Picture Jesus’ time: no female owns herself. She is the property of her father until he sells her into marriage. Then she is the property of her husband until he dies, and now she is the property of her son. If ever she has no man to claim her… she is free property. Anyone can take her. Make her a slave. Abuse her. Force themselves on her. Women weren’t their own people. Not fully human.
In the story of Naomi and Ruth, the women have lost all their men. Opah goes home- hoping her father or brother will take her in. Ruth refuses to leave Naomi as defenseless, unowned, widowed property. Ruth goes with Naomi to protect her. Boaz is a literal life-saver to the women because he orders the farm hands not to ‘bother’ Ruth as she picks up the dropped wheat to feed herself and her mother-in-law. Then he saves them again by marrying Ruth, and restoring Naomi and Ruth into a house where they always have protections.
Women were property. Like glorified prized cattle.
When King David sees Bathsheba, he wants her. So he arranges the death of her owner, her husband, so that he can take her as his own.
When King Herod sees his brother’s wife Herodias, he wants her. So he orders his brother to divorce Herodias — to throw his property to the curb — and then Herod takes her as his own property.
Moses told men they could throw out their women, divorce them, but if they did, they needed to give the women the protection of a piece of paper saying ‘I am divorced.’ so they could find a new man to take them in not as slaves, or as concubines, but as wives who are cared for and protected.
Nowhere but in Rome was there the tradition women could initiate divorce. Even then, the men retained the children and house in any divorce.
In ancient Israel however? Women weren’t allowed. They were property and did not own themselves or their bodies.
There were two major schools of thought regarding divorce at the time: the Hillel school who said you may divorce your wife for any reason at all – including things like she burns dinner or has gotten wrinkles. And the Shammai school who said you may only divorce your wife if she commits adultery. Both didn’t consider a wife able to divorce her husband. A husband could commit adultery and burn dinner and get wrinkles.
Keep all this context in mind when you hear Jesus speak against divorce. Also keep in mind that Jesus’ cousin, John, was murdered because he spoke against King Herod’s divorce.
This is why today’s reading is called a “test.” The Pharisees are not testing if Jesus knows scripture, but rather, testing to see if he would speak out about King Herod and get himself killed just like John the Baptists did. They are also testing to see if Jesus would support the Hillel or the Shammai school – and alienate one or the other set of scholars.
And Jesus replies to their test of ‘is divorce lawful?’ by saying: your hard hearts are why Moses said you can give a certificate to a woman and divorce her. Hard hearts separate us.
Jesus recalls Genesis, and that in the very beginning God created us to be in relationship. Remember that Adam was lonely. God offered Adam all kinds of animals, but Adam was still lonely. So God made Adam another human. This other human wasn’t called wife, or property – but someone God called an equal! “Helper” and “partner.” The two humans are happy as one another’s aid. Indeed, there was no concept of marriage for Adam and Eve because that’s a set of rituals and vows we made up. God sets us up to be in relationship – to be one another’s helpers and partners. Sometimes this looks like marriage, but sometimes it is friendships, and families, and communities, and sometimes it is two strangers.
Later, alone, Jesus is asked again about divorce. And this time, Jesus gives agency TO WOMEN – women, who have no status – and says it doesn’t matter if a man or a woman tosses out the other… the result is the same. Hurt. Broken community.
Jesus once again brings our attention to children. Consider children in divorces. At the time, children had no protections at all. If mom is out on the street without a male to protect her, give her food and shelter, how much worse is it going to be for the kids? If a dad has a hard heart, and tosses the mom out, how much evil has he done to the kin-dom of God? Jesus asks us to think about if our actions are promoting community.
In our community, our country, our faith, there is so much stigma against divorce. And it comes from these scripture passages we’ve read today. “They are no longer two, but one flesh!” “What God has joined together, let no one separate!”
And I agree with the passages, but not always as they are applied. I believe that yes – No King should force you to divorce your love, especially so that the king can then marry your love. No state should outlaw homosexual unions. Marriage in Jesus’ time and in our time is about a set of rights and privileges. Better tax rates. Who can visit whom in the hospital. Who is permitted to raise children and who isn’t. When people are in love, and God unites them as one – let no human separate them.
But the reverse is also true. No King should force you to marry someone. Oh we did arranged marriages a lot in the time of kings and queens! And no state should force you to marry the one who assaulted you, or is the parent of your child. Marriage never has the prerequisite of love and kindness. Historically, marriage is about money.
Sometimes, we join into a marriage with love and kindness, without a power focus, but it doesn’t stay that way. We are human. We are post Adam and Eve. The marriage can be a harm for the people in it and the community. Therefore, what humans have brought together – let God separate. Sometimes, divorce is the kindness thing that can happen to a couple.
And it will hurt. There’s never a good time for divorce. There will always be hurt, especially if there are children involved.
But only hardness of heart keeps a bad marriage from divorcing, and letting everyone nurse their wounds, seek healing, and begin life again. And only hardness of heart keeps good marriages from happening, and letting all celebrate the love God has given them.
Jesus’ time is not our time. But our issues are often the same. How do we navigate our human laws with divine will? How do we create a world where everyone is not alone, but in relationship with a helper — or two or three or a whole church-full of helpers? How do we lovingly care for those who are married, divorced, single, separated, partnered, widowed, with children or without children?
Who are our neighbors, and how to we serve one another as neighbors and invite one another into healthy, wholesome, helping relationships?
May we never let the hardness of our hearts get in the way of God’s will of love for all. Amen.