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Preaching on divorce


Broken wedding ringWhat 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 Pharisee is a set-up. The questioner had no interest in exploring the question he asked. He wanted only to trap Jesus into taking a position on a disputed point so that he could then be wedged. The questioner had respect neither for Jesus nor for the integrity of the conversation.

The wording of the question asked by the Pharisee also betrays a lack of respect that is entrenched within society. He asks whether a husband can ditch his wife at will. The question implies that a wife is a possession and that her rights and interiority count for nothing.

Jesus' tactic is to make his opponent name their shared legal authorities, and trump him by appealing to a more fundamental authority that deals with marriage in terms of relationship and not property rights. The statement that wife and husband are one flesh implies a unity of body and spirit and so a mutual respect. A relationship of this quality would make it impossible for either partner to dump the other by signing a bit of paper.

Jesus' focus on respect within relationships also invites judgment on the conversation into which he has been forced. The way his adversaries have turned conversation from an opportunity to seek truth together into an occasion of entrapment demonstrates a lack of respect. And their posing of the question in terms of getting rid of a wife shows a lack of respect for women. They treat conversation and marriage as an exercise of power.

Seen in context this story has much to make a modern hearer think. The insistence that marriage, like other human connections, is about total respect within a relationship, has challenging implications.

The idealism of this view of marriage and the adversarial context of Jesus' words also suggest that he is not condemning the majority of people whose marriages have broken. The distance and resentments that may come to infect their relationship are not attributable to an arbitrary exercise of power but more often to human weakness. And the partners may well have learned respect and faithfulness in a second marriage.

The priority given to relationship over power and condemnation calls into judgment critical attitudes to divorced people. To see them through the lens of sin, condemnation and exclusion mirrors the approach to law and power exemplified in Jesus' adversaries. If seen through the lens of relationship and respect they will be seen in their shared and frail humanity.

This text is not primarily about sex but about justice in relationships. It calls into question the use of power and law on Nauru and Manus Island as much as in the family home. 

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, divorce



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Existing comments

The Pharisee's question to Jesus "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" reflects the male dominance of Jesus' day. If a sermon is to be relevant to today, then, of course, thought needs to be given to the number of women who initate divorce. It's still about relationship breakdown, it's still about a deep loss within that relationship - but the statistics show that women often 'do better' after a divorce than men. This topic would indeed be difficult for a contemporary preacher to tackle. The Kasey Chambers song 'Guilty' may be worth listening to, after a careful mining of scripture.

Pam | 06 December 2012  

If two people enter into a marriage in which one or both are insuficiently emotionally mature to commit to life long "faithfulness and respect", doesn't this constitute a "clayton's marriage"? In other words, the marriage you have when you're not having a marriage....and aren't there lots of them!

Claude Rigney | 06 December 2012  

And the partners may well experience love in a second relationship, and wouldn't that be a good outcome. There is still to me an underlying tone of judgement, when divorce is seen as 'weakness' and 'failure', and people are to be forgiven for not 'making' it. The whole area of relationships must be seen as part of an entirely different cultural matrix that one that existed two thousand years ago in the Middle East, before the text can be applied.

Pauline | 06 December 2012  

Well said! I was interested to see there was no comment on women initiating divorce as I did. The psychological abuse became too distressing. Best thing I ever did.

judy lawson | 06 December 2012  

Look at what Mark 10.2 6 actually says: "And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him. He answered...What did Moses command you? ..they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. And Jesus answered... For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man ... cleave to his wife; And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery." That is absolutely clear, unambiguous and decisive, surely! If you don't think divorce is equivalent to adultery, you disagree with Jesus on this issue. Why is that so difficult to admit, Mr Hamilton?

Monty | 06 December 2012  

There is certainly no condemnation from Jesus but in mk 10:11-12 Jesus is very clear. You can't water that down or weasel out of it. I notice also you don't mention children here and while its nice that you don't want to upset divorced people what about children of divorce? Who speaks up for them after their lives are torn apart? I notice Jesus goes straight to them after this teaching.

david | 06 December 2012  

The Pharisee keep on living amongst us! In most peoples eyes the Pharisee were seen as hypocrites and they are still widely distrusted amongst people of the people smuggling industry. They cause a lot of evil by trying to entice people to their death and they continue to hide amongst churches and charity organisations. Eureka Street may remains one of the best voices of today’s Pharisee.

Beat Odermatt | 06 December 2012  

Second marriage?? Jesus says you can only be married once. And see them through the lens of sin - while Jesus doesn't see divorce through the lens of sin he does see it that way for a second marriage. Unequivocally. I can only imagine how hard this is for someone who is divorced and remarried to read this but Jesus wasn't hated for no reason. The truth is often hard to take and divorce is really serious. It is an incredibly hard teaching but I think its dangerous to water it down.

David | 06 December 2012  


Ruth | 06 December 2012  

As a child of divorced parents, I find this piece disturbing. It gives the impression that divorce is primarily about the couple, not the family that is torn apart. It's no small thing to experience, whether you're a child or an adult (as I was). Of course respect and faithfulness may be found in second marriages. They may also be found in third, or fourth marriages. How do we fit our ideals for marriage with our knowledge of human brokenness and weakness? Can we continue to boldly declare a valid marriage IS for life, while being loving towards those whose marriages end by divorce? Of course we can. I feel this was a missed opportunity to explain where the Catholic Church is coming from, when it stubbornly holds fast to the truth of its teachings on marriage. They may be hard teachings to live out, but the same can be said for "forgive your enemy", "love your neighbour as yourself", "Your will, not mine"...

Meg | 06 December 2012  

I thought that this was a very insightful piece of comment and quite instructive until the last sentence blew the whole argument out of the water.

john frawley | 06 December 2012  

Marty, David and Meg, Thanks for your comments, and the advice implicit in them to emphasise in preaching that divorce is wrong and contrary to Jesus' teaching. I think that we do share some common ground, especially that Jesus' ideal of marriage is of a relationship inspired by love and respect, and so one that makes two into one flesh. That presupposes that marriage is 'forever'. That leads to the question of how we speak of marriage to those whose marriages may have broken. Again, we would surely agree that we should speak with the simple respect and love which also characterises Jesus' behaviour and teaching. We may differ in that my experience is that speaking of marriage in terms like law and validity - helpful in describing the ordering of Christian life - often alienates people from church and faith. Furthermore, my point in the article was to suggest that to describe all divorce and remarriage precisely as adultery misses the context of Jesus' words. He was describing the arbitrary dismissal by one partner of the unwilling other in order to remarry. Love and respect are totally lacking. So adultery seems an appropriate description. But this does not characterise the situation of people whose have long been irrevocably separated and later remarry, etc. To call this latter situation adultery is stretching language. But I would agree that the breakdown of relationships of any kind, and so of marriage, always involves weakness and - in Christian terms - sinfulness. Precisely because they are between human beings. Jesus' emphases also make it important to encourage love and respect in existing relationships and commitments, both in marriages and in other relationships. To advise a previously married person long and irrevocably separated from their spouse to leave partner and children from a second marriage would be unconscionable. And I agree that there is much more to be said about divorce than can be said in a single sermon. The children of a marriage certainly also call for love and respect no less than the partner. And the consequences of marriage breakdown do often harm the children, just as does life in an abusive marriage. There is nothing to rejoice in when a marriage breaks. Finally, the more we reflect on the implications of love and respect within marriage and our conversation about people, the deeper and less watered down will be our understanding of marriage.

andy hamilton | 06 December 2012  

Thanks Andy for your response, but...

Jesus doesn't qualify his statement the way you think he should have. He doesn't say "commits adultery against her if he just does it to take off with someone else". I think we have to take him at face value and not presume that he meant something else. Surely his words were eternal and not just meant contextually for that time. It feels like we are weaseling out of it and that message is not a good one for a culture that already gets divorced very easily.

Marriage breakdown always harms children.

I don't know what you say to people who are remarried with new kids but I think you can really only be married once. Any other relationship is never really the same thing. I think that's the truth and telling people anything other than the truth doesn't really help them.

It's a tough one particularly in our sexually mad culture, but we need to get back to preaching the truth on it.

And personally I am offended when the priest preaches that divorce is all ok so people don't feel bad and forgets what thats like for the children of those divorces.

Kind regards

David | 06 December 2012  

I adored my husband of 17 years. He obviously didn't adore me so much for he left for another. I was broken. My four children grew into beautiful adults and I grew into an ever deepening love for Jesus. I married again 13 years later. I believe, through my experience, that divorce is another paradigm for death/ressurection. I wouldn't change a thing! Trish

Patricia Taylor | 06 December 2012  

When I read Monty's response to this essay my first response is Groan. It is also not clear why John Frawley thinks the final sentence blows the argument out of the water, as he so gently puts it. Andrew seems to be saying that the main concern of Jesus is effective and truthful relationship, about proper loving concern for those we have responsibility for. Jesus is making us wake up, all the time. Meanwhile we slumber on through friends' divorces and family tragedies and refugee misfortunes in our little dream of self-satisfaction. But Jesus is saying WAKE UP.

FROM THE GALLERY | 06 December 2012  

Andrew you have not mentioned that the Church has the power to declare a marriage null and void, and in the past an annulment could be 'bought' if certain conditions were met (such as lack of full consent by each person).

Trish Martin | 06 December 2012  

Many comments about marriage/divorce reveal a flaw in the way marriage is characterised and identified. Marriage is generally pivoted exclusively on the words of promise at the wedding, and not on the dynamics of relationship that follow. Thus, a marriage is what is commenced by first-time vows, no matter what sort of hell-hole the relationship becomes afterwards. This approach leads to disapproval of every separation, every remarriage, even in the least-worst cases where abuse forces one to leave. The objection that no-one’s compelled to stay in a spirit-deadening or life-threatening situation is always qualified: the person must never remarry.

The wholesale disapproval of divorce/prohibition on remarriage encourages an attitude of outward form, not of substance. Given many have no idea what life-long commitment entails when they say vows in the throes of romantic love or emotional desperation, and that the quality of many vows is simply unable to be relied upon, this sort of approach is a very reductionist, legalistic one. It leads to absurd denials that long-separated couples are in any way not-married or that long-term remarried couples are in no way married.

Some deep injustice/hurt is inflicted when a marriage, and any expectations, is sundered. But shattered vessels can never be restored as many unseparated, un-divorced or un-remarried would appear to insist. And if good could never come out of bad, as some moral theoreticians say, it’s time for us all to get out the razor blades! (No wonder preachers are wary!)

smk | 06 December 2012  

Fr H too eagerly resorts to the use of the ever elusive"we"as if his agonising experience of preaching on said text resonates with all["we"] other preachers; [unless he has done a scientific scrutiny of preachers on said text]. Whatever be re FrH Nauru-Manus reductionisms, the given text has been authoritatively exegeted by the magisterium for 2000 years in the condemnation of the dissolution of the marriage bond by common law

father john george | 06 December 2012  

Jesus always holds up to us the ideals of what we have come to call Christian living. He encourages us to aspire to what is "perfect." He also showed us the way of loving forgiveness when we fall short of the ideal. No matter the area of our failing, forgiveness is unconditional. Those who have suffered failed marriages are held deeply in his compassionate love. Jesus' teaching on marriage must always be held in the context of the totality of the Gospel message. And yes, marriage is not the only area of our failures!!

Tricia | 06 December 2012  

Jesus said:"It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin"[pedophiles?] [Doesnt sound like unconditional forgiveness to those not attaining the ideal! Tricia

father john george | 06 December 2012  

Context is everything. Scripture scholars estimate that Mark's account of the Good News reached it final form in the 60s, about 30 years after Jesus' death. In arranging his material (short sayings attributed to Jesus, various memories of what Jesus said and did) Mark seems to be trying to draw out the inner meaning of these scraps. Like Socrates, Jesus's life and teaching were written by an admirer and never vetted by Jesus. Hence the importance of context. The Pharisees knew what the Mosaic Law said about divorce. They knew about Moses' exemption. Their motive in asking the question? "They were tempting (testing?) him." (Mark 10:2/3) Jesus, like Socrates, by-passes the nit-picking legal question and goes to the deeper philosophical/theological/social question. What is the nature of a good marriage? He quotes Genesis 1:27 & 2:24. And elucidates what God has united, man must not divide. The part played by God's grace in a good marriage is fundamental. That is why the church under the leadership of Peter and Paul established faith-based guidelines for a Christian marriage to be dissolved. In more recent times the Church has propagated more widely the reasons why a marriage might be null and void

Uncle Pat | 06 December 2012  

No FATHER GEORGE, pedophiles are not "causing one of these little ones to sin" - they hold the entire weight of the sin themselves. And as for second marriages - they are admissible under church teaching when one's spouse dies.

AURELIUS | 07 December 2012  

So marriage is never 'Bad'? is divorce justified when there is abuse of any kind? There are so many reasons why marriages and relationships breakdown.If respect cannot flourish, I think a marriage is over when a relationship is not able to be salvaged, and it is not healthy.Humans are not God, and Christ came to enlighten us in new ways of living in true equality, and tolerance for difference.He came to show us what the possibilities were if we could love generously, but many just do not have the support, education and perhaps emotional and mental health (due to stress,illness, trauma and genetics.?) We are not all gifted with the same social skills.I think Christ would not want any one to stay in a loveless relationship.Many marriages are not real marriages at all.

Catherine | 07 December 2012  

Catherine astutely hits a nail on the head that armchair theorists don't seem to get. Take the situation where two people hate and fear each other: no love, no grace, no community - sadness, loneliness, alcoholism, constant reproach, black eyes (and worse), etc etc. The "loveless marriage" is an oxymoron in many ways. For whatever reason relationships fail and go down the gurgler, the stasis point of not love but loathing must mean, in any way you wish except the purely legal, that marriage has simply ceased to be, dead, defunct, expired, just like the parrot. No-one disputes the fact that the end of a marriage is fraught, painful, often unjust, tragic. But we do dispute when the end comes: the unmarried,or coincidentally happily married, or the grieving within the Church insist that the end comes never this side of death; whereas the rest look at the facts and insist the end comes when cohabitation becomes an environment for enduring solitary misery and sin. Catherine reminds us not to throw out commonsense and existential realities for the sake of speculative theology.

smk | 08 December 2012  

Sorry Trish, but the Church does not have power to declare a marriage null and void. It might arrogantly choose not to recognise a marriage validly contracted but that doesn't make it null and void. The Church lost its control over marriage a long time ago. Marriage in this country is a civil contract and it may only be dissolved according to civil law. When priests and other clergy join a couple in marriage they are acting as agents of the State. The civil law defines who may or may not marry and in what circumstances, and if, when, and how the marriage may be terminated. This law has not been carved in stone and handed down from a cloud-covered mountain, nor is it fixed in time. The law has changed over time and will no doubt continue to change. It seems to me to be a pity that whenever the Church begins to talk about the nature of the relationships within marriage partnerships the conversation bogs down on questions of religious rules, usually to do with sex, which, for most people, especially those undergoing stress in those relationships, are unhelpful at best. And if I read Andrew correctly, that is the conundrum with which he is trying to get us to grapple.

Ginger Meggs | 08 December 2012  

Mr. Meggs I as marriage celebrant act on behalf of church and State. The dual role of the priest is a mere 'marriage of convenience'-versus "double marriages" in some countries[the state fully cognisant of RCC opposition to civil dissolution of the marital bond.] The church has the power to declare a marriage after due rigorous process to have been invalid,from the start, in the eyes of the church-[the church in some dioceses insists the couple of the proposed declared invalid marriage seek a legal separation['imperfect divorce'] before the church declares the marriage to have been invalid, from the start. Neither the church nullity nor civil divorce dissolve the abovementioned marriage since it was invalid from the beginning[the civil divorce[divortium imperfectum or mere civil separation] is meant merely to handle any legal fall out for couples upon the church declaration of nullity. Mr. Megg's civil reductionisms belie highly nuanced and carefully honed role of church celebrant representing church and state, without in any way endorsing civil dissolution of marriage[at best a legal fiction in church's eyes] Civil legal separation['divortium imperfectum'] is permitted in circs above as a prelude to church declaration of nullity.

father john george | 08 December 2012  

Thank you for the understanding.

Bev Smith | 09 December 2012  

Wonderful skill, Andrew, and so confirming for today's people, some of whom remain burdened by the judgements inherent in Monty's reading of the same scriptural texts. Yourself were so competent in the area that you did not even have to draw upon the ergonomics of the exegesis of such synoptic passages. A tribute to you and to your ongoing services to those who believe.

herbie | 09 December 2012  

Imagine if the church supported same-sex marriages and the same teaching on divorce applied to them - wouldn't our society be so much more stable and so many people's burdens be lifted? That everyone can hope to find that one special person and share their lives together through sickness and health, good times and bad, till death do they part.

AURELIUS | 12 December 2012  

Well said Aurelius, and imagine if it focused on the importance of growing the relationship per se rather than seeing procreation as its principal function.

Ginger Meggs | 13 December 2012  

Mr. Meggs the intrinsic relationship, that god ordained in marriage, concerned copious relationships with progeny[God said "Go forth and multiply" not subtract and divide]

father john george | 13 December 2012  

That's the problem with tribal gods created in man's image - they tend to reinforce the group-think of the time. What might make sense for a small group with a high rate of infant mortality and no shortage of space is patently ridiculous when the group has multiplied so much that it represents a real and present threat to the environment in which it lives and on which its survival depends. A lot has happened in the world since Genesis was written, John George.

Ginger Meggs | 14 December 2012  

Contrary to Fr H, whatever the feelings of spouses, a true marriage never "breaks". It just can't. A true marriage is not a mere human positive law contract, susceptible to rescission. Yes, a marriage is indeed a contract. But unlike other contracts, it creates a RELATIONSHIP that sounds in the natural law. Husband/wife is like mother/daughter, father/daughter, aunt/nephew, and so on. Neither all the positive laws of the most powerful states in the history of the world, nor all the familial hatreds that might sadly occur, can eradicate the metaphysical ontology of a natural mother/son, father/daughter (e.g.) relationship. Neither, despite what they purport, can they deny the equally firmly grounded relationship of husband and wife. Any more than those laws could successfully overturn the Law of Gravity on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and every second Sunday.

One of the reasons for marriage "breakdown" these days is that couples haven't been educated to appreciate the incredible mystery of what they are entering. If they were to be told in pre-marriage instruction: "Your relationship to your spouse will be as indelible in this life to your relationship to your mother or father or your children", what would they think?

[Of course, if someone entered into marriage not aware of the terms of the contract, then they could claim “non est factum” and if verified, the marriage would be void in Church and civil law. Which tragedy only emphasises the importance of accurate and careful instruction.]

Priests, ask yourselves: “How effectively do I communicate these fundamental Catholic (and natural law) truths?”

I’m not saying all this with a stone heart. Dear and lifelong friends of mine (with children) are separating in the most distressing way. Yet still they both intend to abide by the flint-hard truth of the Church. Even in hardship, they witness to the truth.

HH | 14 December 2012  

Lofty ideals, HH. Seems easy to theorise/preach on principles. But what about personal testimony? Can you say you have stood the test of lifelong loyalty to a spouse. I'm fortunate to say my parents have/are. But I also recognise that human beings fail. What happens then?

AURELIUS | 17 December 2012  

Aurelius no baccalaureate course for professionals dealing with families[counsellors,psychiatrists,lawyers,dentists,veterinary sugeons, etc.] necessitate marriage experience antecedent to embarking on courses, anymore than brain surgeons require antecedent brain metastasis, before operating on families. Nor does HH need a family of ten kids and five divorces before articulating Catholic principles on family problems.

father john george | 19 December 2012  

Argument by analogy is always suspect, john George, but in this case in your haste to defend your colleague you also missed the question that Aurelius asked HH. He was not asking HH whether he was qualified to 'articulate Catholic principles on family problems' (there seems to be no doubt about that) but rather whether he had subjected himself to 'the test of lifelong loyalty to a spouse'. For some (and I have no idea whether this applies to HH or not) celibacy is nothing more than an opportunity to avoid commitment to life-long intimacy through thick and thin and the compromises and accommodation that are inevitably involved in such a relationship.

Ginger Meggs | 22 December 2012  

So Father George, what response do you give when people fail to live up to the Catholic ideal/principle on marriage? What happens when a man beats up her wife and becomes a danger to the family? Does a woman have a right to abandon her marriage vows?

AURELIUS | 02 January 2013  

Surely Aurelius you have heard of "Separation" versus dissolution MARITAL SEPARATION: Temporary or even permanent separation of husband and wife, without the right of remarriage until the death of one of the parties. Permitted by the Church on account of adultery, loss of faith, or other grave reasons. Cohabitation ceases but the marriage bond remains. A spouse could petition for a canonical decree of nullity.

father john george | 11 January 2013  

Ginger Meggs you suggest "some" take on Celibacy to avoid struggles of married life. Ever noted those celibates {more than "some"} who jettison the heavy burdens and responsibilities of celibate priesthood to marry???

father john george | 11 January 2013  

Yes Father George - it's a bit like the witchcraft trials - damned either way. (Separate - but remain alone never to remarry for the rest of your life) And annulments - well that's fine for the privileged few who can afford the luxury of expensive church lawyers.

AURELIUS | 11 January 2013  

The Parramatta Diocese tribunal also advises:
"The Tribunal charges a standard fee. Financial difficulties, however, do not hinder the processing of a case"

father john george | 11 January 2013  

Expensive church lawyers my eye Aurelius! Tribunals will never knock back a nullity process due to applicant's penury.
Every assistance is given according to genuine need.

father john george | 12 January 2013  

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