He didn’t talk about it, but we all knew that it was happening. Even by third grade, you know that someone whose family is experiencing a divorce should be left alone. So, we did leave our classmate alone. We didn’t talk about his family breaking into two. We didn’t talk about what it was like to have two bedrooms. We didn’t talk about his sadness. We left him space to be alone on the playground. We especially didn’t talk about the uncertainty and anxiety that we ourselves starting to feel about life if the one thing you trusted to remain the same…your parents…was falling apart. We learned very well that you don’t talk about divorce beyond jokes, quips, and jabs.
The church usually doesn’t fare any better than the playground. We don’t talk about divorce, except on the day that this text arises. Then, on this day one of two things happen, either the pastors blabber on apologetically in order to just get it over with (that is the course that I usually choose), or the pastor launches into a moral diatribe about the ungodliness of divorce and the need to strengthen marriages. I guess there is the third option, to joke about it. “When we got divorced we split the house 50/50, she got the inside and I got the outside.” In a way, the joke gets closer to things that we don’t talk about than the other two approaches: it at least acknowledges the loss and pain of one splitting back into two. Of course there are other things we don’t talk about: the confusion of how extended family should now treat the cast away family member, the sense of failure divorced people feel, and we certainly will not talk about the confused sense of relief and happiness that comes when the daily arguing is finally over and life seems to be getting better.
Most of us think that we know what Jesus says about divorce…that it is against God’s plan to unite the two into one…and that either drives us to be moralistic or silent. But, a God of grace and love who desires to pull all things together and reconcile the entire world would not respond either way. The God of grace and love, instead, flips the subject of divorce on its head and forces us to focus on what is important.
So, I am inviting you to look at this subject up-side-down. Pretend that you are on a swing, and that you lean all the way back and see the sky as the ground and the ground as the sky. Feel the exhilaration of falling away from the ground into the vastness of something new. Look at Jesus’ concern in a new way.
As a test, someone asks Jesus, “Can a man divorce his wife?” There really are two answers Jesus could give to this ancient Hebrew question: “No, not unless she cheated and broke the marriage contract,” or “Yes, of course. If she isn’t pleasing and fulfilling her role as wife and caretaker of the household to your satisfaction you can divorce her…kind of like being fired from a job.” So Jesus, which is it?
The problem with either one of these answers is that they forget two very important things: God and the fact that the woman is a real person with real needs like food, shelter, and love. Marriage is neither a contract nor a job description. As you lean back in your swing and look at the world up-side-down, the first thing that you will discover is that Jesus doesn’t answer yes and no questions. The world seen right-side-up is about right and wrong…divorce: yes or no, but the world seen up-side-down is about relationships and caring for the weak.
In Jesus’ up-side-down world, Jesus sees that marriage is a small step toward God’s bigger concern, to draw all things together in grace. It is a beautiful thing to see, when a couple gazes into each other’s eyes and “the two are made one flesh” in marriage; just like it is beautiful to see two siblings who hated each other for years, finally take a walk in the park together; or just like when two former enemies are seen eating at the same lunch table. What God does in marriage is just a tiny sample of what Jesus does for all creation on the cross; drawing all things back together in grace and love.
In Jesus’ up-side-down world, Jesus cares that an ancient divorce truly affects the woman. Instead of breaking a contract against the woman’s father, the divorce is “against her.” God does not simply walk past the poor and the weak like someone may when encountering a broken person on the street. Jesus actually stops and cares if the woman and her children are cast from the home. He actually cares that they will be looked down upon and sent to a life of poverty with no means to care for themselves. This is not just a problem of the ancient world. Even today, one of the leading indicators of poverty for women and children is divorce. Jesus cares for the weak and broken. Jesus sees them as actual people. Jesus does not see the poor and weak as property or statistics or self-made failures to be shunned. People cannot simply be dropped from life, nor can the weak simply be left to suffer.
This up-side-down view of Jesus could be seen reflected clearly in a small Minnesotan congregation. A woman in the congregation was struggling after her very public and shaming divorce in a very small town. It was the news of the town, the divorce was viewed as her fault by everyone, and the woman felt very much looked down upon and alone. But, then the morning came that she heard the knock on her kitchen door. Opening the door, she saw the gray-eyed matriarch of her congregation, standing there, holding a casserole dish. As if she needed the same care as someone who had lost their husband to death, she was given the meal to ease her burden. That wasn’t the end. This went on for two weeks, different people each night bringing over a dish. Somehow the women of this congregation were able to look at the world up-side-down, as Jesus does, and see that life is about drawing the broken together again.
“Jesus, is it right or wrong to divorce?” This is the wrong question. Are there broken people who need to be healed and put back together through love? This is the right question. This is Jesus’ question. This is the question that allows Jesus to believe in the holiness and importance of an intact marriage that God put together and, at the same time, believe in the unconditional care and healing of the weak, including those who have been broken by divorce. The church has a word of grace to preach to this taboo subject, maybe we should stop being silent. Maybe, there are a load of broken people who need to hear the welcoming words of a loving God and a loving community.