Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” ButJesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
It never ceases to amaze me how people pick and choose which bits of Scripture to get excited about. Some fundamentalists get very excited about the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and take it as historical and scientific fact, but are happy to ignore the fact there is another account of creation in Genesis 2:4-3:24 In the first creation story, humans are created after the other animals, In the second story, humans were created before the other animals.
The ancient people who compiled the Bible from different local myths and parables knew that they were not literal accounts, sometimes the twenty first century does not seem so advanced in its thinking!
Christians also get excited about Scriptures that could be interpreted as condemnations of gay sex, but ignore Scriptures that condemn sex during menstruation or eating shellfish in exactly the same terms.
Christians get excited about the condemnation of fornication but ignore the hundreds of times that usury (charging interest on a loan) is condemned.
In fact it seems that Christians tend to get excited about the few bits of the Bible that talk about sex and ignore the swathes of Scripture that talk about money and justice and care for the poor.
What we do with our genitalia is significant, but I strongly suspect that God is more interested in what we do with our wallets…
This mornings reading is one that gets some Christians excited – the prohibition of divorce. But those who get excited about this absolute condemnation of divorce are rarely the same people who get excited for verse 21 where Jesus instructs those who want to follow to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, because, he continues, “it is as hard for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle for some who is rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
I’m not saying divorce is good. At a wedding vows are taken and a divorce breaks those vows. Divorce is a falling short of the ideal, but it must never be regarded as an unpardonable sin.
The prohibition of divorce was more than an issue of sexual morality in Jesus time, it was an important matter of justice. In first century Palestine women were not allowed to engage in many forms of money making, and legally they were pretty much regarded as property. If a man divorced he was free to build a new life and start again. A divorced woman would have to hope her parents would take her in again or she would have to become a beggar, or worse…
Strict divorce law was about protecting the vulnerable in a patriarchal society.
The same law that was used to protect the vulnerable has been used in history to trap vulnerable women in abusive marriages. I suggest that allowing divorce in cases of abusive partners is actually more in keeping with the spirit of Jesus’ teaching, even if it goes against the letter of what he said.
Jesus condemned those who followed the letter of the Law in such a way that excluded or exploited the vulnerable in society.
That is made clear in what immediately follows this. Jesus lets the children come to him. We have a sentimental, protective view of childhood and children. This was not the culture of Jesus time. In a poor nation under Roman occupation life was hard, children were often seen as burdens until they were old enough to work; and with a shockingly high child mortality rate you simply could not invest the kind of emotional energy into children as we do today. Children were on the margins of society.
Jesus was being countercultural by placing a high value of children.
Let’s return to how Jesus viewed the Law.
Usually he seems to disregard its strict rules – a few weeks ago we heard how he allowed his disciples to eat with unwashed hands, and when challenged that his actions were “work” on the Sabbath “day of rest” Jesus shocked the devout by saying “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”
And that seems to be how Jesus treats all of the Jewish Laws – “the Law is made for humanity, not humanity for the Law.”
For Jesus all of the Law is summed up in the command to love – it is so central that we hear it ever Sunday “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.”
So we don’t have to follow the letter of the law anymore…
It’s really all about love…
So as liberals we heave a sigh of relief – we don’t have to be strict…
But there is a catch here that as liberals we often forget…
Laws are quite easy to follow – most people could refrain from eating prawns and sleeping around if they felt God commanded it…
But we have a much tougher spiritual discipline to observe – we are called to love…
What’s the last thing you did that could be described as an act of love for God…?
What’s the last thing you did that could be described as an act of love for your neighbour…?
What’s the last thing you did that could be described as an act of love for yourself…?
We love God in prayer in worship, in supporting the work of God’s church with time and money and energy…
We love our neighbour in reaching out to the poor and the outcast, those in need who are near and far – refugees, the homeless, the outcast and marginalised…
We love ourselves by respecting the bodies that God gave us, by trying to develop ourselves and by just resting and enjoying life…
The command to love is so much more challenging.
Take the idea of coming to Church on a Sunday morning. As Christians do we have to do that? Well my liberal sensibilities say that visiting family or friends or getting away for some rest after a busy week are also morally and theologically good things to do, and we shouldn’t be afraid to sometimes do that…
But we still have to wrestle with the command to love God. I don’t think that Christianity (or at least Liberal Christianity) demands that you attend every Sunday – but it does demand that you love God and that means if you can’t make Church you should think how else you could express your faith this week – maybe calling in to a midweek service? Maybe spend extra time in prayer, or an hour reading the Bible or a spiritual book.
Life has a meaning. That meaning is found in a God who loves you and your life really matters to God. All that we own and all that we are is gift from God.
Our response to that amazing truth cannot possible be expressed in one hour on a Sunday morning – but sometimes we don’t even manage that!
Liberal faith is so much more challenging than a conservative one – because there are no easy answers.
I can’t tell you come to Church X amounts of times and pay Y sums of money to church funds.
But I tell you what Jesus said “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.”
And if it’s not challenging I’m pretty sure you’re not doing it right
But if it’s nor exciting and joyful and life-enhancing I’m pretty sure you’re not doing it right either!
Dare we follow the greatest commandment to love?