There’s been plenty of talk about “family values” over the past couple decades, often in the context of volatile political debates and posturing. But the family itself has come increasingly under attack within our culture and society. Marriage has been redefined and openly abused, on the one hand, mocked, disdained, and deliberately avoided on the other hand. Children are murdered in the womb, abused and neglected, or handed over to surrogate caregivers for endless hours every day. Sexual perversity and sins of all kinds surround us, undermining the entire structure of the family.
Over against all that depravity and confusion, the Lord Himself brings clarity by catechizing His Church to know and to value what a family is to be according to God’s own design. He speaks of what it means to be a husband and a wife, instructing your heart and your mind with the Words of Holy Scripture, taking you back to the beginning, to the creation of the heavens and the earth.
It is the Word of God that reveals what it means to be a good and godly man — by showing you the God and Father of us all in Christ (by whom all fatherhood on earth is named), and by teaching you the purpose for which He created the man in His Image, namely, that man should receive all things from the hand of his Creator, enjoy them to the glory of God’s Name, and use them for the benefit of his neighbor. In short, the man is to care for God’s creation with responsible dominion.
It is the Word of God that likewise reveals what it means to be a good and godly woman — by describing the Lord’s creation of the woman as a complementary partner and helper comparable to the man, and the way that He graciously gave her to the man and set her alongside of him as the queen of the world, that she might thereby assist him in the stewardship of God’s good creation.
Thus do you know the significance of marriage from God’s establishment of that holy institution, namely, that the woman, who was taken from the man in her creation, should be re-united with the man as one flesh in a relationship of mutual love and self-surrender. It is the union of two hearts, two minds, and two bodies, male and female, in a life-long commitment to work together in mutual love as partners, thereby reflecting the loving unity of the Holy Triune God.
But if you stop there — with what it means and what it takes to be a godly man or woman in life and marriage — you will be forced to admit that you have fallen far short of that glory of God.
In your heart and life, whether you are married or not, there is selfishness and self-centeredness instead of care and concern for others, instead of companionship and cooperation. It is not good for you to be alone, because you cannot reflect the loving unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit apart from neighbors to love and to love you. And yet, in your sinfulness, you cling to your own personal autonomy, as though you were an island unto yourself. You take pride in going it alone and doing things your own way, so much so that you withhold important aspects of yourself and your life from anyone and everyone around you, including even your own wife or husband.
It is sadly far too common for many men to relinquish responsibility for their families while they are busy catering to their own desires, and for many women to compete with men and with each other in a spirit of envy and jealousy. All of which contributes to a recognized and ever growing tension between the sexes, not only within marriages but in the workplace and the public square. Sex and sexuality are used as weapons in a battle for power and control, instead of being treated with careful reverence and treasured as sacred gifts of God in holy faith and holy love.
Then there is the particular problem of divorce, which our Lord addresses unequivocally in this Holy Gospel. It has become so common in these grey and latter days that it is basically taken for granted and treated rather lightly, despite the fact that anyone who has gone through the pain and heartache of divorce (as a spouse or as a child) knows that it is not the way things ought to be.
But along with the outright fact and process of divorce itself, one must also include the many other ways and means of adultery and unfaithfulness which are typically a prelude to more open marital problems. For the Sixth Commandment is routinely broken, not only by the sins that you commit, but also (and especially) by a constant failure to “lead a sexually pure and decent life” in all that you say and do, and by a daily failure to love, honor, cherish, and care for your wife or husband.
For all such failures, which are both temporal and spiritual, it is necessary that you hear the rest of the story. Thus are you called to enter the house as a disciple of Christ Jesus, to learn from Him what is God’s plan for men and women, marriage and children, from the foundation of the world.
To that end, let me first of all explain the context of this Holy Gospel. Among Jewish rabbis at that time, there were two different opinions on divorce. Some claimed that it was lawful for a man to put away his wife only in the case of serious moral misdemeanor on the part of the woman. That is basically the position that Jesus also takes, as indicated elsewhere in the Gospels, although He limits the legitimate reasons for divorce to cases of adultery or unfaithfulness. Other rabbis argued that almost any dissatisfaction or displeasure was good enough reason for a man to send his wife away (which is sadly not so different from the common attitude and practice of the world today).
Now, as I have said, the Lord Jesus does follow the stricter guidelines for the permissibility of divorce only under the circumstances of adultery. However, His answer to the question of the Pharisees in this case actually cuts through the legal debate altogether, and He returns instead to the original intentions of God. It is true, He acknowledges, that Moses permitted divorce — or, better to say, that he tolerated divorce — as a concession to the hardhearted sinfulness of fallen men and women. But it was the same Moses who also recorded the earlier, foundational account of Creation, which establishes God’s real purposes for males and females and holy marriage.
And there is still more to the question at hand than even that Creation account on the surface. For you are given to hear and to see, beneath and behind the institution of human marriage, the deeper purpose of God for eternal life and salvation in Christ Jesus. Men, women, and children alike, both in the beginning and now, are created precisely for that Life, which is always and only in Christ. As such, you must learn to evaluate every aspect of your life on earth with reference to Him.
This Holy Gospel, for example, is consequently far more than just a word about divorce. And it would miss the point altogether, were you to hear it as nothing but a condemnation of that one sin.
To be sure, the Word of Christ Jesus is clear. Contrary to the tenor of our times, divorce is an outright contradiction of God’s intentions. And His Law is not so lightly set aside. The breaking of a marriage is sinful, and there are consequences for it. The Lord Jesus therefore calls you to contrition and repentance for such sins, and to the cleansing freedom of forgiveness in His Cross.
If you’ve not gotten a divorce or put asunder what the Lord has joined together, praise God for His mercy upon you, and pray that He preserves you in such faithfulness and purity. But also bear in mind that He calls you, as well, to repentance for your own sins and failings. His Words today pertain to you as much as they did to the Pharisees then, though they were icons of public virtue.
The Lord would have you understand that divorce is one consequence of a far deeper problem, that is, the hardness of man’s sinful heart. And He would have you understand that the lust in your heart, in your eyes, and in your imagination, is already adultery before it emerges in your flesh.
There is no one here this morning who has not sinned against the Sixth Commandment by those standards of our Lord. It is true, therefore, as we confess, that each and every one of you deserve His temporal and eternal punishment. For the hardness of your heart, and all of the ways that you have been sexually impure in your thoughts, words, and actions — all the ways that you have sinned against God’s gifts of marriage and family — all demonstrate your unfaithfulness toward the Lord, your lack of fear, love, and trust in Him, and your idolatrous worship of other gods.
The Words of Jesus in this Gospel surely do pertain to human marriages, and we must absolutely take them seriously in that respect. But they also point you to the far more serious matter of your relationship — your marriage — with the Lord. For He is your heavenly Bridegroom, and by His grace you have been called to be and made a member of His Bride, the Church. All of the sins afflicting marriage and family in this body and life are assaults against the Marriage of Christ.
It is precisely for this reason that the question of the Pharisees is a testing — and a temptation — for the Lord Jesus. According to the letter of the Law, by all rights, He could have, perhaps even should have, divorced His adulterous people and sent them all away, yourself included.
Understand, therefore, that those who defend the legitimacy of divorce — for whatever reason — are underscoring the legitimate right that God the Lord would have to divorce all the sinful sons and daughters of Adam and Eve and cast them away from His presence. For whatever wrongs and whatever unfaithfulness your human spouse might commit against you, it remains the case that all of us poor sinners has sinned even more grievously against the Lord in our relationship with Him.
So, then, although the Pharisees did not realize or understand this point, the real significance of their question is this: “Is it lawful for You, O Lord, to divorce Your people and send them away?”
And the frightening answer to that poignant question is, “Yes.” It would indeed be lawful.
But, from the very beginning of Creation, from before the foundation of the world, that has not been the Lord’s intent. That is not the purpose for which He created the man and the woman and gave them to each other. And it is not the purpose for which He Himself has become true Man.
He has not come down from His Father in heaven to file for divorce or to put you away from Him. He has come instead to give His life for you, to shed His blood and die for you, that He might cleanse you by the washing of the water with His Word — as He has done in your Holy Baptism — and so present you to Himself as a glorious bride, beautifully dressed in the white wedding gown of His own perfect righteousness, without any spot or wrinkle or blemish of any kind.
And that is what God the Lord intended from the beginning of the world. For everything in all of Creation is realized, perfected, and understood in Christ Jesus alone. Which is to say, in this case, that Adam and Eve were created in the Image of Christ and His Bride, the Church. And marriage, at its best, even after the fall into sin, is still a reflection (even dimly) of the intimate union between Christ and His Bride, His intimate union with you and all His Christians within His holy Church.
The one true “Godly Man” is Christ Himself, the perfect Son who is the Image of the Father from all eternity. And He has fulfilled all God’s purposes for man — in the flesh of our flesh and the bone of our bones. In Him you see what it means to be a Man, and what it means to be a Husband.
This true Man has reconciled you to Himself, and He has graciously restored you as a beloved member of His Bride, His Church on earth as she is in heaven. Thus do you belong to the one true “godly woman” by the washing of water with His Word and Spirit. And in His Church, to which you belong by His grace, you see what it means to be a Woman, and what it means to be a Wife.
Take it to heart that, even after the fall into sin, and notwithstanding its consequences, the Lord God blessed the bond of holy marriage — and especially the bearing of children in that bond — by promising the birth of the Savior, the Seed of the Woman, who has in time been conceived and born of St. Mary. It is truly and only in Christ Jesus that marriage and family are divinely blessed.
So it is that children, too, from conception onward, are called and given to share in the salvation of Christ Jesus, the Son of God and St. Mary’s Son. And by the same token, Christ and His Bride are fruitful and multiply by giving birth to the children of God through the Ministry of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. Thus have you also been conceived and born again as a child of God.
What is more, for those who have been divorced; for those who have been betrayed, and for those who have been unfaithful; for you and all who have sinned against the Lord in heart, mind, body, and life — though the Lord does not condone any of these sins, He does forgive them by His grace.
Though you have been unfaithful toward Him, He remains faithful toward you. By repentance and faith in His mercy, you are and remain a child of God and a member of His Bride, the Church, that you might live and abide in Christ Jesus as the godly man or woman He has created you to be.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.