“Love, Not Law”
It should not come as a surprise that Christian churches and other religious institutions are concerned about moral issues. From the traditional issue of couples living together before marriage, to the latest problem of genetic engineering, to the recurring issue of the justification of war, to same-sex marriage, to issues around end-of-life care, churches invest a lot of resources into research, study, debate, and the production of rules, standards, and positions on various issues to help people navigate the confusing world of modern ambiguity.
Although it is tempting to believe that if we could just go back in time (at least as far as the 1950’s) that many of these issues would simply disappear, I don’t believe that there has ever been a time in human history when we have been free from these debates or from the moral dilemmas that create them.
The issue of divorce, we might agree, is not currently at the top of our church’s list of complicated moral issues and debates. And yet, over the years, divorce has been a grave concern that Christian churches were quite worried about. And, it continues to be an issue that the Christian traditions have chosen to deal with differently. At one end of the spectrum, there are denominations in which remarried persons are not allowed to receive communion, and at the other end there are traditions in which divorce is being normalised by the creation of “divorce ceremonies” in which couples acknowledge together the end of their relationship in the context of the church community.
As much diversity of opinion as there is today in the churches on the issue of the breakdown of marriages, our Gospel reading today illustrates the fact that this is not a new issue. Divorce was an issue of debate in Jesus’ time as well, and it is one of the questions that Mark has the Pharisees ask Jesus in their ongoing attempts to test and entrap him.
The text says: “Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?'” Now if everyone agreed on this issue, it wouldn’t have been much of a test.
So here’s the situation at the time… The Law of Moses provided for the possibility of divorce (At least for men!) without very much fuss at all.
Deuteronomy 24:1 says this: “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife.”
So the Law says that divorce is allowed, and it seems that there aren’t any complicated requirements for it – – just that the man isn’t pleased with his wife, and that he writes a certificate of divorce.
But some people in Jesus’ time argued from another text in Deuteronomy (17:17) that the standards for kings are different, and that the rulers of Israel were only allowed to marry once. And a Jewish sect, called the Essenes, believed that this rule should be applied to all people. They looked at the stories of creation in the book of Genesis, and argued that marriage must be permanent and between two people only.
So you’d think that Jesus would just answer the question, and everyone would see whether he interpreted the law strictly, like the Essenes, or whether he allowed for divorce, like the majority of Jewish groups at that time.
But another recent event lies behind this little encounter that makes Jesus’ answer a matter of life-or-death importance. Not long before, King Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. John the Baptist, believing the marriage to be immoral, and being the outspoken kind of guy that he was, had declared to Herod that, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And the short version of the story (from Mark, chapter 6) is that John the Baptist ends up dead because of what he said.
The laws around marriage, divorce, and remarriage were under hot debate — and not just friendly debate around who can make the best argument and back it up with a scripture reference, but the kind of debate that gets people killed for being on the wrong side. This was a dangerous debate for Jesus to get into —the kind of thing that could make the predictions of his upcoming death come true sooner rather than later.
“Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ And Jesus threw the question back at them, saying, “What did Moses command you?” And though the Pharisees were able to quote the Law that a man is allowed to write a divorce certificate if he wants, Jesus says that this law exists because of their hardness of heart.
He explains that God intended marriages to last. God created women and men in God’s own image to love and care for each other, to live in intimate relationships of connectedness, and to be loving, committed, and faithful to each other.
It reminds me of the covenant relationship that God made with the people of Israel — the faithful commitment that the prophets often described as like a husband and a wife. While Israel, in its humanity, often failed in this relationship, turning away from God over and over, God was the faithful partner who remained committed, loving, & forgiving, drawing Israel back into the marriage time after time.
Just like the relationship of love between God and Israel was too important to just give up on, Jesus reminds us that our human marriage commitments are too important to discard by writing a certificate of divorce.
Unlike the Essenes though, who wanted to make a new, stricter law for everyone to follow, Jesus does not make a new law. He doesn’t tell the Pharisees that the law of Moses is wrong, and he doesn’t quote another reference to contradict their passage from Deuteronomy.
Perhaps Jesus didn’t think that more laws would help his disciples to live out his teaching. Perhaps he didn’t think that more rules would help his followers to live the way he did – in love.
If there’s one thing that I learned as a child in Sunday school, and one thing that I hope people take away with them when they leave the church building each week, it’s Jesus’ one big rule. I learned it as a song, so I’ll never forget… “A new commandment I give unto you that you love one another as I have loved you, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
When we read Jesus’ harsh statements against divorce, in which people who remarry are called adulterers, it is easy to blame our parents whose marriages failed, or ourselves when we can’t continue in our own marriages, or our children, when we see them struggling as single parents after their relationships have come to an end.
But I think we need to be careful as we consider this text, and heed the words of one commentary I read that said: “Jesus was looking at the selfish individualism of the Herodian court when he made his comments in answer to the Pharisees’ question. He was not telling a battered woman that she and her children must risk physical and psychological torment everyday just to avoid divorce.”
Or perhaps we might look at our own Presbyterian’s Church’s statement of Christian belief, “Living Faith.” In section 8.2.5 it says this:
When we fail each other as parents or partners,
we are called to forgive each other as God forgives us,
and to accept the possibilities for renewal
that God offers us in grace.
When a marriage is shattered beyond repair,
it is sometimes better that it be dissolved
than that the family continue to live in bitterness.
As humans, we have been created in God’s image to live together in loving, committed relationships. But also as humans, we are hard-hearted, we are sinful, and we make mistakes. We have a God who calls us to love one another faithfully and fully. But we also have a God who is kind, forgiving, and rich in mercy.
Jesus did not come to change the rules or to write new laws, but when he took up the argument with the Pharisees, maybe he did so to prompt his disciples to look again at the Law. Maybe he did so to help them see the human rules from the perspective of God who is love. They could debate the Law over and over, and still not come to an agreement about whether or not divorce was allowed, but Jesus came to bring Love, not Law.
The one new commandment of Jesus was “to love one another as I have loved you.” Perhaps we can focus once more on that commandment as we face the latest moral issues concerning our churches. Maybe love, not law, can guide us to live as Jesus’ disciples in the morally ambiguous modern world.
In today’s Gospel text, Jesus engages with the Pharisees who want to know what he will say about divorce. But immediately after that conversation, people start bringing little children to Jesus so that he can touch them and bless them.
We are reminded today that this is what our God is like… not a harsh God who is constantly measuring, judging, and condemning us for our failures… but a God of love, a God of welcome, a God who takes time to bless little children… a God who meets us at the banquet table, who offers us bread and wine to feed our bodies and nourish our spirits.
There is no one trying to stop us from coming to Jesus, from gathering around his table to receive his blessing. As we do so, may God’s Spirit heal our brokenness, and bless and strengthen all our covenant relationships. Amen.