A Newly ordained minister had just finished preaching her first sermon in her very first church when a woman approached her at the welcome reception being held in the fellowship hall. The woman, dressed in a flowered-print dress had a stride of purpose as she came across the hall as soon as the minister appeared in the doorway, this is never a good sign by the way. The newly ordained minister extended her hand, and she approached, and started to open her mouth to say something like “good morning,” when the woman blurted out, “Pastor, do divorced people go to hell?”
The brand new minister thought, “I just passed my ordination exam. What is this? Another test of some sort?” She raced through her mind’s date bank for something that she might have learned in pastoral care, or New Testament courses that she might be able to offer this woman, and also get her off the hook. She finally spoke, “Better people than me get divorced.” The woman smiled and walked away.
During a more extended conversation in the woman’s home, she told the minister about her son who had recently divorced. Behind her question at the reception was a deep concern for her son, who had chosen to end a troubled marriage and was about to remarry. As a serious student of the Bible, she knew the word of Jesus to the Pharisees (who put him to the “test” with the question about divorce) and his words to the disciples (“whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.”) Although her faith would mature later, at that time the woman was in distress and she held to a rigid belief about sin and punishment. She believed that her son was endangering his soul.
This is not an uncommon situation that ministers face and one that is enhanced by a strict and rigid interpretation of scripture.
But first, never ambush the minister at fellowship with profound theological questions.
These are always difficult conversations to have, and I have had my share of them over the years of ministry, and there is one thing I have learned, there is no simple answer.
We like to have things in nice tidy little piles especially where religion is concerned. We want to have a list of rules to follow so we know how to act, even though we ignore the most basic of the rules that Jesus left us. However, the problem with rules is there are always exceptions to these rules.
You see there is no “one size fits all” solution to problems that we might face. Situations are always multifaceted and require a tremendous amount of pastoral sensitivity. Not knowing the situation with the woman’s son during the first conversation it is difficult to come up with a response other than, “well, let’s talk about it.” However, the more significant problem was, the woman had a strict understanding of the Bible, and as we discussed last week, that can lead to a lot of problems.
Stepping back to the books of the Old Testament, we find many books, Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, to name a few, that are filled with laws and the penalties for breaking those laws. Here are only a few of the more than 100:
Failing to include salt in your offering to God.
Failing to testify against any wrongdoing you’ve witnessed.
Failing to testify against any wrongdoing you’ve been told about.
Bringing unauthorized fire before God.
Letting your hair become unkempt.
Tearing your clothes.
Eating – or touching the carcass of – any seafood without fins or scales.
Going to church within 33 days after giving birth to a boy.
Going to church within 66 days after giving birth to a girl.
Reaping to the very edges of a field.
Picking up grapes that have fallen in your vineyard.
Swearing falsely on God’s name.
Perverting justice, showing partiality to either the poor or the rich.
Seeking revenge or bearing a grudge.
Mixing fabrics in clothing.
Planting different seeds in the same field.
Trimming your beard.
Cutting your hair at the sides.
Not standing in the presence of the elderly.
Working on the Sabbath.
So, how many of us here today, based on these rules, will not be thrown into the fires of Gahanna?
The point to all of this is while we focus on the silly little things we miss the big ones, like love God, and love your neighbor. What Jesus is saying is that we have to show compassion and although there are rules to follow, we must be sensitive to others and what they might be going through. The other point is that although you might have a personal ethic and believe strongly that this or that is wrong, does not mean that everyone thinks that way nor should he or she. It also says that we cannot force our beliefs on others.
So back to the question about divorce and how I might advise the woman. First thing I would say is that no, her son has not endangered his soul and no he is not going to hell because he divorced, and I don’t think Jesus was saying that either. As the minister learned, the marriage was troubled. There is no indication that couple attempted to seek counseling, which is something I would advise, the couple and, we are not sure of the reason for the trouble, was it infidelity, abuse, or some other problem that led to the dissolution of the marriage? None of these questions I would ask of the mother but I would of the couple if they came to me.
As everyone here who is married knows, marriages take work, and they have their ups and downs, there good days and there bad. I believe that far too often we throw in the towel on marriage because we do not wish to do the work necessary to make it work, and, it is my experience that the number one thing that breaks down marriage is lack of communication.
However, the bottom line is, the woman’s son is not going to hell for getting a divorce. You are not going to hell if you plant different seeds in the same garden nor are you going to hell if you get a tattoo. The good news is Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came and replaced all of that with a simple summation of the law, love God and love neighbor and yes it is that simple.
The good news is an angry, vengeful God does not punish us. God does not send weather events to wipe out cities and towns. God does not send earthquakes to kill off bad people. God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ who became flesh and dwelt among us so that we might know the love that God has for each and every one of us, just as we are the whole divorced, seed planting tattooed bunch of us!
The one lesson that Jesus teaches time and time again is compassion and mercy, and that is what we are to have in every situation. We have no other choice than to look at another human being as a child of God who is loved and cared for by that same loving God that loves and cares for us. It is up to us to show that compassion in every situation we encounter.
God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.