Today is an important day on the German calendar: October 3rd is German Unity Day. This national holiday was established in 1990, on the day the German reunification was ratified by the German president – not quite a year after the wall between East and West Germany started to come down and the previously hermetically sealed borders were opened.
I don’t know if you remember pictures of the day the wall in Berlin started to come down: people rejoicing, strangers fraternizing and hugging, people dancing on the wall, dancing in the streets, partying all night long, and then some. What a day!
But quite soon it became clear that the work of reuniting a people that had been separated and divided for more than 40 years and lived in totally different political systems, each with its own perks and disadvantages, would not be easy. There was discontent in the East and the West. And we see the repercussions to this day, more than 30 years later. Last Sunday was Election Day in Germany, and it looks like the more centrist parties will continue to form the government. However the far left and the far right parties, which were founded after the reunification and reflect the discontent of people who’ve felt left behind – especially in former Eastern Germany – received enough votes to represent their disgruntled constituents in parliament as well.
And I don’t want to judge or analyze – that’s not my job and way beyond my paygrade – but what we learn from this endeavor is that it’s not easy bringing people together – I mean, truly together. We are just so different in our wants and needs and ideals. And there is this thing we call ‘sin’ – Martin Luther defines it as ‘being curved into ourselves’, which is, we tend to stare at our own navel and consequently don’t see what’s going on around us, what needs our neighbor may have.
And that’s not only applicable on a large scale – in general, it gets complex and complicated when people get together, when people form a relationship. In a healthy relationship, there is always give and take, compromises need to be made – functioning relationships require sacrifice. And that whole concept of sacrifice, of given up stuff for the sake of a greater good or goal, has become quite unpopular in a society that celebrates individualism and personal freedom – and the myth of the ‘self-made’ man or woman or person. And I am afraid that, more and more, we fail to see the importance of community, of working together, of fostering relationships – be it on a small scale or larger scale.
When we look at today’s lesson from Genesis 2, we see how far we are from God’s original idea of how to live together. Here we read that human beings were created to be with each other, to be in a healthy and functioning relationship with each other. But not only that: there is also this intricate relationship between humans and the natural world, all that God created, and the relationship with God. God’s intention for all of creation is interconnection and interdependence.
But then we know what happened: humans eat the forbidden fruit, they become self-aware – and start to be curved into themselves – and are expelled from Paradise. The delicate balance of relationships has been badly damaged. Things start to get complicated, and soon even deadly violent as Cain slays his own brother, Abel. What an ominous start for human history!
Fast forward to the time of Jesus. Things haven’t gotten any better. Relationships between people and between peoples, the relationship between humanity and creation, the relationship between humanity and God are still complex, complicated, and disturbed. That’s the main reason God became incarnate in Christ Jesus: to seek reconciliation between God and humanity, and to remind humanity of God’s original intention for human beings to not be alone, but live in healthy relationships. How often do we hear Jesus say, ‘Love one another?’
As Jesus and the disciples continue on the road to Jerusalem and what will become the outmost symbol of this reconciliation – the cross -, some Pharisees, teachers of the Mosaic Law, approach Jesus ‘to test him’, we read. Teacher, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?
Now to our modern respectively post-modern ears, this is a very touchy and sore subject. It is for me, personally, since I am a divorced – and re-married – woman. Is it lawful to get a divorce? Well, in our society, it is, and personally think it’s important that we have this option. I can’t tell you how many women I have encountered who were in an abusive relationship – be it physically, emotionally, or financially abusive. No person should be forced to remain in a marriage – or shamed into remaining in a marriage – that is abusive, or where more damage is done than good. This is not what God intended.
In Jesus’ days, women in general were defined through their marriage – as was the case in this country until the early 1970s (remember when you couldn’t have your own credit card, but it had to be in your husband’s name, ladies?). Women in Jesus’ days had no status and very limited rights. A woman without a man was practically nothing – that’s why the Mosaic Law prescribed the so-called ‘Levirate marriage’ – if a woman became a widow, the next of kin of her late husband was technically obliged to marry her and thus give her protection. Although the next of kin could refuse, leaving a woman and her children high and dry.
Because a woman practically had no rights, she also couldn’t divorce her husband. Only a man was given this option and this power. That’s why those Pharisees coming to Jesus don’t even bother mentioning whether or not it is lawful for a woman to divorce her husband.
Now Jesus doesn’t want to be trapped by the Pharisee’s question. He asks back, ‘What did Moses command you?’
Now, did you catch that? Jesus doesn’t ask, ‘What does God command you? Apparently Jesus acknowledges that there is a difference between God’s commands and intentions and human appropriation of what is perceived as God’s will.
And the Pharisees are the ones who become trapped. ‘Well, Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ And, yes, we indeed find such a law in the Book of Deuteronomy. The point is, the Pharisees acknowledge that this law rather expresses human intentions than God’s intentions.
And so Jesus can reply, ‘It is because of your hardness of heart that Moses wrote this commandment for you.’ Whoa, Jesus goes in the full offensive here. YOUR hardness of heart, Moses wrote this command for YOU. Jesus is attacking these self-righteous men, who have the power to ruin a woman at a whim by divorcing and dismissing her – and often, a dismissed woman would be disgraced and seen as ‘damaged goods’. She lost her status, she lost her protection. It is quite clear that Jesus has the welfare of women in mind when goes on to say that it may be lawful for a man to divorce his wife, but that this doesn’t make it right. God’s intention for human beings is to live in healthy relationships – relationships where everyone does their part to make it work. Relationships where everyone brings sacrifices for the greater good.
Would Jesus want a woman, or any person, for that matter, to remain in an unhealthy or even abusive relationship? I for one don’t find anything in the sayings of Jesus that condones violent behavior against a spouse or any family member. One also has to weigh the options: what sin is greater? To allow abuse to happen, or to be released from an abusive relationship?
And remember the story where Jesus meets the woman at the well – and reveals himself to her as the Messiah, even though she’s had 7 husbands? Jesus doesn’t discard her or condemn her, but grants her healing and uses her to be the first one to spread the good news among the Samaritans.
God knows relationships are complicated. Christ knows that we are East of Eden, far from Paradise and its original state of utmost trust and harmony. A divorce, be in back in the old days or today, is but an expression of the inability of most human beings to live in perfect or at least well-balanced relationships. I said it before, and I say it again: the main reason God became incarnate in Christ Jesus was to seek reconciliation between God and humanity, and to remind humanity of God’s original intention for human beings to not be alone, but live in healthy relationships.
God has never dismissed us, despite our shortcomings, despite the fact that we have such a hard time living in truly loving relationships. God holds on to us, forgives us, and promises us healing and wholeness. At the same time, we are called and encouraged to do our best as we love God, neighbor, and ourselves, as we seek to live in healthy relationships in which we truly give and take.
This post is also available in: German