Sabbath Day Thoughts — Mark 10:2-16 “When Dreams Die”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on our health—and hard on our marriages. As employers furloughed workers or businesses went virtual, couples found themselves spending more time together and lots of it. That round-the-clock intimacy has been complicated by other factors. Lay offs and job loss have meant less income and greater economic pressure. Social distance has stretched the limits of our family and friend support network. If you have kids, closed schools and quarantined daycares created impossible challenges of childcare, homeschooling, and distance learning.
Studies show that during the first seven to eight months of the pandemic, the divorce rate surged. That spring, a survey of 1,277 couples found that 29.9% of them said they were in serious trouble and headed for divorce. Ken Jewell, a New Yok City divorce lawyer, related that when his office reopened after the shut-down in June 2020, he saw a 48% jump in requests for counsel. A further dark consequence of the COVID crisis has been an increase in domestic violence and substance abuse. Apostles’ House in Newark, a shelter for women and children, reports that their beds have been full throughout the pandemic.
Beyond the social science and the statistics, we all know couples whose marriages have become fraught, embattled, or failed over the past year and a half. Young couples with children, middle-aged empty-nesters, and even retired folks with years of marriage under their belts are calling it quits. There is a lot of heart-ache out there. Weddings are among the most hopeful and joyous moments in our lives. When those dreams die, they take a piece of us with them.
The Pharisees put Jesus to the test with a question about divorce, “Tell us, rabbi, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The fact that the Pharisees knew by heart what the Torah had to say about divorce reveals that there was a larger controversy brewing. Deuteronomy 24 instructs that a man my write a certificate of divorce if his wife commits an “erwat dabar”—an indecent thing. The two great rabbinic traditions of Jesus’ day disagreed about what an indecent thing might be. The Hillel School taught that it was up to the husband’s discretion. A poorly cooked meal, childlessness, failure to observe the Torah, sexual immorality, or inability to complete household tasks, all could be grounds for divorce. The Shammai School allowed men to divorce wives for only one reason: serious infidelity. The Pharisees anticipated that Jesus’ response, one way or the other, would make him enemies.
It is likely that Jesus’ answer offended everyone. It certainly left the disciples scratching their heads and asking more questions. Instead of weighing in on what indecent thing would be grounds for divorce, Jesus called his listeners to re-think their understanding of marriage. Jesus turned to the creation stories of Genesis in which humanity is created male and female in God’s image. Something sacred is stamped upon each of us, and we are given to one another in the covenant of marriage. Two become one with God at the center of the relationship. In that union, we find a wholeness and completeness that was part of God’s plan right from the start. “What God has joined together,” Jesus teaches, “Let no one separate.”
Behind Jesus’ words lies a deep pastoral concern for women. According to Jewish law, a woman had no right to divorce her husband on any ground. It is hard for us to understand, but in first century Israel, women were a little like sexual property. Young women passed from a father’s household to a husband’s household in an arranged agreement that had monetary and social benefit for the father. The husband had every legal right to dismiss the wife at his discretion, like bad goods that failed to live up to their anticipated benefit. The impact of divorce upon a woman could be catastrophic. She might be able to return to her kinfolk. If not, she had no safety net—no alimony, no property rights, no home, no right to even parent her own children. She depended on the charity of neighbors or was forced to beg or resort to prostitution.
Jesus’s teaching about divorce contradicted this prevailing notion of women as property. Indeed, Jesus’s suggestion that women could divorce husbands would have sounded deeply shocking and offensive to the Pharisees. Jesus invited his listeners to see women as beings created in God’s image, whose equal footing was essential to wholeness in marriage. Marriage—this shared sacred identity and need for wholeness—was at the heart of God’s best hope for humanity. Jesus’s words were—and still are—a radical, counter-cultural, deeply truthful lesson.
Despite God’s original intent and Jesus’ provocative teaching, divorce persists. Presbyterians have been debating it since the Westminster Assembly of the Divines met in 1647. They allowed for divorce by husbands or wives in cases of adultery and willful desertion. The aggrieved party could later remarry “as if the offending party were dead.” Our denomination’s current stance on divorce is best expressed in a 1981 revision of the Westminster Confession. We acknowledge God’s holy intent for marriage, yet we also recognize the frailty and sin of humankind, “The weakness of one or both partners may lead to the gross and persistent denial of the marriage vows so that the marriage dies at the heart and becomes intolerable.” When dreams die, separation and divorce may become acceptable and permissible. That same guidance applies to traditional unions and to our refined definition of marriage, adopted in 2014, between “two people.”
Beyond the words of scripture, the teaching of Jesus, and the guidance of the church, is the uniquely painful reality of divorce. It feels like something dies at the heart. On the day in 2004 when I accepted this church’s call to serve as your pastor, I stood in the pulpit and shared that I was divorced. A brief, early marriage to my college boyfriend had come to a sad end, more than a decade earlier. My ex-husband’s adultery and “willful desertion” might have ticked all the boxes for the Westminster Assembly of the Divines, but it didn’t make me feel any better. I had felt profound grief, shame, rejection, and a visceral pain that told me that part of my heart was dying. I know that many of you in your own experience have felt the same, whether you have been through divorce or experienced the end of a long-time committed relationship, whether you are children of divorced parents or your adult children have suffered through divorce.
That collective pain of divorce is so great that it is tempting to not preach about it at all. Jesus, we hear your beautiful vision of marriage that is sacred and deeply reverent with God at the very heart of it. We freely acknowledge that there would be a whole lot less divorce, and many more happy marriages, if those relationships were entered into in the spirit of your teaching. But Adam and Eve have left the garden. We live in a frail and fallen world where we regularly disappoint you and one another. Lord, have mercy upon us.
It’s significant that Jesus followed his tough teaching on divorce with the blessing of children, those most vulnerable and lowest status members of the Hebrew household. Although the disciples wished to turn the children away as a waste of Jesus’s time, the Lord welcomed them and blessed them. Jesus welcomed the children, the outsider, the vulnerable, the rejected, the leper, the Pharisee, the low-status-second-class citizen. It’s safe to presume that Jesus welcomed the divorced. It’s safe to say that Jesus continues to welcome those who are divorced. The grace of Jesus Christ is always sufficient for us. Thanks be to God.
The most recent studies of marriage have shown that as the pandemic has continued, the divorce rate has levelled and begun to decline. Some of the reasons for that may not be good. The economic strain of the pandemic may have forced couples to remain together. The lack of childcare has put plans for separation on hold. Closed courts and a backlog of cases may be causing a temporary lull. Five states that make divorce rates public are showing a drop in the number of couples rushing to the courts. A recent survey of 2,429 couples found that 17% of those questioned now say that their marriage has been strengthened by the pandemic. They began to communicate better. More time together deepened their appreciation for one another. They spent time with the kids, exercised together, cooked together, and cultivated new shared hobbies. Their feelings changed for the better. Perhaps they began to glimpse in their spouses that sacred image that each of us bears. Perhaps they are now finding in one another that wholeness and completeness that God originally planned.
Mallozzi, Vincent. “Divorce Rates Are Now Dropping: Here Are Some Reasons Why” in The New York Times, March 24, 101`. Accessed online at nytimes.com.
Staniunas, David. “Marriage, Divorce, and Mariners” in Presbyterian Historical Society Newsletter, June 26, 2014. Accessed online at pcusa.org.
Wall, Robert W. “Divorce” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Meyers, Ched. Binding the Strongman. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988.
Ruge-Jones, Philip. “Commentary on Mark 10:2-16” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 7, 2018. Accessed online at workingpreacher.com.
Thompson, James J. “Theological Perspective on Mark 10:2-16” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.