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Preaching on divorce

  • 06 December 2012

What goes through a preacher's mind is often a mystery, sometimes to the preacher, too. Most readers will see it as a minor mystery not worth exploring. But a writer, like myself, who is also a preacher has the privilege of writing for small audiences.

Most of us Christian preachers base our sermons on texts of Scripture. That, of course, leaves us at the mercy of the text for the day. Many Catholic preachers, for example, groan on finding, for example, that Jesus' strong judgment on divorce is set for Sunday.

This passage (Mark 10.2–6) relates Jesus' response to a group of Pharisees. One of them asks him whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Whichever way he answers he will be in trouble. Jesus replies with a question — What did Moses, the recognised authority, have to say?

They answer that Moses allowed wives to be dismissed. Jesus then appeals to the greater authority of the story of creation, in which husband and wife are said to form one flesh. This shows that marriage is indissoluble, and that men and women who divorce and remarry commit adultery.

If we preachers groan when faced by this passage, it is because we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. We see ourselves as standing under Scripture, called to interpret it faithfully. This forbids us to avoid difficult texts or to slide over them.

But we also know the congregations to whom we preach. Many members of the congregation, and indeed of our own families, are likely to be divorced and to have remarried. We know, too, that the coinage of broken relationships is pain, not blame, and that those whose marriages have failed may harbour guilt, shame and a belief that they are second class Christians.

They need encouragement, not the condemnation that a sermon based on this passage seems to invite.

The resolution of this tension lies, as so often in dealing with difficult texts, not in cutting and running but in burrowing more deeply into the text and its context. When seen against its context this story is not about law, crime, condemnation and shame, but about relationship and respect or disrespect.

The conversation between Jesus and the