Relationships. Relationships are at the heart of our life. Relationships are what we desire, what we need, and they’re part of the focus of God’s having created us in the first place! We all agree that human relationships are crucial to our own spiritual and physical and mental wellbeing, and yet, we have all known relationships that have failed miserably. We have all been disappointed, wounded and broken by a relationship that became anything but life-giving, creative and sustaining.
We invest time, emotion, work and sometimes worry into our relationships—this is because we want them to “work”, even though sometimes we go through periods of time when we really struggle to keep the relationship going. No matter what talk show you happen to tune in to, or what popular magazine we read while we’re in the check out lane, there is a lot of advice out there on how to have good relationships. And that’s because whether we’re adults, young teens, women or men, friends, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, partners, spouses, brothers or sisters—ALL of us hunger for healthy, deep, fulfilling relationships with each other. The fact that we have all had failed relationships of one kind or another doesn’t seem to deter us: in fact, our past failures only serve to remind us that whole, healthy relationships are out there somewhere, we just need to get ourselves in the right “place” to find them.
People found relationships challenging in the time of Jesus, too. That’s why the Pharisees, waiting to test and trap Jesus, asked him a difficult question about divorce. There were two schools of thought in the Jewish world of that time: one leading rabbi taught that divorce was only permissible in the case of infidelity (of the woman, of course, NOT of the man!); another allowed just about any reason for divorce, including poor cooking. Remember that Jewish religious law allowed only a man to divorce; a woman did not have that right. So the Pharisees challenged Jesus to offer a clear teaching on this very sensitive and delicate matter.
Jesus noted the ancient, biblical teaching of Moses that a man was permitted to divorce his wife. But Jesus went deeper into the subject. “Moses was just allowing for your hardness of heart,” Jesus said. “But, really, when we read Genesis, we know what God’s intention is: that a couple who marry stay together for a lifetime.” “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
When Jesus was asked about divorce, he focused, instead, on God’s will for those who are married. Jesus reminded his listeners that God intends marriage to be a life-long, lasting relationship. But not everyone is married, and some will choose never to marry. So is there anything in today’s scripture helpful for all of us—whether we are married or single, widowed or divorced, or will never marry?
In talking about marriage, Jesus speaks of the most permanent and intimate human relationship. But he also offers some wisdom for living in all of our relationships. So, what is it that makes any relationship a rich and life-giving one? If relationships are so important, why are they also so difficult?
Notice how Jesus gets to the heart of the issue. The Pharisees want to focus on the external act of divorce, while Jesus changes the focus to the internal attitude of the spouses. The Pharisees are concerned about acceptable reasons for divorce, but Jesus is concerned for the sanctity of the relationship.
In fact, Jesus says the brokenness we experience in marriage and in other relationships is a matter of the heart. Rather than offering excuses for those who break relationships, Jesus refuses to let us off the hook. He refers to divorce—and by extension all relationships– as a result of “hardness of heart”.
This is not an easy teaching to hear, let alone live. Jesus reminds us that we are responsible and accountable for the quality and health of our relationships. Although there may be situations where the destructive behavior of one partner harms the relationship beyond repair, the root cause is “hardness of heart”. In other words, sin. It’s not the act of divorce or the admission that the relationship has become toxic that is the sin—it’s the words and actions that led to the broken relationship that are the problem. It’s our refusal to trust God, our refusal to surrender to God’s leading, our refusal to put the other’s needs above our own. So, when a relationship becomes toxic, intolerable, unliveable, we are challenged by Jesus to look in the mirror. Jesus expects us to examine ourselves, to seek to determine what attitudes and actions on our part contributed to the breakdown.
We don’t like to hear that, and I really don’t even like having to say that! But when I think of my own failed relationships, when I look calmly and honestly at my own choices, I immediately become aware that I can say hurtful and careless things. I can become so wrapped up in my own world that I neglect the ones dearest to me. And that is precisely what Jesus calls, “hardness of heart”.
So where is the hope in this teaching? How are we to continue to strive for whole, healthy, life-giving and spirit-feeding relationships?
One of the key teachings of Jesus’ career was the boundless, welcoming mercy of God. He wanted to show us how open God is to all people, especially the defenseless and the weak. So he welcomed the children. Jesus made a place for those whom others wanted to dismiss. He put his arms around the little ones, the marginalized ones, the weak ones, the broken ones, the hurting ones. He put his arms around them, and blessed them, and called them his own.
This is perhaps the larger lesson in the reading for today, namely, that God wants to remind us that we are not meant to be alone, that in fact, we need each other to be whole. And whether we’re talking about marriage or a committed partnership, or sibling relationships or connection to a larger community of people with whom we do not share a bloodline, the truth is that God desires only the best relationships for us. God wants families that offer security and unconditional love to all members. God is calling churches to be providers of prayerful support and acceptance. God beckons for communities to become welcoming and nurturing, where the dignity of each individual is held sacred.
And what God wills, God gives the power to accomplish. When we respond in faith to the God of Jesus Christ, we are automatically given the power we need to make changes in our relationships. In fact, it’s the love of God that makes our loving possible. It is the life-giving power of the Holy Trinity, that diverse unity within the essence of God Himself, that reveals to us the truth that we are not meant to be alone, not in this life, not in the life to come.