Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 7th October 2012
7 October 2012 at 11:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon Steward and Archdeacon of Westminster
If you are a person who is divorced and now married again, listening to today’s gospel will have been an uncomfortable and even painful experience for you. It’s pretty uncomfortable even for those of us not in that position.
This seemingly clear teaching from Jesus about divorce has caused the Church and individual Christians over the years a fair amount of heart searching. The Church of England for a very long time maintained a position of not allowing divorcees to re-marry in Church; but after many debates in General Synod and at local level; it is now left to the discretion of Parish Priests to decide for themselves if they will re-marry divorcees, albeit having to follow some pretty ROBUST GUIDELINES.
But which ever way we respond to this teaching of Jesus we can find ourselves in difficulty.
If we take what might be described as a strong line - not believing in the re-marriage of anyone who has a former spouse still living; we are in danger of being seen as uncompassionate, unfeeling, and lacking in understanding of the pressures with which people live.
If on the other hand we believe that the Gospel teaches that people should be given a second chance and the opportunity to build a new life and so we support the practice of re-marrying divorcees, we lay ourselves open to the charge of watering down the teaching of Christ and undermining the life-long commitment called for in the marriage service.
So what are we to make of the teaching in today’s gospel?
As on so many occasions Jesus’s teaching on this sensitive subject needs to be set in context. By doing that we can be helped enormously in terms of understanding what he is really saying.
First, let us consider why the Pharisees are asking the question about divorce. St Mark tells us that they were trying to test Jesus - perhaps attempting to trap him into undermining the Law of Moses. But Jesus is too clever for them and as he does quite often, he bounces their question back, asking them, 'What did Moses teach?'
They reply that Moses allowed a certificate of divorce to be written.
We find the roots of this practice in the book of Deuteronomy (Chapter 24). There the law states that if a woman does not please her husband because he finds something objectionable about her, he can issue a certificate of divorce send her away. If she then has a second husband, he can also decide that he dislikes her and do the same.
But, says Deuteronomy, under these circumstances the first husband must not take her back as she is now considered defiled and such an act would be abhorrent to God!
It is quite clear from this passage in Deuteronomy that women at that time could be treated pretty abysmally - not much better than objects to be discarded on a whim. And to be sent away from her husband could leave a woman absolutely destitute.
Jesus’s teaching about divorce, when we see it in this context does not come across as harshly as it may at first appear to us. On the contrary, what he is teaching restores dignity to women and encourages mutual respect in a marriage relationship.
As he teaches this he also sets it in the wider context of the whole creation. He takes his listeners back to the stories in Genesis; to the Garden of Eden of which we heard in our Old Testament lesson this morning. Here we were reminded that men and women were created to be partners with each other and to provide companionship.
Ideally men and women should work together, in unity of purpose, caring for each other and for God’s world.
This is the communion for which we were made, with each other and with God, and marriage is a particular and special way of expressing this relationship.
So as individuals reflecting on today’s gospel we need to recognise that Jesus is calling for serious commitment to a life-long partnership in marriage and indeed for mutual respect and a desire to want the best for others in all our relationships.
However, we know from his life and teaching that he always showed compassion for those who didn’t manage to live up to his ideals. And I think we can be sure that he would not wish people to feel trapped in an unhappy or loveless relationship or not to be able to have the chance to establish a fresh commitment to a new partnership after the breakdown of a previous one.
Then as the wider Christian community we must all take responsibility for helping to uphold married couples and families, not condemning them when they break up, but offering helpful preparation for marriage and appropriate support when people find their relationship in difficulties.
As we look at today’s gospel as a whole we discover besides Jesus’s words about the relationship of men and women in marriage that he also had some radical things to say about the place of children.
We’re presented with the scene of people bringing their children to Jesus to be blessed and the disciples shooing them away. Jesus, we’re told was indignant when he saw this happening. He then welcomes the children and uses them as a powerful illustration to the adults present, saying, 'I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it'.
So, just as Jesus in his teaching about divorce displayed concern for the protection of women in particular; here he displays concern for children - another vulnerable group who were discounted by others as not being worthy of his attention.
Once again we see Jesus turning worldly thinking upside down as he says it is these 'little' people who model for us the natural trust that God is looking for in those who will be part of his kingdom.
So today’s readings encourage us to ask some profound questions of ourselves:
Are we concerned enough for those who are vulnerable in today’s world - taking to heart that Jesus was most concerned in his ministry for the downtrodden and outcast?
Do we conduct our relationships in the context of believing that God has a purpose for us and those with whom we share our lives?
And do we truly understand that when things go wrong in our lives that God is a God of compassion whose will is for us to thrive and to grow in communion with him and with all that he has made.