The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. ‘The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped. ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
Jesus’ words on divorce are hard for us in an age when divorce, if not commonplace, does not, rightly, bring the connotations of shame that it once did. Jesus’ words, however, would have shocked his original hearers. Divorce was easy in both Roman and Jewish society – a Jewish man had only to write a bill of divorce and give it to his wife for the marriage to be over. This sounds harsh for us but Jewish law tried to protect women – the simple fact of presenting a written bill slowed things down and stopped men divorcing in a fit of anger – they had to go and find someone literate and be knowledgeable enough to know how to write a bill of divorce. The rabbis forbade a man to divorce without paying some form of alimony – based on the, to us, crude notion that the wife had been defiled by sex with her husband. The Bible forbids a man to divorce a woman he had falsely accused of pre-marital relations or if he had raped her as a virgin (Deut 22: 13-21). To us this is all rather crude and sexist, yet the rabbis had tried to protect women from an absolute right for men to divorce their wives.
Divorce, in the ancient world, meant destitute for women if they had no wider family to take them in. They might have had to work as prostitutes in order to simply live. Jesus continues the tradition of the rabbis in trying to protect women; his (to us) harsh words would have protected women from being cast aside at will in the Church. The irony then is, divorced from context, Jesus’ teaching on divorce has been, and still is, used to oppress women, in particular, who are taught that divorce is sinful. When coupled with other Biblical passages about wifely obedience interpretations can become toxic. Pray for those for whom Biblical interpretation is used as a weapon of oppression instead of a tool of liberation.
Lord Jesus, you welcomed women who had been abused, lifted a woman from the dust, chatted to a woman who was trying to avoid the gossip, and healed those whom men had declared unclean; give us the grace to welcome, lift up, chat with, and bring healing to those who, today, are in need of your liberating love. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is a Minister in the Southside Cluster of the Synod of Scotland serving Barrhead, Shawlands and Stewarton URCs.
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