I am a priest.
I am going through a divorce.
Imagine my excitement level as I prepare to preach Sunday on Proper 22 in Year B, where in the appointed Gospel lesson, Jesus explicitly condemns divorce: “…‘the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Imagine, too, how much I am looking forward to explaining what Jesus meant later in the lesson, as Jesus clarifies to the disciples his condemnation of divorce by adding the admonition that re-marriage after divorce (a sincere and public hope I have for my future) is adultery.
If your imagination led you to a scene featuring a moaning, groaning, toddler style whine of “I don’t wanna! I don’t wanna!” coming from a thirty-year-old cleric, you are on the right track. My excitement level has hit negative digits! So why am I committed to preaching on the Gospel lesson this week, in its entirety, without focusing only on the welcome and embrace of children in Part B?
I’m committed because the problem of this text is not resolved by ignoring it.
The real problem of Jesus’ words on divorce is not about me or the circumstances that have led to the ending of my marriage. It will surely be uncomfortable to preach on this section of the Gospel, given my current circumstances. However, I am an experienced priest with a robust theological education behind me. I can exegete and proclaim this Gospel with gentleness and integrity despite my personal circumstances and discomfort.
The real problem is the child sitting in the congregation who will hear this Gospel and have their loyalties tested, and their sense of self compromised. The head-spinning whiplash of Jesus’ condemnation of divorce and remarriage (something many in my parish have experienced), which then cascades with little transitional language to a celebration of their (the children’s) role and approach in the Kingdom of God, is enough confound many a young mind, but also to instigate doubt, fear and shame concerning their own lives and families.
The real problem too, is the young parent who does not yet know how to talk about matters of divorce and separation with their little one. The parents, like me, who want to be honest, yet age appropriate; kind, yet direct; factual, yet empathetic. It is a task made tremendously harder under condemnation Christ this passage suggests on first glance. Letting the condemnation of this gospel be the first or only word to our children about divorce is just not palatable for most parents, without further exploration and explanation.
Looking at the text as a whole though, condemnation is not even the point of the discussion in that gospel. In response to a specific question on the subject of divorce, Jesus uses the subject to teach about the standards of God, and broken nature of those who violate them. In essence, this is Jesus teaching on sin in general, and divorce stands in for all sinful acts. Jesus is using the topic of divorce as the departure point to the much larger and more important lesson of this text: the nature and availability of God’s grace.
The proximity of this section on divorce and remarriage, to the subsequent commandment on welcoming of God’s kingdom like a child, and these seemingly separate sections’ on inclusion in our lectionary reading together, is not an accident. They function as complementary teachings, which illustrate God’s established pathway in restoring sinners to wholeness.The restoration work therefore requires us to abandon presumptuousness or defensiveness we adults often add to confession and apology. We must offer our sorrow and contrition to God, like children do, wholly, unselfconsciously, and sincerely.
There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love, and that too is furthered in the metaphor of receiving the kingdom like a child. Straying is an expected rite of the human condition, but when children stray, adults do not abandon them to their own devices and consequences. The corrective actions of disciplining children occur to encourage them to learn and grow toward making better choices the next time. The same goes in God’s kingdom if we are pliable and formed by a childlike reception of it. We see God as one is invested in our growth and formation, rather than one who wishes to sever relationships found in sin.
Yet, given all this explanation, none of it undermines the notion of Jesus’ words on divorce being as they appear. Divorce is not the intended outcome of marriage. The sacrament of Holy Matrimony should be respected as a lifelong covenant, just as it was created in the beginning. Divorce therefore undoubtedly grieves the heart of God. It is sinful, but actually no better or worse than lying, theft, idolatry, and so and of other pervasive sins of our culture. And through God’s grace we have been given a clear and easy path back: a childlike faith.
Those who hear this week’s gospel need to hear their clergy tell them about the nature of God’s kingdom and the ideal of Holy Matrimony tempered by the realities of sin and repentant return unto the Lord. They need to hear the Good News of these two sections of the Gospel lesson connected and explained as the path to spiritual restoration and wholeness which God offers freely to them.
It seems I must preach on this Gospel for the sake of children who need it explained, but also the sake of the church who needs to be called back from their sin, and become childlike in their receiving the kingdom of God. In the midst of the brokenness of my marriage, and the brokenness of our world, this is very Good News, so maybe I need to preach a bit to myself this week too.
I commend all those preaching with me to do likewise.