Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
The Old Testament and Gospel readings today are probably more than you bargained for. You might be thinking that it would have been a good morning to stay home and have that extra cup of coffee. Committed relationships, marriage, and divorce are sensitive and emotionally charged subjects and can be jam-packed with both good and painful memories.
So, let’s start on a humorous note with the story about the person who goes to see the Rabbi with a serious problem. "Rabbi, something terrible is happening and I have to talk to you about it. My spouse is poisoning me. What should I do?" The Rabbi, very surprised by this, replies, "I’ll tell you what. Let me talk to your spouse. I'll see what I can find out and let you know."
A week later the Rabbi calls this distraught person and says. "I spoke to your spouse on the phone…for three hours. You want my advice?" “Of course, that’s why I came to you!”
The Rabbi replied, "Take the poison."
Notice that I’ve made this story gender neutral. Sometimes we need to start out with a little humor before we get into the muddy waters like this Gospel. I suspect that somewhere between 50 to 75% of any congregation listening to these texts have either been divorced, considered divorce or separation, are the children or parents of divorced people, or have ended a relationship of some importance.
As unpleasant as the Pharisees’ query about divorce is, the subject is very timely. Divorce and separations have risen significantly during the past year and a half of the COVID 19 Pandemic during which couples took the time to re-evaluate their relationships and set their minds on reprioritizing before deciding to either stay together or end the relationship.
In no way does Jesus condemn or judge people who, having entered into marriage, discover that the healthiest thing for both of them may be to end the marriage covenant, and these lessons today are not solely about marriage but about the importance of all relationships in our lives.
What we have here is another shot the Pharisees are taking to trap Jesus and force him into a theological corner. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they ask. The Pharisees knew well that divorce was allowed and was a common practice. Torah states that a man may divorce his wife simply by handing her a certificate of divorce and sending her away. The stark inequality, however, is that a woman was not permitted to divorce her husband for any reason.
There were two schools of thought in the Jewish world of the time—one that divorce was only permissible in the case of infidelity; another that it was allowed for just about any reason, including bad cooking. The Pharisees were trying to get Jesus to take sides with one of these positions.
Jesus throws them a curve ball. In ancient times, women were second class citizens, considered as property, and were to be seen and not heard. Marriage was a guarantee of support for the most vulnerable members of Jewish society—women and children.
Without the protection of the laws against divorce, women were at the mercy of their husbands. The position Jesus takes in this debate is on the side of the less fortunate and vulnerable—the place he will always land.
What Jesus says in this Gospel is by no means the final word on divorce. It is a response to a question posed by his fiercest critics who came with the explicit intention of making a fool of him. Jesus is avowing his support for anyone who is hurt, broken, and made vulnerable because of the termination of a long-term relationship—regardless of what the reasons for its breakdown might be.
Jesus was all about moving forward, not looking back. He told his followers that they should go out and spread the Good News about God’s love and mercy and when they left a place that rejected their message to keep moving on—and not look back. The Gospel is the Good News of liberation for all God’s people. Today we hear the good news about God’s intention for human relationships. God does not want us to be alone and is on the side of unity, community, and relationship. But God is also on the side of health and wholeness and doesn’t want us to remain in relationships that threaten those things.
God created us to be in relationships that may come in all kinds and are all equally blessed in God’s realm. Sometimes that involves a person with whom we share our entire life or several years of it.
Or it may be a short-term friendship that nurtures us for a while but one or both people need to move on. Sometimes it involves an intentional family of choice like the people with whom we live or work or play or learn or worship—even someone we meet on a train or plane or in the grocery store.
Tova Maris is an Orthodox Jewish woman who describes her divorce experience for a series she wrote for the New York Times, a divorce that came after 17 years of marriage to an Orthodox Jewish man—in a culture in which to this day only the husband has the right to send the wife away from his house.
On the day of her divorce, just before she left the rabbinical court, the chief rabbi looked her in the eyes as she prepared herself for his judgment and rebuke. Instead, he said kindly, “Don’t look back. Go forth, become the person you need to be” Tova smiled, nodded, and then, as they did at the conclusion of her wedding years before, the rabbis wished her mazel tov.
All of our associations, unions and relationships—even when there are bumps along the way, even when there is separation— teach us valuable life lessons, sustain and challenge us, and help us to grow. They are gifts from God, sacred stepping-stones in our lives and we are grateful for them all. Every relationship is a new beginning. If they need to end, don’t look back. Go forth. Jesus, too, wishes us mazel tov.