Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
“Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and 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.’
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He 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.’
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
The allegations that have emerged this week and last about Sir Jimmy Saville are very disturbing. I am not quite old enough for Jimmy Saville to have been an integral part of my childhood, nor was I ever a fan of Top of the Pops. But I do remember looking forward to Jim’ll Fix It each week, and seeing what amazing experiences would be organised for the children who wrote in – often ill, disabled or otherwise vulnerable children. I suppose I didn’t have a particular view of Jimmy Saville – that he was a good, slightly eccentric person seemed to go without saying.
Stories have now emerged from over a dozen women that Jimmy Saville used and abused his position of power and trust at the BBC to have sex with girls as young as thirteen. These are, of course, allegations at the moment. But there are concerning reports (some anonymous) from Saville’s colleagues at the time in the BBC that yes, they had seen this and that, or yes, they had heard this and that. It seems that complaints had previously been made, the police involved, but no charges brought. That these allegations have only been made now perhaps says something about how different our attitudes now are, particularly towards women. Casual sexism in the workplace is no longer acceptable, and it is not seen as flattering (as it once was) for a girl of any age to receive the attention of a man, wanted or not.
What Jimmy Saville is alleged to have done is criminal, and if he were still alive then I suspect that prosecutions would follow. What has been interesting is that I have not heard a single church leader, or any church group, condemn his actions since the allegations surfaced. Not one. It may be that statements have been made, and I haven’t heard them. And yet, the conservative evangelical group in the CofE, Reform, at their conference last week somehow found time to pass a resolution affirming that (and I quote) “marriage is a creation ordinance and a gift of God for the good of all. It cannot be redefined to include same-sex couples nor subjected to a distinction between ‘marriage’ and ‘christian marriage’.”
What is it that makes the church speak out on certain sexual “issues” (in inverted commas) but not others? Why do certain more conservative Christians just never shut up about homosexuality and gay marriage, but we hear comparatively little about rape…child abuse…human trafficking?
I am not someone who believes homosexuality is wrong in any way. That is such a clumsy way of saying that! Love between two people, two people of the same sex, two people of different sex, is a wonderful thing.
But those who do think homosexuality is wrong, is a “sin” (inverted commas) must surely recognise that as sexual “sins” (again, in inverted commas) go, it is pretty low down on the list. Consensual sexual activity between two adult partners, who just happen to be of the same sex, versus non-consensual sex: rape, sex with a minor, sex which abuses a position of responsibility, or which takes advantage of someone who is weak or vulnerable. There is just no comparison. And yet, which do we hear about more often from so-called Christian voices?
Today’s gospel passage is one of only a few where Jesus talks about sex and marriage. There are others, but really not many. I have heard this passage used as evidence that Jesus was a supporter of “traditional marriage” (again those inverted commas), whatever that is supposed to mean. Some conservatives say that when Jesus talks about a man leaving his father and mother and being joined to his wife, and the two becoming one flesh, this confirms their view that homosexuality is wrong, and that gay marriage especially is wrong. Jesus talks about a man being joined to his wife, not being joined to another man – that must mean that Jesus was against homosexuality, right?
Well, not necessarily. The entire point of this passage of the gospel is divorce, not homosexuality. Jesus talks about how marriage cannot simply be dissolved – in marriage two people become as one flesh, joined by God, they cannot be separated. This is simply not in the context of homosexuality, whether it is right, or whether it is wrong. I think the only honest answer to what Jesus said about homosexuality is “we don’t know”. It is not discussed, it is not considered. This answer will be unpopular with lots of people for lots of reasons. Some won’t like the idea that Jesus does not support their own views on sexuality. Others won’t like the idea that we can’t divine a view other than “we don’t know”.
It does seem strange that this passage is used more often to justify a view on homosexuality, not divorce. I don’t why that should be.
Perhaps those who make the sort of anti-homosexual arguments I’m thinking of feel threatened by homosexual couples in a way they are not threatened by the prospect of divorce and remarriage. Does a homosexual relationship between two men or two women as equals jar against the one-sided, male dominated view of relationships that some people still hold to?
Perhaps some people, however dedicated they are to their marriages, would not want to rule out the possibility of divorce in extremis? The question of divorce is something that might actually be encountered in a marriage; homosexuality and gay marriage is unlikely to be. It is far easier to criticise something which will never affect you than something which could.
It is easy to portray Jesus as a conservative on sex and marriage, but much more difficult to justify it. In this week’s gospel passage Jesus actually displays a progressive attitude in this area, compared to what had gone before. Jesus asks the disciples about Moses’s command about divorce. It seems to be fairly permissive – ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ Deuteronomy 24:1-4, for example, supposes that a man enters into a marriage with a woman, and finding something objectionable he writes her a certificate of divorce. There were some circumstances where the right to divorce could be forfeited, but on the whole it seems it was a man’s prerogative to divorce his wife.
A man’s prerogative. Only a man’s, and not a woman’s right. If a woman was in an unhappy, possibly abusive marriage, probably no divorce option under the law of Moses. If a man had got bored of his wife, issue her a certificate of divorce. Jesus’s stance that if a man or woman divorces his/her wife or husband then they should not remarry can, if seen in the historical context, be seen as a progressive step. Firstly it includes both wives and husbands being able to divorce. It also puts a penalty on anyone who simply chooses to divorce their husband or wife and remarries. That is adultery according to Jesus.
This doesn’t, for me, address very well the situation of a woman (or man) trapped in a cruel or abusive marriage who feels that the only way out is divorce. If they get a divorce and then wish to remarry (hopefully to someone who is not cruel or abusive) then…is that adultery? Is that forbidden?
Well, I don’t know (again)! My heart says divorce and potentially remarriage in that case is not forbidden. What do I have to back that up? Not much perhaps. I find it appalling when I hear certain neo-Calvinist theologians, John Piper for example, saying that women should remain in abusive marriages and submit to their husbands in accordance with God’s will.
Erm, I just can’t see (or hear) Christ saying that somehow. I find it helpful to remember that Jesus did not come to replace the Law of the Old Testament with just another rule book. Jesus said he had come to fulfil the law, to fill it full, to give it meaning, to show the truth behind it – to show us that behind it is God and God is Love, and Jesus is Love Incarnate.
If we approached things from Love’s perspective I wonder what we might see, and what we might see a bit differently. If we brought fresh childlike eyes to any situation – the question of divorce and remarriage, the question about who it is legitimate to love and be sexually attracted to. Any question about anything really. What would we see if we came to these things in an open way – with eyes to see and ears to hear – without the baggage of what we had been taught and we had been told to believe.
Perhaps we might just find the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.