This isn’t a post about marriage but about a time when Jesus was asked a question about marriage, that placed him between a rock and a hard place. (see Matthew 19:1-10)
To be more clear, this post is about a time when Jesus was asked a question about marriage and decided to deal with the thing behind the question about marriage.
In Matthew 19, Jesus opponents sought to test him by asking a question concerning a common debate among them:
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
What a question!”For any and every reason?” Seriously? Try to answer a question where “any” and “every” are tied together.
This question was packed with serious heat. In the background of this question we have two schools of rabbinical thought that had argued about the topic of divorce for decades and the battle line seemed to be drawn in Deuteronomy 24:1, where Moses permits divorce for “anything indecent.” One school emphasized the “indecent” part of the passage, leaving marital unfaithfulness as the only acceptable reason for divorce while the other school emphasized the “anything” part of the ruling, allowing men to divorce their wives for things as menial as burning their meal.
So the question was tricky: “Who are you with Jesus? With the ‘indecent’ group or with the ‘anything’ group?”
The framing of the question left little room for actual discussion, but only just enough room for a quick vote of affiliation.
Therefore, wisely, Jesus moved the discussion “into a bigger room” by not trying to parse a particular passage in the law of Moses, but to a more radical (radical: think not of teenage angst but “root” where the word radical really comes from) vision of relationships: two people leave their families to journey on an adventure together and dwell as one person. Let’s talk about how we can stay together and not how, or if, we can plan to go our separate ways if we lose interest in our original commitment to one another.
Jesus’ opponents followed Jesus into that bigger room where they tested him again with another question. After all, they didn’t want to learn something but they wanted to engage in a game of rhetorical sword-fighting; everyone’s favorite pastime.
Their question was as follows:
“Why did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matthew 19:7)
This is a fair question. Why did God allow Moses to permit a divorce if God was so adamant about couples not parting ways?
Jesus’ response might be a bit spooky for some of us to consider, because Jesus insinuates that the law given by Moses in Deuteronomy 24 was in response to how the Israelite community had developed up to that point. Moses’ law was binding for that time and it seemed to be helpful for the vulnerable women in their culture, a formal way of making restitution for broken relationships in that zip code when faced with their plight. Jesus’ hope was that a more native vision of marriage would be recovered and would replace the (now) unhelpful vision from Moses community.
After this, his disciples chimed in with what could be called the nihilist position,
“If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10)
Jesus acknowledges that the marriage debate from above isn’t for everyone, including those who were born into or forced into situations where they cannot even have the option to choose to be married. And still others who choose to be exempt because of their religious commitments.
As I read through this passage, I couldn’t help but think about how I have heard recent “discussions” about our national security on the one side and the welcoming of refugees on the other. Yes, if Jesus (and those seeking to follow Jesus) is to be tested today, I can hear the question now:
“Is it lawful for us to deny foreign refugees or to give them safe harbor?”
And we can compare the above conversation between Jesus and his opponents about marriage to how some of our conversations about refugees have gone. For they seem to have the same thing behind their corresponding questions.
The conversation about refugees is trapped in tight spaces, like as tight as a phone booth, where people are forced to give quick and (if they’d admit it) underdeveloped answers to complex situations.
We may struggle to find easy answers to these complex questions. At the end of the day, that might be a good thing. Easy answers usually draw us away from reality and if we are drawn away from reality we are drawn away from the people who are shaped the most by real, hard situations.
May we have the same guts that Jesus displayed here in this passage; with care, with courage, and with patience, understanding that our presence might be more helpful than a Retweet or Facebook Share.