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Marriage and Divorce

Note: Most of our congregation was away at our all-parish retreat at Shrine Mont, leading to a small turnout "back home" in church, and so I thought I'd post my sermon text here for those who want to read it. 

Truth be told, this isn't exactly what I ended up actually preaching -- in fact at the 9:00 service, immediately after the sermon, one worshiper raised his hand and asked a question and challenged me a bit, which threw me off for just a second -- but then I found I enjoyed the back and forth so much I wish that conversation...a back and forth, not just a "delivered sermon" were more of a custom in more churches. 

At any rate, here's my text, for those interested:  

Marriage and Divorce

A sermon preached by the Rev. John Ohmer, Rector,
The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church, Virginia, October 7, 2012

Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he 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." Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:2-16)

Today’s Gospel starts with a confrontation between the Pharisees and Jesus and includes a pretty tough saying from Jesus about divorce.

Make no mistake about it, there’s a lot of tension in this scene. We are told that from the beginning:

Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, "Is it lawful for a  man to divorce his wife?"

Some Pharisees came to "test" Jesus -- they are trying to entrap him, to paint him into a corner. 

Remember that the political and religious powers of Jesus' day felt threatened by Jesus and they were trying to find some reason to arrest and kill him.  Here, they’re trying to bring Jesus into open conflict with the Law or to get him into hot water with Herod, who’d imprisoned and beheaded John the Baptist over a confrontation regarding marriage.

If there’s one thing I’ll keep encouraging you to do in my time here, it is to find some time to sit down with a Bible and read one of the Gospels all the way through in one sitting. Depending on the Gospel you choose – Matthew, or Mark (the shortest), or Luke or John (the longest) -- it’ll only take you half an hour to an hour, but I promise you the experience will change the way you relate to Jesus.

If you rely on what the Bible says about Jesus and not on what you’ve been taught or heard about Jesus, you’ll likely begin to see him in a completely different light than what you have been accustomed to.

For example: you’d see this passage in the context of the intention of those asking Jesus about divorce. 

The people asking Jesus the question about divorce are not really interested in hearing – really hearing – what Jesus has to say. Jewish law made it clear that divorce IS lawful in certain circumstances.

The debate -- and this was a furious debate at the time -- was over exactly what those circumstances, those legal grounds, are. 

So the Pharisees are trying to draw Jesus into political controversy.  As we would say today, “they have their own agenda.” 

When they ask Jesus this question, they already have their minds made up, and their intentions in asking the question are not good.

Jesus sees the trap, and refuses to be drawn into it.

He answers their question with a question of his own.  

"What did Moses command you?" 

They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." 

Now it’s interesting -- the Pharisees don't really answer Jesus' question to their question, either.

Jesus asks the Pharisees, what did Moses command you -- what does the law say? and they answer by telling him an exception to the law (based on Deuteronomy 24). 

Mosaic Law permitted divorce as long as the husband gave a certificate of divorce to the wife.  This was a legal provision to protect the rights of the wife: she must be given a certificate of divorce that authenticated her release from a marriage contract.  The certificate affirmed her right to remarry.  This provision was for the contingency of divorce, written in order to protect women. Under this provision, divorce is tolerated, but it is not authorized or sanctioned.

So what the Pharisees are trying to engage Jesus in a debate over the legal sanction of what was being done, socially.

The Pharisees are trying to draw Jesus into a legal debate.

But again Jesus refuses to be drawn in. He says to them,  

[(As The Message puts it) “Moses wrote that command only as a concession to your hard-hearted ways. In the original creation, God made male and female to be together. Because of this, a man leaves father and mother, and in marriage he becomes one flesh with a woman—no longer two individuals, but forming a new unity. Because God created this organic union of the two sexes, no one should desecrate his art by cutting them apart."]

As is so often the case, Jesus refuses to get caught up in the letter of the law and raises our eyes to the spirit of the law.

He points not to what marriage is, when it’s all codified and written down, but to what marriage can be, what marriage is intended to be: a commitment where we can treat each other the way God treats us: with a forever, unconditional, forgiving love.

[That’s the intention of marriage. But what happens when marriages don’t turn out that way? Is divorce permissible?

Well, here it’s important to look at intentions for asking the question again.
What’s our intention in asking the question, “is divorce permissible?”

Are we looking for an exception?  When we ask God, or a friend, or marriage counselor a question about our relationship, do we really want their answer?  Or is the only thing we want to hear a confirmation of how we already have our mind made up?

(My mother once told me, “you know John, people are divorcing today for things that your father and I would be on non-speaking terms for…)  

And apparently studies have shown that the couples who stay married and couples who get divorced do not have substantially different problems. The difference is in how they decided to respond to those problems.]

But! -- it has to be said that there are times when we faithfully ask the question. As human beings, we are not perfect.  We make mistakes. Maybe we marry someone we never should have married in the first place. Maybe we find ourselves in a marriage not made in heaven, but seemingly in hell.

Sometimes one flesh is torn apart. 

When the flesh is torn apart, what then?

Let me share with you again a way of thinking about this – in thinking about divorce -- that I first heard from the Reverend Frank Wade.

He said that a marriage is like a child.

A marriage is brought into existence by two people in love.

It has a life of its own in some respects, but it also has needs, and it needs to be taken care of.

So, if marriage is like a child, what do you do if your child gets sick?

Do you say, “hope it gets better?” and go on with life as normal? Do you blame each other for what is making your child ill?

Or do you take time to try to figure out what is wrong and address it…nurse it back to health…take care of it until it is better again?

If your child gets worse – gets very sick – do you just say, “well, guess that's it, I'm giving up on it” or do you seek out expert advice…take time off work - a full week even - fly it to Colorado or wherever the experts are, and otherwise throw everything you have into making it better, exhausting every possibility before giving up?

Thinking of marriage as a child helps us in at least two ways:

On the one hand, you would not think of burying your child while it still has a chance of life. What a horrifying thought! And yet our culture too often treats marriage too casually, and many marriages are buried alive, with tragic consequences. 

But -- on the other hand, we need to recognize that sometimes, despite our best efforts and years of prayers and hard work, children/marriages die.

When that happens, we need to grieve and bury them (divorce), and then grieve some more, forgive ourselves, and others just as we have been forgiven by God, and eventually learn to move on with our life.

If it is horrifying to think of burying a child/marriage alive, it is no less horrifying to think of having to carry one around even after it is dead.

The Episcopal Church does not require couples to carry around a marriage after it has died. It – we – recognize that sometimes despite our best efforts, something we wanted to live, dies, and our response is to be with those people in those times, and help them grieve, and help them move on. And in many cases yes, that means supporting people in their divorce and – should it be – remarriage, with the full support of the church.

In all cases, though, we owe our marriages as much energy, hard work, professional care, prayer, and patience as we owe our children.

And so the good news of God today is that God not only shows us how to, but helps us to treat one another the way he treats us:

With a forever, unconditional, and forgiving love.



  1. Father John, you have made very valid points about marriage and divorce. I too feel that too many marriages that end in divorce are caused by problems that could have and should have been worked out. Thinking of marriage and divorce as a sick child helped me understand the position of the Episcopal church, which I agree with. Some point out that then marriage vows state that "What God has joined together let no man put asunder". I say "how do we really know that God is the one who put this man and woman together??"


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