On a serious subject like marriage, and a tragic one like divorce, you cannot be simplistic or judgmental. Divorce is everywhere, claiming almost half the marriages in our time. There are people who look back on their divorce and rejoice in their freedom and release from unbearable situations, but ask anyone who has gone through a divorce and invariably they will describe trauma, heartache and pain.
The Jewish law at the time of Jesus was taken from Deuteronomy. There, it is laid down that a man can divorce his wife if he finds in her some indecency. There were two schools of thought regarding what that meant: one held this meant adultery and nothing else; the other school stretched indecency to include such things as a woman’s voice, bad cooking, or practically anything that the man did not like. This was the more accepted view. A man could divorce a woman almost at whim by just saying three times, I divorce you. However, it was almost impossible for a woman to divorce a man.
Jesus is saying that women can no longer be treated in this way. He is making the affirmation that women are not property, but persons. Jesus’ teaching on divorce was revolutionary in its attitude towards women. According to the law, not only could a man divorce his wife, but his infidelity was never a sin against her, adultery was always a sin of injustice against a man by his wife.
In our Gospel, Jesus is saying do not treat women like this anymore. They have a right to a stable marriage, a right to security. Marriage is a partnership between two people, not between a master and servant.
Remember the episode of the woman caught in adultery? It must have been a dramatic scene. Jesus was sitting down quietly teaching when suddenly, with great commotion, the religious leaders of the people drag in a woman and place her before Jesus and in front of everyone else. She had been caught in adultery, and the law prescribes that she be killed by stoning. They knew that the legal system in Israel at the time did not allow for capital punishment, only the Romans could put a person to death, but they were sure they had Jesus. The trap was clever, and legally air-tight, with no way out. If Jesus spoke against the woman’s execution, they would discredit him before the religious establishment for speaking against the Mosaic Law. If, on the other hand, He sanctioned the stoning He would not only lose His reputation for love and forgiveness but He could be tried as a criminal for disregarding the law of Rome.
This was a no-win situation, but Jesus was not going to let the law become a barrier between Him and the person in front of Him. Jesus does not say anything. Instead, He bends over and writes in the sand. The crowd is silent, watching, waiting, the silence is deafening. The woman stands in front of Jesus surrounded by her accusers who are fast becoming embarrassed by the silence. This is not what they expected, so, they try again. This woman was caught in adultery. The Law of Moses says she must be stoned. What do You say? Jesus looks up, and utters but one sentence; “Let the one among you who has not sinned cast the first stone.” Then He leans over and continues to write in the sand.
Jesus sees the situation differently, from another perspective, with a different focus. Only this woman is to be condemned, the man is not mentioned. There is a double standard that is rejected by Jesus. He takes the side of the woman who is being used as a ploy to catch Him in a legal trap.
Jesus offers her forgiveness, she is free, and in contrast He calls her accusers sinners. They all depart, one by one. The situation that at first appeared legal and air tight takes on an entirely new perspective from the focus of equality and justice. Once again, Jesus makes enemies of the powerful because he put compassion above tradition, love above law, and people above things and institutions.
Likewise, Jesus does something strange in the Gospel. He takes a small child and tells His disciples to make room in their lives for people such as this small child. Why did He do this? We have to remember that at the time of Jesus, children had no rights. While they were loved and nurtured, they were considered the property of their father, often seen as an investment in the future. In fact, they would be listed along with the man’s property: land, cattle, sons, etc.
So Jesus’ words would come as a shock to the crowd: “Whoever welcomes a child such as this for My sake welcomes me.” What is He talking about now? Were children suddenly to become important?
The late columnist and humorist, Erma Bombeck, known best for chronicling ordinary suburban life, told the story of what happened in her church one Sunday. She said she was intent on a small child, a pretty girl, sitting in front of her. She kept turning around and smiling. She wasn’t making noise, or humming, or kicking or waving, just smiling. The mother who was kneeling turned around, jerked the little girl onto her knees and said, “Stop that grinning, you are in church. Say your prayers.” The little girl took one last look at Erma Bombeck, and Erma saw tears rolling down her cheeks. The mother said, “That’s better,” and returned to her prayers.
Erma said, “I wanted to grab this child with the tear-stained face and tell her about my God, the happy God, the smiling God. I wanted to tell her that our God is a God who understands that little children turn around and smile in church. The mother wore her faith with the solemnity of a mourner and the mark of tragedy all the while she was sitting next to a great sign of hope, her beautiful daughter. If that child couldn’t smile in Church, where was there left to go? Imagine my joy when the priest read the Gospel, and Jesus takes a child and says, “Become like this child. In fact, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Perhaps a child’s smile has more to do with heaven than the sad, angry religion of the mother.