Tag Archives: divorce

Matthew 19: 1-12 Relationships and the Kingdom Revisited

James Tissot, Sermon on the Beatitudes (1886-96)

Matthew 19: 1-12

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he cured them there.

3 Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8 He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

10 His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”

Even though chapter nineteen begins with the notation that ‘Jesus had completed these words’ which normally signals the end of a block of teaching and the movement into narrative, there is are several strong links in chapters nineteen and twenty to the teaching in chapter eighteen. These next two chapters continue to have Jesus help the community to discern the values they are to embody in the world while narratively moving Jesus into position for the final week in Jerusalem. While chapter eighteen is directed to the disciples, even though the crowds are not far away as evidenced by the presence of a child who can be pulled into their midst, but now the focus expands to the large crowds which are back and with them comes the Pharisees. Jesus continues to heal and teach and embody the kingdom of heaven as he moves through this region of Judea beyond the Jordan. Jesus’ ministry continues to be to the lost sheep of the house  of Israel as he bypasses Samaria on his journey south. Jesus only mention of Samaria and the Samaritans in Matthew is his command for the disciples not to go to them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10: 5-6)

The test of the Pharisees provides an opportunity for Jesus to teach the crowds, the Pharisees and his disciples how to read scripture and to interpret the law. This is not an idle question, but as Warren Carter can identify, “Questions of marriage, divorce, and remarriage are life-and-death matters, as John the Baptist found out (14: 1-12)” (Carter 2005, 378) In Matthew’s gospel we will later see the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians to attempt to entrap Jesus (22: 15-22) and as I’ve alluded one of the reasons both John and Jesus probably find themselves in conflict with the Pharisees (and Sadducees) is the way they have accommodated themselves to the political powers represented by the Herods and Rome. The placement of the Pharisees now asking a question to entrap Jesus about divorce opens the possibility that they also informed Herod Antipas of John’s condemnation of Herod’s relationship with Herodias.

Matthew’s gospel has already stated Jesus’ beliefs on divorce, which are rearticulated here, in the Sermon on the Mount (5: 31-32) and it is probable that the Pharisees are aware of this position, and select this question of whether it is ‘lawful’ for a man to divorce his wife for any reason expecting him to restate this position and perhaps alienate many men who are following him. Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 is the one place in the law where divorce is discussed for the general population of the people of Israel:

Suppose a man enters into a marriage with a women, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; Deuteronomy 24:1

Divorce is, in Deuteronomy 24 and in the position of the Pharisees in this narrative, an assumed option of any man who has a wife who does not ‘please him.’ We know that there are various perspectives within Judaism about what would provide justification for a man to divorce his wife, but in the question the Pharisees are testing Jesus with a question where there assumption is that it is ‘lawful.’ Jesus previously has quoted Deuteronomy 24 but then goes on to say to those listening:

But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (5: 32)

Here Jesus goes back to the creation narrative for his answer referencing both Genesis 1:27 where God made them male and female and Genesis 2:24 where a man leaves father and mother and is joined to his wife and they become one flesh. These Pharisees interpret the law differently and point back to the commandment of Moses which they believe gives them permission to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce their spouse for any cause. Jesus’ attributes this to Moses’ accommodation to the ‘hard-heartedness’ of the people and continues to point to a community where divorce is only an option for men in rare circumstances.

As in 5: 31-32, The Greek term porneia which is translated unchastity by the NRSV is open to debate about its exact meaning: illicit sexual relations with a person other than the spouse, premarital unchastity (this is the assumption behind Joseph’s initial decision to quietly divorce Mary prior to the angel of the Lord, and Joseph is considered a righteous man (1:18-21)) or even (in relation to Leviticus 18) being married too closely in family relations (an incestuous marriage in the eyes of the law). In Greek this term is a general term relating to sexual misconduct, but it is a different term than moicheoo which is translated adultery in this passage. I’ve assumed throughout these reflections that Mark’s gospel is older than Matthew’s and the addition of the “except for unchastity” between the two gospels demonstrates (along with Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians about Christians married to non-Christian spouses whose spouses choose to divorce) demonstrates that even within the formation of the Christian cannon there is already a deliberation and adaptation about the prohibition against divorce.

What the disciples’ reaction highlights is the manner in which Jesus’ reframing of marriage alters the renunciation of rights for the male involved in the marriage. Marriages in the ancient world were primarily economic relationships where women were dependent upon men for their status, their linkage to the land and their property, and when men dissolve this relationship it places women in a challenging position of being isolated from their status, land and home. There is a costliness for husbands in committing their life and resources without reservation to one individual. I don’t say this to ignore the sacrifices that women make in relation to marriage, but instead I want to highlight the leveling of the relationship by Jesus and others who argued for a restrictive view of divorce in the ancient world. This renunciation of a man’s right to request a divorce on their terms is enough for his disciples to contemplate celibacy as a better economic option. We know that at least Peter is married (Jesus healed his mother-in-law in 8:15) and presumably other disciples were as well. Jesus’ appeal to eunuchs is also another place where Jesus challenges this perception of masculinity. Eunuchs are viewed as emasculated men, people who have lost a fundamental part of their identity and do not fit neatly into the category of male or female. Eunuchs, in Deuteronomy 23:1, are prevented from being a part of the assembly of the Lord and from the priesthood (Leviticus 21:20). Yet Isaiah 56:4-5 includes the promise for eunuchs who hold fast to the LORD’s name a place within God’s house. Jesus, siding with Isaiah, announces that there is a place within God’s household for those who by birth, by being made a eunuch by others, or who renounce marriage (and procreation) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, but that is not the path for everyone. For those who choose the path of marriage and procreation there is a renunciation of the privilege of maleness to terminate that relationship, except in extreme cases, because one’s partner does not ‘please them.’ Jesus’ reinterpretation of the commandment goes to the heart of God’s intent in creation where the creation of male and female are both the image of God and their joining together in marriage is a joining of their identities in the eyes of God. Yet, for the man there is the choice to renounce their maleness, through celibacy, as another option in pursuing the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5: 21-32 Law and Relationships in the Kingdom

James Tissot, Sermon on the Beatitudes (1886-96)

Matthew 5: 21-32

Parallel Mark 9: 43-48; 10: 11-12; Luke 12: 57-59; 16:18

Highlighted words will have comment on translation below

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

This is the first half on six examples that Jesus provides his new followers of how to interpret scripture, live according to a law that has been fulfilled and points to the type of community the kingdom of heaven embodies. Often these are heard as moralistic, as Jesus intensifying the commandment to the point where no mere mortal could keep it and as an unattainable goal that we are expected to reach to appease God. I do believe there is much to be gained in wrestling honestly with these words and trying to discern how they may indeed be a gift to the community of disciples and how they may point to a life that is worth striving for. These commandments and their interpretation are a gift that point to a type of society embodied in the kingdom of heaven. As mentioned before, I do believe that Jesus is operating out of a hermeneutic of mercy and I do believe that, especially as these words go against the ways often practiced in society and church, that they do point towards a type of community that would be visible in the midst of the world around them because of their actions toward others in the community, those outside the community and even those who would label the members of this community as enemies. It is a community in which anger is overcome, lust does not dominate our relations with one another, language is simple and truthful, retaliation is renounced and even enemies are met with love rather than hatred. (Hays, 1996, p. 321)

Jesus takes up the mantle of Moses both from his position on the mountain and the articulation of the commandments, but he also boldly goes beyond the commandments of Moses by following each commandment with, “But I say to you.” The first command that receives interpretation is the commandment related to murder or killing (Exodus 20: 13, Deuteronomy 5:17) and the additional line about whoever murders shall be liable to judgment probably refers to the expansion on the commandment on murder in Exodus 21: 12-27 and in Exodus and Deuteronomy the commands related to murder are to create a society where my neighbor’s life is more important than any grievance I may have with my neighbor. I don’t think any rational person wants a society where the killing of one’s neighbor is permitted but Jesus points towards a society where not only my neighbor’s life but my neighbor’s reputation and my relationship with my neighbor are to be protected. I was brought up with the proverb that, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,’ and those who have been in any community I’ve served have heard my reshaping of this proverb to, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will send me to therapy.’ Words can indeed wound and can not only damage my neighbor’s standing in the community but also my neighbor’s relationship to me. Matthew wants us to understand the importance of reconciliation in the community and he will also have us hear Jesus teaching on this in Matthew 18.

I have struggled with several of the passages in the Sermon on the Mount because I heard them as articulating a type of moralistic perfection which I have never been able to practice. While I can agree with Proverbs that, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but one who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” (Proverbs 14: 29) I’ve come to accept that anger is a necessary and sometimes helpful emotion when it helps us realize when something is unjust or when it helps to signal something that is unhealthy for us. Hearing this interpretation of the commandment through the lens of moralistic perfection my practice was to suppress anger but that is also an extremely unhealthy practice which has consequences for relationships and for physical health. It is possible that Jesus is articulating a commandment which forbids some of our most basic and primal emotions, many have interpreted Jesus this way, but I do think the direction of this command is towards the life of the community.

If I allow myself to remain in a place of anger towards my brother or sister without working toward reconciliation, then I do place myself in a position of being liable to judgment. If my words spoken in anger or judgment towards my neighbor cause loss of status in the society or create emotional wounds that they have to bear I am responsible for attempting to reconcile their position in the society and to attempt to heal the wounds I have caused. With the prophets and the psalms, we hear in Jesus that our life in the world is our preparation to be in place to offer sacrifice. As is Psalm 24,

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24: 3-4)

For Jesus reconciliation with my neighbor whom I have offended or wounded is more important than any act of sacrifice or worship. Relationships are at the center of this kingdom of heaven which has come near in Jesus. This way of life also extends beyond the boundaries of the community toward those who do not practice it. Those who would bring me to court over my actions are practicing the litigious practices of the world in which the disciples will find themselves in, but the disciples are instructed to work towards reconciliation even with those who view litigation as the default method of handling differences.

The commandment on adultery is also expanded in a similar manner to now include looking at a woman with lust in one’s eyes. It is possible that Jesus is declaring that men are not to desire women sexually and there are those who interpreted this commandment in terms of an interim ethic of physical and spiritual celibacy but again this would articulate a type of moralistic perfection that I have never been able to practice. I do believe that we were created for connection and that our sexuality is a part of the gift that God has granted us and yet it is a gift that has an impact on the way we interact in community. Sexuality is a highly charged topic of discussion both within religious communities and throughout society and for many what happens in the bedroom should stay in the bedroom but as uncomfortable as these discussions may be they are necessary to our life of faith.

As a starting point for this discussion of Jesus’ interpretation of the commandment on adultery let’s begin with the dehumanizing experience of sexual harassment. As I mentioned above in the discussion on the commandment to murder, one doesn’t need to physically wound someone to either emotionally wound a person or damage their place within the community. Women (and men although less frequently) may be viewed as sexual objects rather than people worthy of respect and dignity. In the kingdom of heaven men and women are viewed instead as people set apart as treasured possessions, a nation of priests and chosen people. The relationships between women and men are to be different than those embodied in the community around them where women, in particular, may be not be valued as full citizens of the kingdom.

The Sermon on the Mount is about creating a community that embodies the kingdom of heaven, and relationships within that community are essential. Sexuality is a powerful part of the relationship we share with others in the community. While the commandment on adultery is primarily viewed in the Hebrew Scriptures as protecting the male in the relationship, polygamy was practiced and if a woman was not married or promised then there were provisions to bring her into the relationship with the person who had intimate relations with her (desired or undesired, see for example Deuteronomy 22: 15-30) but now the command places the responsibility upon the male not to objectify the woman as an object of desire.

We live in a world where women do have rights and protections that did not exist in the time of Jesus, however wrestling with how we as a community embody this commandment are as important today as they have been at any point in our history. The ‘me too’ movement and the exposure of a number of prominent men (and a few women) who have used their power and authority to sexually harass, abuse and assault employees, co-workers and relations should be a clarion call for we as a community of Christ to talk about what healthy sexuality looks like. In addition, we live in a time where sexuality has become highly commercialized and readily available. One of the risks to relationships in our digital age is the easy availability of sexually explicit imagery on the internet. If men and women are being conditioned to look at other bodies as sexual objects rather than a gift for relationship then we have moved far away from the vision of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. There are powerful forces behind the way sexuality is used and misused in our society. As Stephanie Coontz could state prior to the internet:

 “the consumerist values that had already made sex a marketable commodity” were increasingly applied to female and gay sexuality as well as to traditional gender roles and marriage, for purposes dictated by the multi-billion-dollar sex industry, not for the aims of personal liberation or social transformation. (Coontz, 1992, p. 265)

The kingdom of heaven is about communal liberation and social transformation and it is not for commercial gain. It is about relational reconciliation rather than sexuality exploitation. It is about a community that embodies a different way of modeling the relationships between men and women. Yet, I think it is important to remember that this is about something different than moralistic perfection, in our individualistic world we many ask, “What should I do?” but the kingdom of heaven is about a community where we can ask, “What should we do?” What kind of community could we imagine where we can talk to young men and women, and adults as well, about how we relate to one another sexually while valuing one another’s place within the community. Perhaps the easier road is the one of celibacy which Jesus discusses in Matthew 19: 10-12 but not everyone, myself included, could accept this teaching.

Matthew places between the commandment on adultery and the discussion on divorce the harsh words about removing eyes or hands to demonstrate the serious nature of relationships in the kingdom of heaven. On one hand it is important to state that this is probably not intended to be taken literally in an individualistic manner, but as a community it is important to live in a way that embodies the kingdom of heaven and there may be times where a member of the community is cut off or cast out (see Matthew 18, although the hope is also for reconciliation with the community). This is also the first time in the gospel of Matthew we encounter the concept of Gehenna, translated hell. For most Christians the term hell carries a lot of baggage and there has been a long tradition of imagining hell as a place of torture. Most of the Hebrew Scriptures do not have an equivalent concept of Gehenna or hell, Sheol is a place of the dead but not a place of condemnation. Jesus, especially in Matthew and the synoptic tradition, does include punishment for those who choose the path of the wicked. The gospels use the term Gehenna a term that originates with the valley of Hinnom, which was considered a cursed place and a place where trash from Jerusalem was burned but it also is used as the opposite of the kingdom of heaven. Choose the kingdom of heaven or choose Gehenna, it is a choice between wisdom and foolishness. I think it is difficult to argue that Jesus does not have some conception of a judgment that goes beyond this life that parallels the resurrection that also transcends this life. Yet, this choice, like the choice between wisdom and foolishness, is so that people may choose the way of this visible community that is embodying the way of life articulated in the sermon.

Finally comes the first discussion of divorce in Matthew, also addressed in Matthew 19: 3-12, which indicates this may have been an issue that Matthew’s community needed to hear addressed multiple times. Before I begin this discussion, we all are shaped by our own stories and mine includes divorce and remarriage and I have had to wrestle with this text and others in the New Testament as I attempted to walk through these as faithfully as possible. I’ve shared more on my experience of divorce here. I also serve a community where many in the community have divorce as a part of their story. I once believed that there was always something someone could do to prevent a divorce, but ultimately a modern relationship relies upon both parties investing in the relationship. Jesus lived in a time where marriage was understood differently, marriages for most of history were primarily an economic relationship arranged between families to attempt to ensure a good match for the child and the family’s economic future. Within this economic arrangement a divorce placed the woman in a tenuous situation because she was no longer a favorable match for a second partner and may not be welcomed back into their father’s home. In a world of limited economic opportunities, a woman may be reduced to begging or prostitution.

This passage refers to Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 is the only place in the law where divorce is discussed for the general population of Israel (there are provisions in Leviticus for priests). Now Jesus links this provision with the commandment on adultery. The Greek term porneia which is translated unchastity by the NRSV is open to debate about its exact meaning: illicit sexual relations with a person other than the spouse, premarital unchastity or even (in relation to Leviticus 18) being married too closely in family relations (an incestuous marriage in the eyes of the law). In Greek this term is a general term relating to sexual-misconduct but it is a different term than moicheoo which is translated adultery in this passage. Yet, when compared to its Markan parallel we see that this exception is added in Matthew’s version. As Richard B. Hays can state:

No matter what interpretation is put upon the clause, it is undeniable that we see here a process of adaptation, in which Jesus’ unconditional prohibition of divorce is applied and qualified in the interest of predicatability. Here, as elsewhere, to work out a balance between rigor and mercy, between the demands of discipleship and the realities of the community’s situation. (Hays, 1996, p. 355)

Within the New Testament divorce is addressed in Matthew, Mark, Luke and 1 Corinthians and even within the formation of the New Testament we see the community trying to find the balance between rigor and mercy, between discipleship and the reality of their community situation. Paul, for example, in 1 Corinthians has to deal with the issue of believers who are married to non-believers and whose non-believing spouses may want to terminate the relationship.

The discussions related to divorce in churches, along with other issues of sexuality, can be difficult because the issues impact people at their deepest and most intimate levels of desire for connection. In a time where marriages are based on love and emotion, I do think it is important to acknowledge the danger of this dependence on the immediacy of feeling to maintain a lifetime relationship. As Stephanie Coontz can articulate:

Our dependence on love leads us to demand the constant renewal of romance, gift exchange, and self-revelation. But as soon as we can take someone’s gifts for granted, or their novelty wears off, the love is at risk. Boredom, argues sociologist Richard Sennett, is the logical consequence of relationships constructed according to the cult of private intimacy; infidelity and planned obsolescence are consumer society’s answer to boredom: “When two people are out of revelations…all too often the relationship comes to an end.” (Coontz, 1992)

Jesus’ vision of relationships is very different that the vison of relationships articulated in our individualistic and consumeristic society. I do think Stanley Haerwas’ framing of the question differently is a helpful starting point:

In similar fashion the question is not whether a divorced woman should be allowed to marry, but what kind of community must a church be that does not make it a matter of necessity for such a woman to remarry. If Christians do not have to marry, if women who have been abandoned do not have to remarry, then such a church must be a community of friendship that is an alternative to the loneliness of the world. (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 70)

Jesus is articulating a way of being that embodies the kingdom of heaven, where relationships are central, where reconciliation is important and where men and women can dwell together in safety and love. The community of faith has rarely, if ever, fully embodied this vision and we deal with broken relationships, abused trust and hurtful words and actions. Yet, even though the accusation could be justly made that this type of vision is utopian in outlook we are talking about articulating the kingdom of heaven. Israel and now this community of disciples is intended to be an alternative community to the world around it. They are intended to be salt to preserve and light to illuminate and a city on the hill which the nations can stream to. It is a goal towards which the community of the faithful can strive towards but there also needs to be done within a way of reading that is merciful and allows a space for forgiveness.

Deuteronomy 24: Divorce, Purity and Justice

"Ten Commandments by A.Losenko (?)" by Anton Losenko - http://www.university.kiev.uawww.uer.varvar.ru/arhiv/gallery/klassitsizm/losenko/losenko13.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ten_Commandments_by_A.Losenko_(%3F).jpg#/media/File:Ten_Commandments_by_A.Losenko_(%3F).jpg

“Ten Commandments by A.Losenko (?)” by Anton Losenko – http://www.university.kiev.uawww.uer.varvar.ru/arhiv/gallery/klassitsizm/losenko/losenko13.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ten_Commandments_by_A.Losenko_(%3F).jpg#/media/File:Ten_Commandments_by_A.Losenko_(%3F).jpg

Deuteronomy 24:1-5  Divorce, Remarriage and Wedded Bliss

1 Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house 2 and goes off to become another man’s wife. 3 Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); 4 her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the LORD, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession.
 5 When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be charged with any related duty. He shall be free at home one year, to be happy with the wife whom he has married.

As a person who has gone through a divorce (I share some of my reflections on this here, here and here) I found it interesting that this is really the only place that divorce is discussed in the law for the general population. There are the prohibitions of a priest marrying a divorced woman in Leviticus 21 and the ability of a divorced daughter of a Levite to return to her father’s home and eat of his food in Leviticus 22: 13 but otherwise the reality of divorce is simply assumed. Numbers 30, for example can discuss that the vows a divorced woman makes are bound to her, while a married woman the husband (or if unmarried the father) may nullify the vows-but divorced women are an assumption as is their remarriage. We saw that in Deuteronomy 22: 13-30 a couple situations (the false accusation of lost virginity before marriage or a virgin who is violated and the man pays the bride price for her) where a woman cannot be divorced but in the Hebrew Bible divorce seems mainly to be an assumed option for men. Here the issue of divorce comes up in the complicated issue of a woman who is divorced, remarries, is either widowed or divorced again and a prohibition against her remarrying her first husband.

Here, as in the discussions of blood guilt in Deuteronomy 19, 21 and 22, the concern is for contaminating the land. The re-unification of first husband with the now defiled ex-wife (notice that the husband is not considered defiled since polygynous weddings were accepted in Israel). This is an issue that receives the strong condemnation of being ‘abhorrent to the LORD.’ In the author of Deuteronomy’s ordered world this is simply something that is not to be done.

Deuteronomy discusses things from a male-centered perspective and it is inconceivable that a woman would ask for a divorce. A husband may release the woman from the relationship, but not the other way around in the ancient world. In releasing the woman from the relationship he also removes her from her means of support. For women in the ancient world there were limited options of support, so a divorced woman would be property-less, and if she wasn’t accepted back into her father’s home (and this may have been an issue of shame so severe that a family would not re-accept their child) then she either must re-marry, or be reduced to begging, or prostitution. Even with the provisions to care for the vulnerable outlined below, being a divorced woman in the ancient world would put one at a severe economic disadvantage.

This passage takes on a life in two other significant places in the Bible, the first being Jeremiah 3 where God is cast in the role of the husband who wants to re-take the wife who abandoned her marriage.  God refuses to abandon God’s love for God’s adulterous people (using the language of Jeremiah) and is willing to set aside the past for the possibility of something new. The other place this passage comes up is in Mark 10, and its parallel in Matthew 19, where Jesus is asked by a group of Pharisees whether divorce is lawful. Jesus interestingly reframes the issue that the man who divorces commits adultery against the divorced wife and the woman who divorces (not a conceived possibility in Deuteronomy) commits adultery against her former husband.

Divorce is a difficult issue in ancient times and in modern times. The church has often been a place where divorced men and women were excluded or made to feel like second class citizens. In earlier times, even though my own divorce was not something I wanted or did anything to cause, I would not have been permitted to serve as a pastor within my denomination. There are other denominations where this still would be the case. I have certainly had verses like Titus 1: 6 where it refers to a bishop being, “someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious.” Texts like this are difficult, but essential to wrestle with in a world where we also find divorce as an assumed reality. As we as individuals and churches struggle with issues of relationship like divorce and sexuality it is important to exercise wisdom and compassion. Divorce is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, even in modern times it is an incredible emotional, financial and spiritual drain on a person. While a man or woman who is divorced in our society has opportunities to re-invent themselves they need communities to care for them while they and the affected families are in very vulnerable states.

The final line in this section links back to Deuteronomy 20 where a person who is recently married is exempted from military service. Here the issue is expanded slightly giving a one-year window where a newly married man is freed from military service.  Here the language can be read that the exemption is so that the wife may be happy, which would be an uncommon acknowledgment of the value of women’s feeling in the ancient world. From a person who served in the Army this is would have interesting implications if it were applied in modern times (and I would think in times of conflict the marriage rate would skyrocket to avoid wartime service), yet in the world of Deuteronomy it makes sense. It is essential for the man to have the ability to ensure a future descendent who will carry on his name and inheritance in Israel. I also wonder how effective this was in practice when the elites would have been able to marry multiple times, and perhaps prevent themselves the risk of military action. Again, very different from the experience of the modern military which is filled with stories of people being married immediately before deployment.

Deuteronomy 24: 6-22: Purity and Justice

  6 No one shall take a mill or an upper millstone in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge.
 7 If someone is caught kidnaping another Israelite, enslaving or selling the Israelite, then that kidnaper shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
 8 Guard against an outbreak of a leprous skin disease by being very careful; you shall carefully observe whatever the levitical priests instruct you, just as I have commanded them. 9 Remember what the LORD your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt.
 10 When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. 11 You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. 12 If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. 13 You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the LORD your God.
 14 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. 15 You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.
 16 Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.
 17 You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. 18 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
 19 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. 20 When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 22 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.
This portion of chapter 24 deals predominantly with protecting the vulnerable within the community from exploitation, but within this passage is also a provision for protection from skin disease. The guarding against the “leprous” skin disease, which we honestly don’t know what this disease is-it isn’t what would be medically categorized as leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease).  The mention of Miriam and Aaron’s speaking against Moses where Miriam is afflicted with this skin disease (Numbers 12) is an interesting narrative linkage that the text makes. Miriam (not Aaron, perhaps because of his role as priest) is placed outside the community, yet the community waits for seven days when she is healed and is able to be re-united with the community. Leviticus 13 and 14 go into great detail for the priests on how they are to diagnose and deal with these skin diseases and it was a significant issue in the community. There are numerous places where lepers are lifted up as a part of the narrative throughout the bible, too many to address here, and apparently this was a significant issue among the people of Israel they had to guard against.

The remainder of the chapter deals with caring for the vulnerable in the community. Verse 6, dealing with taking a mill or millstone in pledge prevents a person’s livelihood from being taken which would not only prevent the repayment of the debt but also imperil the person’s ability to live. To take a person’s livelihood is to deprive them of life. In a similar way they are not to be a society where a person is taken captive or sold into slavery, this was not a practice the people of Israel were to tolerate and this is probably behind the command to not allow kidnapping. In verse 6 the people of Israel are prevented from depriving another Israelite of livelihood and in verse 7 they are prevented from depriving another person of freedom.

In Deuteronomy 23: 19-20 there is already a prohibition against charging interest on debt to another Israelite, but Deuteronomy spends even more time on the issue of debt here. This must have been a pressing issue among the people. As Deanna Thompson can state these laws reveal, “a fundamental respect for the dignity of the neighbor; even if he stands in need of money.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 178)  A person was to respect the neighbor’s property and to wait outside the home to receive a pledge (preventing the lender from voyeuristically deciding what among their neighbor’s property they would confiscate). Nor may a person’s means of being warm at night be taken away. As the prophet Amos can criticize in his time:

They lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge;
 and in the house of God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed. Amos 2:8

In any society the poor and vulnerable are likely to be preyed upon by those in power and debt can become a burden that they cannot ever emerge from. Yet, Israel was to be a society that cared for the poor in their midst and did not allow a neighbor to become permanently enslaved or burdened by their debt. In a similar manner the following verses relating to paying the poor and needy laborers daily and not holding onto wages for it could put their livelihood at risk. In a society where the poor are preyed upon by ‘payday loans’ and high interest rates on purchases, higher prices for goods and pay schedules that benefit the business but may not benefit the employee we have a lot we could learn from this view of economic justice based upon being a covenant people.

When I first encountered liberation theology[i] the idea of a “preferential option for the poor” it troubled me, because it seemed that God was picking one group over another. The reality is that the God of the Bible does pick, and that this is a faithful witness to the God we come to know.  As Miroslav Volf can state eloquently:

Consider, second, God’s partiality. In the biblical traditions, when God looks at a widow, for instance, God does not see “a free and rational agent,” but a woman with no standing in society. When God looks at a sojourner, God does not see simply a human being, but a stranger, cut off from the network of relations, subject to prejudice and scapegoating. How does the God who “executes justice for the oppressed” act toward widows and strangers? Just as God acts toward any other human being? No. God is partial to them. God “watches over the strangers” and “upholds the orphan and the widow” (Psalm 147: 7-9) in a way that God does not watch over and uphold the powerful.
Why is God partial to widows and strangers? In a sense, because God is partial to everyone—including the powerful, whom God resists in order to protect the widow and the stranger. (Volf, 1996, p. 221f.)

God seeks justice, but not revenge. We live in a revenge culture, if a person harms me there is the desire to make sure that this could never happen again. In the United States, and much of the world, this also informs foreign policy. Revenge in interpersonal conflicts is addressed here, where the idea of “if you hurt me, I will not only hurt you but all those close to you” is forbidden. A person is to be penalized for their own offense, not their children or parents. Justice ultimately seeks to establish an end to the cycle of punishment. In our own society where children of parents who are in prison are often set up to follow in their footsteps by the lack of opportunities and support for a different path maybe we too can imagine how we could imagine a society where children are not punished for the mistakes of the parents and vice versa.

These commands to help the vulnerable, highlighted in the widow, alien and orphan, are brought into the narrative of liberation of the people from their slavery. In Exodus 23: 9 we hear for the first time this command brought into the narrative “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” The people are to remember their own situation was not one where they ‘pulled themselves up by their bootstraps’ but instead a gift of their covenant identity with their LORD. They are given concrete ways to enact this justice towards the vulnerable. They are to be shown justice, not taken advantage of. These landless ones are to have a method of living off the plentiful harvest that the people are promised in the land. They are to be different than the world they knew in Egypt, or the societies they see around them. “The neighbor—especially the neighbor in need—lives in a world governed not by the ruthless “iron law” of the market or by the unencumbered autonomy of the powerful, but by the same God who curbed Pharaoh.” (Brueggemann, 2001 , p. 240f.) Throughout their life, they would struggle with this view of justice. The prophets would often cry about the way the widow, orphans and the resident aliens were being denied justice, being oppressed by practices designed to keep them poor and being denied their rights within the land. The vision was a noble one, and yet, justice is a hard dream to achieve. Yet, even though dreams of justice may be difficult to achieve in reality it does not free us from the struggle of attempting to live into the vision of justice that God calls us to.

[i] Liberation theology is a broad term for theological perspectives that came out of various experiences of oppression. Liberation theology started with the experience of base communities in Latin America among the poor, but also now are experienced in black liberation theology, feminist liberation theology and many other branches of theology which utilize the experience of oppression as a lens to encounter God and God’s action towards the world.

What I Learned About Myself, Life and God from My Divorce Part 3

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

This is the final reflection on this at this point in my journey.

7. The Place of Ritual and the Value of a Worshipping Community- I know that many people have had bad experiences in churches, synagogues and places of worship after a divorce, which is sad but a very real experience of many people-but not every place is like that. For myself, as a pastor I found myself in a new community, where I knew the pastor as one of my colleagues and I showed up with my kids each Sunday and as much as I could be I was anonymous. I did have a few people ask where their mother was in an inquiring and not an accusing way (to which I answered that she had chosen not to be there) and since I was still at the process of trying to save the marriage initially and later going through the divorce I didn’t want to close any doors, but I needed a place to just be. I knew that when I needed I could talk to the pastor as a friend and as a person who knew more of what was happening but mostly I just needed to be around the rituals and around a worshipping community. I needed someone else to sing when there were no songs coming out of my heavy heart. I needed something that was familiar and known in the midst of all the changes. I needed to be reminded that in the bigger picture that I mattered. I needed to hear about forgiveness, that I was valued, that I mattered. I needed to be in a place where I could begin my journey of healing.

8. The Gift of Limitations-For years in my life I would always find a way to dig a little deeper, to draw on some reserve of physical, spiritual or emotional strength and continue to do whatever needed done. In my relationship with my ex, in my work or school, in my life failure was never an option. The time leading up to the divorce pushed me for the first time in my life beyond the breaking point, where I reached a point where my spiritual and emotional strength were exhausted and depression began to sap even my physical strength. At the time, nothing about this seemed like a gift but it forced me to begin to pay attention to my own body and mind for the first time. To accept that my energy had limitations, that I needed to take breaks and pay attention, that there were times that I would need to say no to a commitment because I simply was not in a state of mind to deal with things. I began to listen more closely, to recapture some of the parts of myself that had been lost in pushing so hard for so many years. I began to recommit to listening and paying attention which eventually turned into poetry and writing, and I made space to listen to stories, to read, to listen to music and to make time for myself and not feel guilty about it. In accepting my own limitations I was able to find strengths that I had long forgotten about.

9. Seeing Myself as Worthy of Being Loved Again-I never imagined how deeply the rejection I felt from my ex-wife would reach into my sense of self-worth, but it challenged the core of my identity. I had always been pretty confident, in at least decent physical shape, considered myself fairly attractive and charismatic, emotionally resilient, intelligent and I had done a lot of things in my life that I was pretty proud of. The things that happened in this time caused me to question all of this, through both words and actions everything that I was felt rejected. I felt ugly, emotionally flat, I questioned whether anyone would find me interesting, I wondered whether everything I had done in the past was merely me managing to get through rather than really achieving anything. I wondered what type of future I might have in relationships, I was also wondering what I would do as far as work. Everything seemed in a period of months to have gone away and I really began to wonder who I was. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, and it probably didn’t happen all at once, but slowly I began to see that I really was pleased with the way I had lived my life, that I genuinely was happy with who I was. That I was worthy of being loved again, that I was still creative and intelligent (and in fact the experiences had opened up new avenues of creativity) and that I was OK with who I was. Not that every moment and every day I remembered this, there were occasional dark times and still are every once in a while, but  the emotional resilience did return and that I was able to see myself as worthy of being loved again.

10. The Process of Forgiveness and Reconciliation– Until you’ve really been hurt you don’t understand how difficult forgiveness and reconciliation really are. Even when you have made the choice to forgive there will be times where past actions are reenacted in your mind and you need to let go of them to move forward. It was a journey from the point where I had made the initial decision to forgive my ex (while we were still married) and work towards reconciliation and the possibility of a new beginning, to realizing that the reconciliation which occurred (which involved the divorce which I didn’t want) was much different than what I hoped for, to continually having to commit to trying not to allow things that happened in the past to determine the relationship going forward. It was a journey and not a one-time decision, and yet it was a journey that ultimately led me towards healing.

In the midst of the many challenges and lessons I have changed and grown. It took time and I have been able to walk with several others through their own journeys through broken relationships and divorces. It was not a skill I was seeking or an experience I wanted but you can learn to find the gift in even the most challenging of times.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

What I Learned About Myself, Life and God from My Divorce: Part 2

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

4. The Language of Woundedness– Growing up, in seminary and even through the first several years of my ministry I never really knew what to do with much of the language of the prophets in the bible. At times it is visceral, offensive, painful and harsh and even though I had done many things through my life to challenge myself physically and mentally I didn’t realize what a sheltered life I had lived. It was only in the time before and after my divorce, where I found myself emotionally shattered and dealing with a deep emotional and spiritual wound that I found that this was the language of emotional pain. Those who have been following my writing know I’ve been writing quite a bit on Jeremiah, and Jeremiah is full of this language of woundedness-of a wounded God and the wounded prophet who are working through an intense feeling of betrayal by the very people they committed themselves to. I’ve come to understand that this language, although harsh and painful and often unheard by anyone else is a part of the healing process. It is a way that we try to make sense of the deep brokenness that we feel on the inside and to let go of the relationship, dreams, trust, love and eventually move towards forgiveness. For me, many times, these were words that were said in the car alone, in the shower when nobody could hear, and rarely before anyone except a couple close friends who I trusted deeply as well as some of my conversations with God (which both the Psalms and the Prophets model). It is the language of our emotional self crying out in desperation as it tries to re-establish itself and it needs the place to be vented, and yet it is not where we want to remain. It is a wilderness of anger that I had to move through on my journey of healing, but I have also know people who have established their residence there and allowed their identity to remain wounded. This is one of those things that there is a season for, a season for woundedness and anger and a season of healing and new beginnings.

5. Letting Go of Dead Dreams-This took some time, probably close to two years for me. Many people will immediately try to re-establish a relationship to take the place of the relationship they lost but I didn’t. I did date some over my first couple years but was never able to place myself fully into the relationships because I was still holding on to what had been in the past. For two years of dating and thirteen years of marriage I had seen my life always being connected to my ex-wife’s and there was a time, even after divorce where I dreamed the relationship could be reestablished, my family could be joined back together and the dream I had held onto for years could be realized. The crazy part is that I was holding onto this dream precisely when I was also dealing with the most extreme pain and hurt. Eventually I did reach a point where I was able to say that the relationship was truly over, the dream was dead, that I had come to the point where there was no going back, where I could be honest with myself about the number of things I had given up over the previous years to make the relationship work and I could see some of the flaws. For me this was a part of letting go and beginning to wonder what might happen in the future and making space for the present. It also allowed me to accept the gift of myself and hopefully in the future be ready for the gift of somebody else.

6. The Relational Currency of Trust-I had the opportunity as I was going through my divorce to do some coursework on Marriage and Family Therapy which has been invaluable going forward in my life and in the counseling I do as a pastor. At a fundamental level, when you love someone else you open yourself up to the possibility of being hurt-there is no love without this possibility. This is why a person’s death can be so difficult and why betrayal within any relationship can be so devastating. In my own experience I know there were times when I may have known what was going on but I didn’t want to admit that someone I had opened up to so deeply could possibly be willing to betray that trust. The reason that betrayal is so deadly to marriages (and this can come in many forms, affairs both emotional and physical, addictions, lying, hiding of financial struggles or resources, undisclosed legal struggles and the list could go on) is that it violates trust. Trust allows us to risk opening ourselves up, and once trust is broken it is painful and it takes a lot for another person to grant that trust again. In my case I was willing to open myself up again in the hope of saving the relationship and I ended up being wounded again, but it was the right decision for me to make in the long run. If trust has been broken it can be rebuilt, but it takes a lot of time and work.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

What I Learned About Myself, Life and God from My Divorce: Part 1

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

On July 1, 2010 my marriage of almost 13 years with two children officially ended. For those who have been through or are going through the process of divorce you know that this journey, which for me was unwanted, begins much earlier than that, but now over three years later I finally sat down to think about what I learned from this journey. Much like some of my earlier posts about my learning about myself, the world and God from my son who is on the autistic spectrum I hope that perhaps others may be able to find some light in the midst of their dark times in their own journey. An unwanted divorce causes a crisis that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, but even though it is an unwanted journey there are gifts that do come along the way.

1.       There is some wisdom that is only learned through pain and suffering. My divorce was the third of three major transitions in my life in a very short period of time. In the spring of 2009 one of my personal dreams had died. I saw myself going on to do PhD work to teach at a university or seminary. For several years this had been a direction that I had put considerable time and energy into preparing for this possibility and had applied to several programs over the period of a couple years. In 2009 I received a rejection letter from the final program I had applied for, a program that I was fairly certain that I met all the criteria for, and I sensed that this dream was not going to happen. I attempted to care for myself during this time period, meeting with a counselor and trying to take good emotional care of myself yet even as resilient as I am this did take a toll on me personally. The second transition was due to the church I was serving at that time, it was a congregation that had experienced a lot of conflict in the previous four years and I knew that another conflict was on the horizon in the fall of 2009 due to decisions made within my denomination. Dealing with conflict, especially as a leader, for any extended period of time is very draining. It was in the fall of 2009 that I also learned that my wife was not satisfied with the relationship. In this time of broken dreams, conflict and a distancing spouse I went through an emotional breakdown, and just as Brené Brown can joke about her breakdown becoming a spiritual awakening, mine in its own way was very much a spiritual awakening. The experiences of heartbreak, betrayal, depression and anxiety, shame and weakness forced me to go through a process of re-learning who I was, how I related to others and the world, the process of forgiveness, the way in which I would relate to God, and the sympathy I was able to show others.

The wisdom that comes from going through a time of intense pain or suffering is a slow process, and it is not the type of learning that we actively seek on our own. It is not the reason we go through a difficult journey, instead it is a gift that we realize along the way. It takes a while to be able to accept it as a gift because it comes at a cost-a cost that involves re-examining who you are from bile to bones, to the very core of your identity. It is not a gift that comes all at once, rather it is more like a slow process of awakening physically, spiritually and emotionally and which I will touch on in many of my other points. You didn’t ask for this wisdom that came at a cost but it is now a part of you, a gift that you can share with others.

2.      The process of rediscovering yourself. For fifteen years (two years of dating, thirteen years of marriage) I had invested so much of my identity into my relationship with my ex-wife and my relationship with my children. I was deeply in love with my ex-wife and still love my children more than words can express and to make the relationship work I had given away a number of pieces of myself over the years, it wasn’t intentional-we all make sacrifices for the sake of relationships. I feel that I was a good husband and a loving father who had poured himself into the family and I didn’t realize how much of me was defined by my sense of living out these roles. When first my wife began to distance herself from me and later left the relationship and later when the agreement we came to on parenting left my son living with me and my daughter living with my ex-wife and we would have times where both kids would be with one parent or the other-I found myself for the first time in fifteen years having to live with just me for times. I had poured so much of myself into raising kids and into my work as a pastor I had not made space (nor felt I had the money at the time) to pursue hobbies, to take part in many of the activities I enjoyed and without either my family around me or, initially, a congregation to be a minister to I had to find who I was again. I had to learn new things, I had to learn how to date again (honestly, not sure I figured it out the first time and I certainly have had my share of lessons this time around), to learn how to take care of myself and to give myself permission to spend money on myself. I had been a natural giver who found his joy making other people happy but I rarely would allow myself to do the things I wanted to do or to buy the things that I wanted. In hindsight I probably hoped that my wife and children would want to give back to me the way I enjoyed giving to them, but that wasn’t the case. I also came from a family that one of their primary ways of expressing love was to give gifts and so I didn’t understand that not everyone has that same experience.

 Three years later, and I came to this realization well before three years, I genuinely like who I am. I’m far from perfect and I still have the occasional dark day, but most of the time I’m comfortable in my own skin. Nice guys may finish last, but it is more important to be who you are than to win. I am a nice guy, I am always looking out for other people. Don’t get me wrong I am a very mentally, physically and most of the time emotionally strong and resilient person, but I have always had a soft heart. One of the reasons I don’t carry and use cash very often is that if I had cash in my wallet I would give it away. Because I am a nice guy there have been many times in relationships and in my work life that I have been taken advantage of because I genuinely have wanted to make other people happy. I could become a jerk and say I’ll never be taken advantage of in the same way again, but that wouldn’t be me (nor would it be healthy-even if it is a common male way of avoiding vulnerability). I had to come to the point where I could admit to myself, I genuinely like who I am most days. I am proud of the way I have handled adversity, I am proud of the father I am and I am enough. I also had to arrive at the point where I was OK being alone and not trying to fill the emptiness with someone else. I would love to find someone I can share my life with again, but I’m not willing to settle just to have someone next to me.

3. You can do everything right and still fail.  This may sound like a really depressing lesson to learn, but failure is not the end of the world and it doesn’t define the future, in fact it may open up new possibilities. Marriage for example takes two people committed to working at it, no matter how one person tries they cannot by themselves hold a marriage together. You can go the extra mile and the mile beyond that, and perhaps even the marathon beyond that and things may not work. And maybe this sounds self-centered, but most people have been in the situation where you’ve had to try to make something work and failed. Sometimes the best thing you can take out of a situation is what did you learn about yourself, your gifts, your weaknesses, your habits, etc. that you can use in the future. I can look back without any regrets that I didn’t try hard enough to save my marriage. Yet, before going through my own divorce I did think that, ‘if someone just tried harder, loved more, was more patient, etc.’ they could have made the relationship work. I have no such illusions anymore and it has helped me numerous times in the last several years as I have worked with people not only in the midst of divorce but in the midst of many other crises that come up in life.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com