The Pharisees were out to trap Jesus in his own words. And what better place to trap Him than in the sticky matter of marriage and divorce. “Is it permitted for a man to divorce his wife?” It’s a trick question, designed to pull Jesus into the middle of an age-old debate. For what cause could a man divorce his wife? The conservative rabbis said only for marital infidelity could a man lawfully divorce his wife. The liberals said for any reason at all, even burning the roast. Where would Jesus fall on this? Would He go with the conservatives or the liberals? Either way, He would make enemies. People would take sides.
Jesus almost never answers the first question put to him. Imagine someone coming to me and asking, “Pastor, is it OK to divorce your wife?” Best not answer that one. Who’s asking and why?
“What did Moses command you?” Jesus sends out the diagnostic question. Moses wrote the first five books of the OT and quite a bit about marriage. Where in Moses would they turn?
“Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and to put her away,” the Pharisees chimed back. Well, not exactly. Deuteronomy 24 says that if a man gets married and finds something “indecent” about his wife (and the rabbis debated exactly what that meant) and if he then writes a bill of divorce and sends her out of his house and she goes off and marries another man and her new husband likewise divorces her or dies, then she can’t go back to the first husband. That would be an abomination to the Lord. In other words, Moses was regulating divorce and remarriage, not permitting it. The Pharisees figured as long as you had your legal paperwork in order before you kicked your wife out of the house, then everything was OK as far as God was concerned.
The Pharisees were looking for loopholes, lawful ways to get rid of their wives without running afoul of God. In their way of looking at things, as long as the letter of the law was followed, as long as there was a proper certificate of divorce signed, sealed, and delivered, then God would have no problem with it.
But Jesus goes right to the heart of the matter. “For your hardness of heart Moses wrote you this commandment.” Divorce is a matter of the heart, not paperwork. Hardness of heart made that law necessary. Hard hearts are another way of saying uncircumcized hearts, the very thing a Pharisee was absolutely sure he didn’t have. Hard hearts are calloused hearts, hardened against the spouse, and hardened against God. Hard hearts are unbelieving hearts, refusing God’s gifts, looking for loopholes to justify the refusal, seeking ways to get rid of another. Hard hearts need to be hemmed in by the law, which is what Moses did. Women were not to be treated like cattle that could be traded back and forth. Divorce severed the marriage bond, and if the woman married another, there was no going back to the first husband. The law protected Israelite women from the callousness of their husbands. But in the hands of a legalist, the same protective law became a license for divorce.
“It was not so from the beginning of creation.” Jesus goes to the will of the Creator. In the beginning. Before sin fouled God’s very good work. On the sixth day of creation, when God made man out of the mud and made a woman out of the man’s side and brought her to the man as a gift. And the man looked at the woman God had made for him and brought to him. And he received her as a gift from God: “At last, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. She will be called ‘woman’ for she was taken from man.”
God’s giving and man’s receiving is the basis for marriage. “A man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” That’s more than simply a figure of speech. “One flesh” expresses a deep and profound reality between husband and wife. Jesus repeats it for emphasis. “They are no longer two but one flesh.”
Marriage is the closest communion that can possibly exist between two people. It is the complete and committed union of a man and a woman into one – physically, emotionally, spiritually. And it’s a closed communion – no one is permitted to drive a wedge between a husband and a wife.
Marriage is the only proper and healthy place for sexual love. Only within marriage can two people be “naked and without shame” before one another. Marriage is intended to be lifelong union. Only within a lifelong union can two people be completely open to each other without fear of one or the other leaving. No other human relationship comes close to this “one flesh” relationship of husband and wife. It is completely unique. The only thing closer is the relationship between Christ and the Church, between Christ and the believer.
We are privileged in this congregation to have a few couples who have been united as one flesh for fifty years or more. Warren and Agnes are the most recent to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. They can teach us what it means to be two become one flesh. They will tell us that it isn’t always easy, that it takes much forgiveness, prayer, and the Word of God. We would do well to take the time and learn from these wise couples whose youthful love has grown over the years into a mature union.
This one flesh union of marriage is God’s doing; His gift. We may choose our spouses, sometimes for the wrong reasons. We may plan our own weddings, not always with the Word and will of God foremost in our minds. We may make our vows, and rent a hall, and hire a disc jockey, and do whatever else goes into a wedding. But God Himself joins husband and wife together by His creative Word and calls them one flesh. And “what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
The Pharisees were looking for loopholes. Jesus instead holds up the gift of God and His will for husband and wife. They are one flesh by God’s Word. And anyone who dares to get between them is answerable to God. In the end, Jesus never answered the Pharisees’ question. He didn’t have to. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Why would you even ask?
Jesus’ disciples heard all of this. And they had questions too. They waited until they were in the house alone with Jesus. And they ask Jesus about this again. This time Jesus delivers it straight and to the point, as he always does when he is alone with his disciples: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
These are tough words from Jesus. They are hard on our ears. He speaks them in private with His disciples. Only those who have heard His call to discipleship can hear this word. To divorce a spouse and marry another is to commit adultery. End of discussion. In Matthew, Jesus makes an exception where adultery has already occurred. People have tried to mess around with this text to soften it up a bit. They have strained with a Pharisee’s magnifying glass trying to find a loophole. But God’s law doesn’t have loopholes. God’s will for marriage is that this one flesh relationship of husband and wife is “until death parts us.” Anything short of that falls short of God’s intent.
Jesus’ words should give us pause. They should make us think twice before getting married. Marriage is a holy estate and an institution of God. It is not ours to play around with as we please. You ought to know the person you are marrying, and you ought to know the family you are marrying into. You ought to share the same faith in Jesus Christ and be able to pray and worship and commune together at the same altar. We need all the help we can get when it comes to marriage. These words of Jesus ought to make us very picky about the kind of persons we choose to marry.
These words of Jesus should also make us think very hard before divorcing our spouses. God hates divorce. Divorce is radical surgery with a blunt instrument. It’s never pretty, never clean. It always leaves open wounds and scars. Ignore those triumphal stories that divorced people tend to tell about how their lives were so much better after they got divorced. They’re not telling you the whole story. Divorce is painful. It’s second only to death in terms of grief and loss. It really is a kind of death, when sin has had its way with God’s gift and one flesh is torn in two. Some of you know the pain first hand.
Divorce happens. We aren’t Adam and Eve. This isn’t Paradise. Sin and death have had their way with marraige. We live in a divorce-oriented world. If the car is broken we get another one. If the house is broken we move. If the congregation is broken we go to another one. If the marriage is broken we leave. Divorce has become almost an accepted part of life. Divorce does happen. It happens to Christians. We need to be honest about this. We need to talk frankly. Most of all we need to confess it and be forgiven. Whenever divorce happens sin is involved. If there were no sin between husband and wife, there would be no divorce. The danger is that hardened hearts tend to become calloused toward God. I’ve never met anyone go through a divorce who wasn’t affected spiritually. Loopholes in the Law won’t help the hurt, either. They just contribute to the hardening.
All that we can do is what a little child does when he breaks something of great value. There’s no use hiding it or making excuses or blaming someone else. The little child picks up the broken pieces and with runny nose and tears streaming down his cheeks, he sets the broken pieces at the feet of mama and papa and says, “I broke it and I’m sorry.”
If you are troubled by these words of Jesus, bring it to confession. That’s what believers in Christ do with the brokenness of their lives, including their broken marriages and their divorces. They gather up the broken pieces and set them at the feet of their heavenly Father and humbly say, “I’m sorry. I broke it.” No excuses. No finger pointing. No loopholes in the law. Confess it before God and His Church, bury it in Jesus’ death, drown it in Baptism, receive Christ’s forgiveness and live as one who has been redeemed by the blood of Jesus. God is gracious to His children. He rests his hand on our head and says, “I forgive you for my Son’s sake.”
Jesus gave His life for us all – the married, the single, the divorced, the little children. He reached out in mercy to a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, five times married and living with number six because she was no longer permitted to marry. He defended a woman caught in adultery from her stone-throwing accusers and He absolved her. He bore our adulteries on the cross. He became the adulterer in our place so that in Him we might become His righteousness.
If you are married, let Jesus be in the middle of your marriage. He is the Source of forgiveness between husband and wife. He must get between husband and wife to soften their hearts, to sweep away their sins, to bind them together as one flesh. As sinners we dare not deal directly with one another. We would destroy one another. Jesus must mediate, get between us. Just as He mediates between God and us, so He must mediate between us, working reconciliation and peace. Only through Jesus can we forgive one another. Only through Jesus can husbands and wives receive each other as gifts from God. Only through Jesus can two become one flesh.
The text this morning is really about more than marriage and divorce. It’s about receiving things in the way of a little child.
The only ones who get things right in the 10th chapter of Mark are the little children. People were bringing little children to Jesus so that He could touch them and bless them. And the disciples became aggravated because all these little kids were crawling around disturbing their quiet time with Jesus. Jesus rebuked them. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And Jesus took the little ones in his arms, and he laid his hands on them and blessed them.
Only the little ones get blessed by Jesus. They don’t come to Him looking for legalistic loopholes. They don’t try to trap Him in His own words. They don’t quibble with the hardness of His teaching. They don’t come boasting about their commandment-keeping. They can’t even come on their own. They have to be brought, like a tiny baby is brought to Baptism. And Jesus says, “Look at these little ones. That’s the way of the kingdom of God.” It’s the way of a little child being given to by Jesus.”
In the way of a little child we receive everything as a gift from God: the saving bath of Holy Baptism; the forgiving words of Absolution; the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper, eternal life, salvation, forgiveness, peace.
And in the same way of childlike trust in the One who gives good gifts to His children, we receive the gift of our spouses, those with whom we are one flesh, “for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death parts us” and we are with the Lord forever.
In Jesus’ name,