes place and that this relationship should continue until it is broken only by death.” (Pastoral Care Emergencies)

Throughout the sermon the mount, we have tried to read between the lines. We have claimed that in examining the law, Jesus is always pointing towards God wider purpose in creation- the law was to help to foster relationships between God and our neighbor. Here, there can be no doubt that Jesus is affirming the view that it is God’s plan that when we enter into marriage, God desires for those marriages to stand the test of time and to continue until death.

But, what then are to believe about God’s will for our lives if and when we are faced with the prospect of divorce, or of remarriage. Are we really to believe that it is God’s will that every marriage should never end and that every divorced person should never remarry?

One pastor who I know and respect says that he feels like it is always his role to counsel toward preserving a marriage. He has said while he would welcome and love all people who chose otherwise, he didn’t feel like scripture ever permitted him to counsel people to get a divorce. I understand and respect his position. It is certainly one valid interpretation of the scriptures and God’s call for our role as pastors.

I must say, though, I disagree. My role as a pastor is to help those in front of me discern what God may be calling them to do in their lives given the complexities involved and the competing value systems. In a vacuum, I can say that God desires our marriages to last. But Jesus also proclaimed he had come so that we could have life, and life abundant. What happens if having a divorce and living into “the abundant life” come into conflict? What if staying in the marriage maintains a serious risk of harm to our bodies or to our souls?

We are called elsewhere to care for our children and to bring them up in the best environment possible- but what if that conflicts with maintaining a marriage? And what about the ministry God calls us into? Are we to assume we cannot serve God, either as laity or clergy, if we have been divorced or have remarried?

Living into the kingdom of God is not a simple thing, nor is obeying God simplistic. Competing values will mean that Christians have to make difficult choices in morally gray areas. We will have to listen and pray hard to understand God’s will for our lives in these times. And, I do believe, that given the range of circumstances we face in life, God’s will at times will be to end a hopelessly flawed and destructive marriage. That is one reason I agree with our Social Principals when they state- “God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. The church must be on the forefront of premarital, marital, and postmarital counseling in order to create and preserve strong marriages. However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness.”

The good news is that, while Jesus’ statement seems harsh, it was spoken by the Son of God who exudes mercy and grace in all that he did and does. In the forth chapter of John, Jesus meets a woman at the well who has had five husbands and is currently living with a man out of wedlock. This certainly violates every single thing Jesus has proclaimed about marriage. While Jesus notes this fact, he doesn’t say a word of condemnation to her. Instead he asks her to believe in him, and in fact, sends her out to evangelize. Is Jesus being hypocritical here- no. His desire was never to crush people‘s spirits, but nurture them into living a more abundant life. We as Christians need to learn from this- all too often those who have been faced with divorce have found the church to be a place of judgment rather than grace. Whether you conclude it is ethical or not to have a divorce, that judgment must not be forced upon someone else. Jesus lived out the example- so that when someone faces a difficult decision like whether to end a marriage, a relationship, or a friendship, they can trust that God’s love and presence will be there through it all.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Seeing beyond the Anger

In this last Sunday's sermon, I referred to a great video that demonstrated how if we only respond to surface level insults, we miss the great needs of our individual brothers and sisters.  If we could really see what is going on in people's lives, perhaps we'd have more compassion.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Delight in the law?

Psalm 112

Matthew 5:13-20

"Praise the Lord!
   Happy are those who fear the Lord,
   who greatly delight in his commandments."
Sometimes we Americans are perceived to be rebellious, but truth is we do kinda like the law.   While we may push the speed limit a bit, I would bet that most everyone hear has gone out of the way to try and obey the law this week.
We are a society that highly values law and order.  When is the last time you heard a politician say-  “Vote for me- I’m weak on crime!”
Thus, the scripture passage we read today from the sermon on the mount should make us especially happy.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 
So, whereas last week, in the beatitudes, we experienced a very difficult message, one that always makes us strive to embrace such features as humility, peacemaking and a thirst for righteousness, we get an easy message today.  Just follow the law, right?
Let’s see-  “Thou shalt not kill.” .............Uh yea, I think I was ok with that today.
“Thou shall not bear false witness- ..........  There were a couple white lies in the last week, but all and all, I think I’m good here.
But, I guess these are the biggies here.  We know that the law, the Torah, contains far more than just the ten commandments.  Jesus does add in verse 19-
19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Thus, maybe we ought to take a look at some of these other ones:
Leviticus 11:7-  The pig has a split hoof, divided in two, but doesn't chew the cud and so is unclean. You may not eat their meat nor touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
Leviticus 25:44-46: "The male and female slaves which you have are to come from the surrounding nations; you are permitted to buy slaves from them.
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
Exodus 22:20- Anyone who sacrifices to a god other than God alone must be put to death. 
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
Deuteronomy 22:13-21 (excerpt)  If a man marries a woman, consumates the marriage and than turns on her saying that she was not a virgin, she is to be taken to the gate to be examined by the village elders.   if it turns out that the accusation is true, the men of the town are to take her to the door of her father's house and stone her to death.
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
Alright, now I’m lost here.  Could Jesus possibly be saying that we have to fulfill the law here?  I mean, these are some strange laws, even terrible laws here.  I mean, yes, I’d hate to give up pork.
But I’m supposed to be ok with buying slaves?
with killing those who worship another God?
with allowing a woman who was not a virgin to be killed?
What is going on here?  This doesn’t seem to be the Jesus I know.
In the last 150 years or so, I thought we had made tremendous progress as Christians.  We had thrown off the part of our faith the permitted, or even at times demanded, the ability to own slaves.  We’ve learned to get along with our brothers and sisters in other faith traditions-  we may not agree, but we certainly would scream out against situations like the Holocaust.  And, while we may argue that people should wait to engage in sex until they are married, I don’t think anyone wants to make this a capital offense.
So, what on earth, is Jesus getting at here?  Why all of this talk of fulfilling the law?  Are our moves toward greater equality really going to keep us away from the kingdom of heaven?
Now, wait a minute here Jesus-  I seem to recall some other story.  
Matthew 12:9-14
"He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him."
You did it-  you broke one of the laws.  And its not even one of the least of these-  you broke sabbath.  That’s one of the ten!  So what, is Jesus excluded now to?
Well, it seems pretty unlikely that Jesus is going to exclude himself from the kingdom of heaven.  So, one more time I ask, what is going on here?
As usual, context would appear to be everything here.
I actually think its the first part of the passage that can provide the key to interpreting this.
So, lets work backwards.  What is so special about salt?
Is salt valuable in it of itself?  Can we survive just eating salt?  What does it do?
It enhances flavor! It rounds out flavor, and it makes everything seem to come together.   It is like this miracle substance that makes meat, vegetables, bakery, everything taste better.  And it does it, not so much by adding something new, but by calling attention to the best aspects of what it already there.
So, the point isn’t the salt, its in bringing out the flavors of what it is added to.
Let’s take the light.  Does light have value in it of itself, aside from solar power that is?
The value of light is in showing us something.  When it is dark, and we use a flashlight, we appreciate it because it helps to show us what is in front of us and what we are looking for.  The value is not in the light- it is in what it illumines for us.
So, salt and light.  Both are valuable, not for their intrinsic qualities- but for what it can bring out, what it can illumine, about that to which they are applied.  The salt and light are not the point.
And thus, we return to the law.  When Jesus talks about fulfilling the law, his point is not to say that the law itself is what is of value.  Even his rhetorical flourish about not one jot or tittle falling from the law, is to emphasize the importance of what that law is pointing to-  We know why salt and light exist, what they help.  What about the law, why was that brought about?
Remember, the law is part of the covenant that the Hebrew people entered into with God.  The point wasn’t to establish some arbitrary sets of laws, it wasn’t God’s way of making everyone live in fear.  The point of the law, the point of the covenant, was to bring the people into relationship with God.
So, when Jesus comes to say, I have come to fulfill the law, he is saying that he has come to bring us into a fuller and richer relationship with our God.  Jesus is trying to help to form us into that person that God had intended each one of us to be.  That is truly a precious, and not onerous, gift.
But, but, you say, what about all those laws that seemed unjust for us.  Are we to say they are valuable to?
Let’s remember, the point isn’t the law itself, its the relationship its supposed to bring about.  It isn’t about enacting some code, its about seeing justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever living stream.  When Jesus was confronted with the man who needed healing, he did not bow to the individual law- he lived into the spirit of God’s healing relationship and cared for the man in front of him.
Here’s the problem-  that’s messy.  I can understand why the Pharisees decided to try and be strict about the law instead-  it seems easier on the surface than trying to always figure out what is the bigger picture.  In this month in which the nation pays special attention to the history of our African American brothers and sisters- I think there is no more obvious example of this messy righteousness than that which was called forth by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his letter from the Birmingham jail.  He especially castigates those Christians who say that Martin should stop causing trouble.
To that- he responds- “We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive...I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.”
So this is how Jesus shows respect for the law- by pointing to its higher purpose-  by pointing to God and calling us to live into God’s kingdom.  It is in Jesus, and not the law, that we find our salvation.  This does not mean we dismiss the law- but that we ask ourselves the question- what is it that will truly bring me closer to God?  What does God's desire for justice call for on this issue?  It is only then, when we wrestle with these difficult question, that we can truly find the path into God’s kingdom.  Amen.