It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” 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.
In the 1980s I went to a place in China I had never heard about before – Wuhan. While it was not well-known in those days, it is quite well-known today. What I remember about Wuhan was how bleak it was. We stayed in the nicest hotel in Wuhan, but it wouldn’t even rate one star in any reputable tourist guide today. In our bathroom there were multiple signs warning us not to drink the water, which didn’t particularly inspire confidence. The air was so heavily polluted by the burning of coal that many people wore masks. It reminded me of being in a West Texas dust storm. The people were suspicious of us, and for the most part, downcast. I suspect that the depressing state of the place has remained as such during these almost forty years. And with the outbreak of coronavirus wreaking its havoc on the population, the city and the churches I visited there have been often on my mind and heart. However, there is suddenly a ray of hope in Wuhan. The illness seems to have abated; the lockdown has reduced the factories’ coal-burning so that the skies are blue and clear; and with noise reduced, birds are being heard again.
Now, I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “What does this have to do with today’s Scripture?” The point I would like to try to make is that, like finding beauty and hope again in Wuhan, there is beauty and hope in these stark words of Jesus: It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” 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.
To be honest, upon first encounter, these words don’t sound like Jesus. They appear so judgmental. And in one sense, they are. However, on deeper interpretation there is another perspective of unmistakable grace. It is part of the genius of Jesus as a preacher to deliver one sermon that speaks justice to some while offering mercy to others. The key to this is remembering the historical time in which this sermon was delivered.
In that particular day, society was quite different than ours today. Jewish women occupied a subordinate position, one of inferiority and subjection. They were treated as chattel. Women had few rights or freedoms. This was especially true in regard to marriage. They were married off through bartering between the patriarchs of two families, and once they were married, they were completely at the mercy of their husbands. Divorce, then, was also a one-sided proposition, with the husband having all the say. According to the law of Moses in Deuteronomy, the husband would have had much latitude in deciding whether or not he wanted out of a marriage. In fact, the meaning of the word “divorce” was similar to what we now call “abandonment” – the husband simply walked away or more often sent the wife away (e.g. Abraham and Hagar).
What marks the brilliance of Jesus here is his ability to preach responsibility and accountability to the men in his congregation, while at the very same time, with the very same words, offering women a sense of support and personal worth. In essence, what Jesus was doing was elevating the institution of marriage, another part of his effort to teach us all to love as God loves. Perhaps in our day another way of seeing this is that the dual responsibility in marriage is to bring out the best in each other, to bring out God’s intentions.
The story of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a marvelous example of this. It is one of the great love stories that reveals not only romance, but a steadfast determination to not only persevere in difficult times, but do it with that sense of grace that brings out the best in one another.
Elizabeth Barrett lived a sheltered and sequestered life, due in part to illness and injury, but to a greater degree the peculiar parenting discipline of her father, who was one of the consummate “helicopter” parents. He dictated her life to be one of isolation and aloneness. During these years Elizabeth wrote poetry and received much acclaim when some of her work was published. One of the admirers of her work was a fellow poet, Robert Browning, who was six years her junior. They started writing letters to each other, and over twenty months exchanged 574 letters, slowly gathering intensity, and ultimately falling in love.
Their relationship led to thoughts of marriage, but it was bitterly opposed by Elizabeth’s father, who didn’t want any of his children to marry. This resulted in their eloping to Florence, Italy, where ironically Elizabeth’s physical condition improved. She and Robert immersed themselves in their callings and each other. Elizabeth published Sonnets from the Portuguese, dedicated to her husband and written in secret before her marriage. Critics generally consider the Sonnets—one of the most widely-known collections of love lyrics in English—to be her best work. During their married years Robert returned to poetry after an unsuccessful sojourn as a playwright and began to find his own voice in his poetry, one of dramatic dialogue.
Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s marriage was transformational in nature, bringing out the best in each other. In the worst of times, their love kindled hope and creativity as evidenced by Robert’s immortal words, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made. Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half’; Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”
Marriage is for life, and I mean that not so much in a chronological way, but in a way of encouraging fulfillment and commitment. In our marriages, in all our relationships, what if we lived with the dedicated intent of bringing out the best in each other? What if, in these cloistered times, we took as inspiration the story of Wuhan, envisioning not only the proverbial blue skies and bird songs, but also the gift of the divine in each other?
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- Who in your life has seen something in you that no one else had noticed? What was it? Thank God for the revelation and the revealer.
- In the modern world we tend to believe in the notion of romantic love, that “some enchanted evening” experience. Thus, marriages are, for the most part, primarily serendipity. However, in biblical times marriages were arranged, and love was to be worked at. How might we think in terms of love that is dedicated, not only in emotional ways but in committed efforts that transform those around us… spouses, family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues? The possibilities are infinite!
A Hymn Guide for Prayer: George Matheson’s “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go”
George Matheson was a Scottish minister who lost his eyesight as a youth. In spite of his blindness, Matheson became a brilliant scholar, preacher and hymn writer. Dr. Matheson says this hymn was “written in the manse of my former parish (Innellan, Argyleshire) one summer evening in 1882. It was composed with extreme rapidity; it seemed to me that its construction occupied only a few minutes, and I felt myself rather in the position of one who was being dictated to than of an original artist, I was suffering from extreme mental distress, and the hymn was the fruit of pain.” It is a beautiful, tender hymn, reminding us of the power of committed love.
O Love, that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O Light, that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
O Cross, that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.