Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen
I took rather a deep breath and prayed hard after I had read the very difficult readings set for this Sunday, and in the end after much heart searching I found myself unable to avoid talking about the most challenging topic embedded within the second one! So today, I am going to talk about marriage and divorce. I have found this slightly difficult as someone who doesn’t have real life experience of either of them. (This is always an issue when doing marriage prep too!) – Having never been married or divorced. I know for some of us this topic may well be very difficult, but I do hope these reflections will not make matters worse, will be helpful and at the very least thought provoking.
If we marry in the UK today, there is 33.3% chance that our marriage will end in divorce. The average length of a marriage which ends in divorce in the UK is just over 12 years. The average age for men getting divorced is between 45-49 and women is 30 to 39.
A recent innovation on the small screen has been the programmes from different countries called ‘Married at first sight’. Complete strangers are matched by psychologists (and in the first series a much criticised vicar). They marry and then the series watches the fall out. This really doesn’t take marriage very seriously, as a mark of enduring life long love. It also shows the worst of some of the excesses of relationships today. (Those taking part clearly want the media spotlight to do this, which instantly skews it!).
Not taking marriage seriously was one of the things Jesus was encountering and wanted to address. Another example of relationship problems existing in this arena and one of the more painful sides of having celebrity status, is the media’s insatiable quest for insider information, particularly it seems when all is not well. For example – woe betide the celebrity who has relationship difficulties or needs to divorce and it plays out in court! The media interest in the recent breakdown of the celebrity marriages (Johnny Depp and Amber Heard) is a good example of the kind of frenzy that surrounds events such as these.
Here’s a more personal example of the challenges of divorce and marriage. When I was 20, I went on holiday to the Canaries with an old school friend. It was to her, her final ‘fling’ before she got married the following year, where I was just about to do my last year at University. A week before we went, my friend’s mother rang me. She begged me to persuade my friend out of getting married so young. Her mother was convinced the marriage would be a disaster. As my friend was planning to marry someone 13 years older than her, and her mother did not like him one bit! In all good conscience, I couldn’t do what her mum had asked.
I wasn’t sure about the marriage plans, but my friend was very set on it. In the end about half way through the trip, I told my friend that her mother had rung and gave her an edited version of the conversation we had. I immediately wished I hadn’t said anything – My friend was even more determined to get married. I was left with the distinct impression that the wedding was possibly more about getting away from her dominating mother, than marrying her husband to be!
The following spring – I went to the wedding and the marriage lasted about 2 years. Her mother’s reservations as they say came home to roost big time. Some years later when my friend and I met up, and reflected on these events. She said – She wished she hadn’t married so young and that the need to escape her family had been the predominant driving force. She had known all along that her mother had not wanted her to marry, but that had made her even more determined to go ahead (irrespective of the reservations she also had but had been ignoring). It just goes to show, she said, how immature I was and how much I shouldn’t have done it. She now has a happy family life and is in a loving marriage relationship – and is older and wiser.
Issues in marriages and their repercussions in the surrounding families – Why we do the things we do, and how painful they can be are not a new thing. The fact that the Pharisees ask a question about divorce in our difficult gospel reading indicates this. They asked – Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? And this question is really a trick question, aimed at Jesus 2000 years ago. This shows that marriage breakdown and divorce were just as hot potatoes then as they can be now!
Jesus in our gospel is speaking against a very liberal approach to divorce which was prevalent in the Jewish society of his day. There was a real problem with men divorcing their wives very freely for say burning their dinner, not being pretty enough or because they had got tired of them. For a woman being divorced was the path to social isolation and servitude. Jesus is guiding the listening Pharisees back to the importance of marriage, the quality of lasting relationships and that marriage is not something to be trifled with on a whim. Jesus teaching seems to us rather harsh – but he is trying to get the Pharisees of his day to take their marriage commitment seriously as God intended
In the Christian Church, we believe in the importance of marriage in loving relationships, and marriage that is faithful to one other and marriage that is for keeps. In the wedding service we describe marriage as the foundation of family life, as enriching society and strengthening community. This is of course an idealised view and as with all idealized views – real life doesn’t always work out that way. Real life can be so much more messy and more difficult than this passage from Mark seems to allow for. No-one sets off in the early days of married life with the intent of making that marriage fail and this passage can leave us feeling very judged and unworthy. For many people the breakdown of a marriage is the most traumatic and painful thing they have ever experienced, and also in terms of family life, community and society marriage break up and divorce can be the only way to minimise the damage to all concerned. In extreme cases, for some getting divorced is the only way to ensure their safety and well being into the future. Much as our Church upholds marriage, it also has recognised in recent times that some marriages fail. Our Church embraces the human need in these circumstances, the pain and the power of God’s reconciling and healing spirit. When the need arises, it is now possible for a divorced person to marry again in church, at the discretion of the minister and in accordance with specific guidelines that are laid down by our bishops. I am happy to do this if these guidelines are met.
I think we have gone this way as our call is to love our neighbour, and to be witnesses to God’s love for them – and not to sit in judgement. I think this difficult passage in Mark is really about two things. Firstly it is a call to those in relationships or hoping to be to take them seriously and to enter into them for the right reasons and for keeps. My friend would be the first to say that her failed marriage was not for the right reasons – and that the experience is something she had really learnt from. The second thing this passage is about is that it is not a stick to beat ourselves with if we have been down the path of relationship breakdown. Particularly if we have owned our part in it, come to terms with it and sought God’s forgiveness and healing power and allowed God’s spirit to influence us in new relationships we have formed. I believe wholeheartedly that God is with us in everything that we do. When the going is good and when the going gets tough. And that as a Church we need to meet people practically with God’s love where they are and to show we are really Christian by our love. Letting all God’s children come to Jesus, to be embraced and receive the kingdom of God.
Some material included in this service is copyright: © The Archbishops’ Council 2000-2020 –
Bible readings from The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 –