Divorcing Legalism

Epiphany 6A: Matthew 5:21-37

2213897687_a71556beccDespite the popular opinion that Jesus makes life easier and negates the need to be familiar with the laws or God of the “Old Testament” or “Hebrew Scriptures,” Jesus actually makes life and following the laws harder in this passage from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.

He told us that he didn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them; “not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” This is bad news for anyone who likes shellfish and poly-cotton blends.

And now Jesus offers his “you have heard it said…but I say to you…” dissertation on murder, anger, adultery, swearing, and divorce. Basically he makes the law harder in an attempt to re-re-re-reveal the intention of these laws (God has been trying to get this through our thick heads since the beginning of time). Not only can’t you murder, but you can’t be angry because the point of not murdering is not destroying life and relationship, and if you hurl insults and are all disgruntled, you’re going to harm relationships and make life a major downer for everyone around you.

But what about this divorce one? I immediately asked myself some questions:

  • What can I say about divorce? I’ve never been divorced…my parents are still married. I don’t have much credibility in this arena.
  • What can be said about divorce, given that some who read this are divorced or have divorced parents and friends?
  • What is the true intention of the law that Jesus is getting at here?

According to Matthew, Jesus says, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

What I see happening here is a moment when Jesus seems to be challenging legalists by pushing legalism to its extremes…in the case of divorce as well as the other topics mentioned above. He’s making the legal concept of divorce stricter and more complicated in order to reveal that marriage in intended to enhance life, not restrict it or make it loathsome.

Marriage, like Jesus, makes life harder in some ways—but more joyful in others (I’m told…I’m not getting married until this summer). But when a marriage is not cared for by one or both people, its health tends to suffer.

Frank Wade, an Episcopal Priest and author of The Art of Being Together, a book that I highly recommend to anyone in or thinking about marriage, compares marriages to children. A child should be raised by parents, cared for by parents and professionals (when broken bones and burst appendices ensue), and given lots of love and attention. “But when a child, or a marriage, dies it needs to be buried…Divorce is not a problem-solving technique nor the antidote to boredom nor an excuse to avoid the issues of life…Divorce is what needs to be done when what was supposed to live is found to be dead. Divorcing too soon is like burying a sick child. Divorcing too late is like living with an open casket in the house. Divorce, when it is right, is the most loving thing that a couple can do for one another.”

Put this way, divorce can actually be the healthiest option in salvaging the relationship. Two divorced people may no longer be married, but if they have children and if they have divorced for the sake of each other’s well being, they may have—in divorce—actually cared for the relationship the best way that they possibly could.

While there may be plenty of examples of people who didn’t try hard enough to “make it work,” maybe we should be careful to not become so legalistic about marriage that we forget about the importance of relationship.

Maybe your marriage is in good shape, or maybe you’re not looking to get married. This works on so many different levels! Think of any of your professional or personal relationships…what boundaries need to be set in order to make those relationships the best they can possibly be? What about your relationship to intangible things like work, your schedule, or your money?

Jesus came for many reasons, and one was in order that we might learn to better relate to God through our common life, our way of living, and through our relationships. It may seem more uncertain to imagine that God isn’t as legalistic as we want God to be—we want clearly-defined rules about this and that, but God is more about intention, and Jesus shows us that God’s intention is to enhance our lives through relationship.

The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Sometimes using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.