Jesus said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” – Mark 10:11-12
As one whose spouse committed adultery before divorcing me, and as a remarried person, these words belong firmly in the category of “things I wish Jesus had never said.” I understand that Jesus was trying to protect those whose spouses might divorce them with little reason, and I agree with his assessment that “hardness of heart” plays a huge role in divorce and this doesn’t please God.
But still. The first time this text came up in the lectionary after my divorce, I wanted to pull a Jonah and run as far and as fast as I could away from it. It is painful enough to go through divorce, but that pain is compounded by verses like this, which remind us that the church has not traditionally been a welcoming place for divorced persons. While research shows that people who have divorced are equally likely to have strong religious beliefs and private spiritual practices, they are much less likely to be regularly involved in a religious community.1
It does not have to be so. Both preachers and congregation members have incredible power to make the church a “community for the broken,”2 which can include, support and heal those whose relationships have fractured because of divorce. In my experience, this happens through compassionate and theologically sophisticated reading of difficult scripture texts, preaching that affirms God’s presence and power in the midst of brokenness, and story sharing, both public and private, about divorce and marital difficulty.
Some of the texts I have used to open conversations about divorce include:
- Mark 10:2-10 (Ordinary 27B) and Matthew 5:21-37 (Epiphany 6A): These are obvious opportunities to preach about Christian views of both marriage and divorce, neither of which gets enough airtime in most non-evangelical pulpits. In both cases, historical and literary context are important. While some things have changed from Jesus’ world to our own, it is still true that divorced women are more vulnerable financially than married women or divorced men, and preachers can lift up Jesus’ words as an attempt to protect the vulnerable. It is also important in preaching both these texts to say clearly that not all divorce is sinful, and that even when it is, Jesus forgives sin.
- John 4:5-42 (Lent 3A): Though we don’t know that the woman at the well was divorced, it is surely a possibility. This text offers assurance that Jesus is still on speaking terms with those whose relationships are broken, and that he is more interested in bringing new life than in passing judgment.
- Ruth (Ordinary 31B and 32B): Having recently finished a Narrative Lectionary summer series on Ruth, the story of God’s redemption of tragedy in the lives of two vulnerable women provided opportunity to talk about how my congregation provided support and visible signs of God’s presence when everything else felt broken. For preachers who don’t have their own stories of divorce or marital healing, there are certainly members within your congregation who would be glad to have their stories shared.
- Genesis 25-27 (Ordinary 15A): One thing I did not expect from divorce was the way it changed how I hear scripture stories I previously loved. This story of Jacob cheating his brother for personal gain (with God’s blessing!) amused and entertained me, until I was the one who had been cheated on. Now, the fact that God blesses Jacob (and others) even when he cheats makes me feel like the older brother in Luke’s Prodigal Son story. I am hurt and offended that God seems to reward those who show no care for others. As a preacher, I am intentional about naming and affirming this hurt, while still clearly proclaiming God’s blessing as a free gift that no one truly deserves.
As a final note, I want to remind preachers that the texts that are most often weaponized against divorced and maritally-struggling people do not appear in either the Revised Common or Narrative Lectionary (e.g., Malachi 2:16, 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Deuteronomy 24: 1-4, Matthew 19:1-9). It is naive to assume that people considering or experiencing divorce are not aware of such texts, or do not wrestle with them. When there are opportunities to raise these texts from the pulpit, sometimes preaching against them, it can be healing for listeners to know that such difficult conversations are not off limits within the walls of the sanctuary.
In this regular Working Preacher column, “Preaching + ____,” writers incorporate lived experience into preaching upcoming lectionary texts.
2 See Andrew Root’s excellent chapter on this topic in The Children of Divorce (Baker Academic, 2010), 119-139.