She had endured beatings and intimidation for about a decade and a half. The breaking point came when her husband stuck a pistol in her face. That’s when my mother decided to divorce my father.
This happened in the small-town, church-going Deep South of the 1960’s. Divorce was seen then (and especially in that place) as something shameful. People tended to heap scorn on the woman. So, Mom became the object of petty, often vicious gossip.
My father kept the house. Held on to the only car. Paid no child support. Retained his good-old-boy reputation. And busied himself with finding new ways to manipulate and torment my mother.
Eventually Mom and I fled on a Greyhound bus. She had precious little money and no solid prospects. I was eleven. Her desperate gamble was that there must be something better than this for us both.
I have shared this glimpse into my mom’s story because it’s also mine. In what follows we’re going to look at what Jesus has to say about marriage and relationships. Along the way we’re going to consider what he says about divorce. It seems only fair that I admit to you that I come to this theme from the perspective of my own admittedly messy life.
But as we turn to what some commentators call Jesus’s teaching on divorce, I have to admit something else. I think he’s talking about way more here than that. You’ll see what I mean as we come to the end. (Mark 10:2-16)
Some Pharisees ask Jesus if Scripture allows for divorce. He hadn’t been talking about marriage or divorce at all. Jesus’s detractors brought up the subject in order to undermine him.
They know full well that Deuteronomy makes allowance for divorce. (24:1-4) And they’re also aware that the question of divorce had become a very hot and dangerous topic. Herod had married his brother’s wife Herodias. To enter into that marriage, she had had to divorce her first husband.
In other words, it was the practice in the Judean royal court to divorce a spouse in order to trade up for a supposedly better one: richer, more powerful, or maybe just hotter. Among the devout, this hardly seemed what God had had in mind about divorce.
In fact, John the Baptist had confronted Herod about this quite bluntly. And as you may recall, this did not make him popular with Herodias. When the opportunity presented itself, she saw to it that John was beheaded.
Jesus recognized the political trap that his critics had set. Nevertheless, he wasn’t one to pass up a teachable moment. And his lesson for us comes down to this.
We are built for relationship. For intimate, sustained connection. This is God’s intention for us. Citing Genesis, Jesus put it this way: “two shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)
God created us to love and to be loved. To see each other through life’s ups and downs, twists and turns. To repurpose Ram Dass’ familiar phrase, God created us to walk each other home. Loving each other is what makes this life worth living.
And here’s the very human truth. Sometimes our love will be met with another person’s selfishness or addiction, cruelty or narcissism. Sometimes life’s circumstances overwhelm us, and we’ve got nothing more to give.
Jesus tells us that God allows for divorce because of the hardness of our hearts. And it’s in those words that I sense that Jesus is talking about more than just marriage. He’s talking about walking the way of love in all our relationships.
He isn’t placing blame on us for our relationship struggles. He isn’t saying that we haven’t been trying hard enough. Instead, he wants us to hear God’s compassion.
Life as it’s meant to be lived, a life of love, is hard. To echo C. S. Lewis, our hearts will be stretched and even broken. But that is the only life worth living.
Relationships sometimes dissolve or shatter despite our very best efforts. And sometimes, in order to love ourselves as we should, we have to walk away from toxic, violent, or codependent relationships. This is true between spouses, friends, coworkers, and parents and their children.
Through it all, God hangs in there with us. We are loved no matter what. And that is why my mom never gave up on the way of love. And why I haven’t given up on it either.
I remember Fr. Womelsdorf at St. Michael’s walking me through the distress I felt at my divorce. I felt support, never shame. Practically, one of his first questions of me was how was I fixed financially.
I think Jesus would have approved.
I think he would too!
Thanks, Bishop Jake, for bravely sharing your mother’s sad story. Yes, the Scriptures are often used to reinforce a prejudice that God may not hold towards us. I am aware of (in the same passage of Matthew) Jesus talking about ‘eunuchs’ – among them: “those from their mother’s womb”. Now could this possibly be about intrinsically gay people? I do so believe! God is so much more kind and loving than some people would like God to be!
Love from Aotearoa/New Zealand. Hope you are surfing the tide!
Always good to hear from you Fr Ron. For ages I’ve wanted to visit your part of the planet. Maybe one day that will come to pass. Anyway, I’m with you. God is so much kinder and more gracious than what some do with Scripture. And for this I am eternally grateful.
Thank you, for sharing your personal story and such a great look at these passages.
Thanks, Michael! I was just thinking about you earlier today. Good to hear from you.
This is very helpful insight and divorce as part of a bigger love story needs retelling often.
As always, you got to the very heart of the matter. Thank you for your openness and your resilience. It makes for a powerful and gentle witness to a battered world.
Thanks my friend