It’s very likely that some of us here this evening have been through a divorce. And almost certainly everyone here has been touched in some way by divorce. For many of us, the divorces that have touched our lives have been deeply painful. And for many of us, the divorces we have been through have been incredibly liberating, life-affirming, and God-blessed events. Whether you feel traumatized by divorce or healed by divorce or a little bit of both, our scripture reading this evening is difficult.
It pops up in our lectionary cycle every three years, but I will confess I have never preached on it before. Most of the pastors I run with preach on something else on this Sunday, or edit out the divorce stuff and focus on the welcoming children stuff or World Communion Sunday or anything – anything really – besides this doozy. It’s a huge can of worms and big pain in the butt to preach on this passage.
So, why this week of all weeks am I finally preaching on it? Well, it’s my opinion that not only is Jesus not forbidding divorce here in the way it has been traditionally interpreted, but that what Jesus is doing, in fact, is taking an unpopular and risky stance on the increasing privilege of men to throw their wives out of the house for any reason or no reason at all – a practice that Jesus believed was abusive, was socially and economically marginalizing for women, and was against God’s will and against the vows of marriage. And in this week of all weeks, I think it’s important not to sidestep trying to understand this difficult passage because this week, after having heard the gut-wrenching testimony of Christine Blasey Ford alleging that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, the Senate voted to elevate Kavanaugh to a seat on the highest court in the land. And so this week we need to hear what Jesus has to say about standing with women for the rights of women in a man’s world.
Women’s rights were on the rise in Jesus’ day. By our standards it wouldn’t have been much at all, but it was significant at the time. For a few centuries women had been gaining some rights in relation to men and within marriage. In the Roman Empire, which had conquered Judah, women had gained an almost equal ability to divorce their husbands as their husbands had to divorce them. Perhaps in a backlash against the increasing rights of women, a debate about divorce had come to Judah. First, you have to understand that according to Jewish law a man could divorce his wife but a woman had no right to initiate a divorce. By Jesus’ time, there were some protections put in place for women who were physically or emotionally abused or neglected by their husbands, but this protection was not of the same class as a man’s ability to divorce his wife. In fact, the word “to divorce” as we understand it, doesn’t really apply here. There was no ancient Greek word for divorce. The word being used here – apoluo – literally meant “to dismiss” or “to send away.” Teachers at the time outlined the lawful process for the dismissal of a wife in three essential steps. 1. The man writes up the certificate of dismissal. 2. The man hands his wife the certificate. 3. The man sends the woman out of his house. That was a typical first-century “divorce.”
in our scripture reading, the Pharisees were asking Jesus, “Is it permissible for a man to dismiss his wife from the house?” Well, everyone knew that this was permitted by Jewish law. The deeper context here is that the Pharisees want Jesus to weigh in on the debate at that time about the rights of a man when dismissing his wife. The debate was conservative versus liberal. The conservative view was that a man could only dismiss his wife from the house for something really bad – like adultery. But the more liberal, up-and-coming view was that a man had the right to dismiss his wife for any reason. One teacher at the time said that if your wife cooks a bad dinner, that’s grounds for dismissal. Another said, if a man has a shot with a prettier woman, he can dismiss his current wife and marry the new woman. And in Jesus’ time the liberal view – in this case the view that made women’s lives more precarious and vulnerable and increased men’s power over women – had become the dominant practice.
When Jesus says no to “divorce,” he’s more accurately saying no to the idea that a man has absolute power to throw his wife out of her home, estrange her from her family, and abandon his obligations to her. When a woman was thrown out like this, it put her in a precarious social and economic situation. Without her husband’s household to support her, she would have to go back to her father’s household. But what if her father wouldn’t take her back? Or what if he had died and the inheritance had already passed on? Where would she go? What would she do? If she was given the dismissal certificate, she could remarry, which was a protection for her. But marriages take time and money, especially good and loving marriages. What would she do in the meantime? Perhaps she’d end up in poverty. Perhaps she’d end up having to live with a man for support who was not her husband and who would take advantage of her situation and wouldn’t marry her at all.
In John’s Gospel, in a very famous and memorable scene, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well and asks her to go fetch her husband. “I have no husband,” she says. And Jesus says, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” A traditional way of interpreting this is that Jesus is implying she’s a “loose” woman. In actuality, Jesus is recognizing how difficult and precarious it is to be married off to old men who die or to be dismissed for not producing children, and ending up having to live with someone who treats you even more like a sexual employee than a woman who at least has the bare social and legal protections of marriage.
In our scripture reading this evening Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” This seems to contradict a lot of what I’ve just said, until you understand that Jesus is talking about the one historical, sensational, exceptional case of a woman being involved in the dismissal of her husband. King Herod had seduced his half-brother’s wife, named Herodias. Herod dismissed his wife to marry Herodias and Herodias left her husband in order to marry Herod. This was high palace intrigue that everybody was talking about (including John the Baptist who was beheaded for criticizing the couple for doing this), but this was not the way it went for the average woman in Jesus’ day.
Understanding that Jesus is probably referring to this one sensational case and by also reconstructing the Aramaic that Jesus spoke, which was then written down in Greek, we can hear Jesus’ words more accurately as, “Whoever dismisses his wife simply in order to marry another, commits adultery against her; and if she dismisses her husband simply in order to marry another, she commits adultery.”
In all of this, we see that Jesus isn’t forbidding divorce. Jesus is saying that husbands cannot dismiss their wives in order to find a better cook or in order to find a better looker or for any other reason except that she breaks the marriage vows made before God. Similarly, Jesus adds here (probably for all the people saying, “Hey, Jesus, this is a really hard time to be a man, and whatabout that Herodias – women divorce men too! Why are you picking on us so much?”) for them Jesus adds that, yes, in the exceptional case a woman leaves her husband it should be for the legitimate reason that he has broken the marriage vows.
Divorce, says Jesus, is illegitimate if you dismiss your partner in violation of your holy vows. However, if the holy vows are broken by one or both partners no longer being able to provide physical or emotional love, honor, or support to their spouse, then divorce should be an option, was an easy option at the time for men and an increasingly available option for women, and perhaps was the best option.
In our context today, we understand the need to provide protections and options for women in bad marriages who need to get out. I think Jesus understood that and supported the legal and extralegal avenues provided to women in his time to get out of bad marriages, and I’m sure Jesus would support the far greater ability of modern women to leave marriages that do not serve their best interests. I am sure of this because in the big marriage debate of his time, Jesus took an unpopular stand with women, by advocating for their ability to remain in a house and in a family that they didn’t want to be dismissed from like an employee.
What else does Jesus have to say to us today? Well, after the politics of the last two weeks, and after Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court yesterday despite the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford that he sexually assaulted her in high school, I think Jesus would continue to have a lot to say to us about dismissing women. Over the last week there has been a lot of worry from men in high places – even from President Trump – about how precarious the world has become for men who can lose their jobs or job opportunities because of allegations of sexual misbehavior, assault, and rape. But this is just backlash from a masculine culture that for too long has held nearly absolute power to get away with crimes against women without ever being held accountable for their actions. For too long we have dismissed the accounts of women who have come forward to bravely tell the stories of the moments or hours or years that changed their lives forever.
Christine Blasey Ford was terrified to come forward. She was terrified that coming forward would be like stepping in front a train she couldn’t stop that would annihilate her life. We don’t listen to women’s stories. And when we do listen, we say that they’re not credible. And even when we all admit that she is very credible, we dismiss her anyway, we don’t apply the brakes, we just let the train keep rolling. Christine Blasey Ford was right to be terrified. She was right to be afraid that the truth would not be enough when told to people whose power and privilege is so deeply connected to patriarchy.
Two weeks ago Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to ten years in prison for sexual assault – which is a step in the right direction for women. But it took 60 women making allegations of rape and sexual assault over 18 years, the entire #MeToo movement, and two trials to move us beyond a shadow of a doubt for a three-to-ten-year sentence. It took 60 women 18 years and the creation of a social movement to put one predator in jail for – at most – 10 years. The system we have is not working for the problem we have.
We need to stop dismissing women. And that means reducing men’s power and reducing men’s impunity to allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and rape. We have to take accusations seriously. In a free and reasonable society an accusation should never be an automatic assumption of guilt, but it also can’t be an automatic dismissal. Women who come forward to tell their stories face overwhelming consequences. The men accused should bear some of those consequences too. And when it comes to being elevated to positions of power and prestige, like the Supreme Court, the reasonable possibility that a nominee sexually assaulted someone in high school should be disqualifying. Not because we can be 100% certain, but because for too long men have gotten away with too much. Because for too long women have been dismissed and cast out when they came forward to challenge the men and the system that abused them.
And Jesus stands with the women. And so should we all.