Well, this Sunday we have the liberals versus the conservatives on the issue of marriage. Nothing new here, is there? And whose side is Jesus on?
The Pharisees came to Jesus in order to test Him. It was a trap, a fully loaded question. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” No matter how Jesus answers, He’ll get sucked into the debate. Answer yes, and the liberals will cheer. Answer no, and it’s a standing O from the right wing and family values. So whose side is Jesus on?
Most people think he’s on the conservative side. No divorcing. And at the surface level, that’s true. But the Pharisees weren’t happy with Jesus’ answer, which exposed the hardness of their own hearts.
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The only possible answer is to ask, “Why are you asking?” There is no forgiveness for future sins, so don’t go planning to commit them. As for the sins of the past, God has put them as far away as the east from the west in the death of Jesus. But we’re jumping ahead just a bit.
Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? They were talking about wives the way one talks about cars or boats. When is a good time to trade the old girl in? And for what cause? The liberals said, “Any cause at all. Even if she can’t cook.” The conservatives said, “Only in the case of adultery.” So which side was Jesus on?
We always want Jesus to be on our side. Republicans think Jesus is a Republican. And, news flash, Democrats think He’s a Democrat. This is the political equivalent of thinking that Jesus cares about your football team. But Jesus isn’t a registered voter. No party affiliations. In fact, His kingdom is not of this world, and all the kingdoms of this world are under His cross-scarred feet. Liberal? Jesus is very liberal with the Gospel. Insanely liberal. Father of the prodigal son liberal. Forgiveness seventy times seven for the same sin liberal. Conservative? You bet He is. You think Moses was rough? Moses just dealt with the outside; Jesus goes right to the heart. Moses said, “Don’t commit adultery;” Jesus said, “Don’t even think about it.” So you want conservative family values, Jesus will give you those too, more than you can keep, more than you may want. Jesus is a forgiveness liberal and a commandment conservative. So whose side is He on?
“What did Moses command you?” Jesus answers the Pharisees’ question with His own question. “You love Moses. He’s your guy. What did he say?” Now that question also is a bit of a trap, since you have five books traditionally ascribed to Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Moses said a lot. So what did Moses command you?
“Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” Deuternomy 24. Sort of. Actually, Moses said that if you write her a certificate of divorce and send her away, and if she marries another, and if he sends her away too, then you can’t take her back again. That’s what Moses said, which is a long way from saying, “Moses said it was OK.” The legalist always looks for loopholes in the rule. The exception becomes the rule. The accomodation becomes legislation. That’s how the old Adam religiously works. He can trash his marriage and keep the commandment of Moses at the same time. Or so he thinks. And in doing so, he can justify himself before God. Moses permitted it. And, by the way, she’s a lousy cook and doesn’t keep house very well.
With Jesus, the loopholes of legalism become a noose around your neck. Justify yourself with the Law, and the Law will condemn you. Look for loopholes, and you’ll get snared every time. The Pharisees, those good, upright, family values, religious people, got caught in their own trap.
“Moses wrote that because of the hardness of your unbelieving hearts. But that’s not how it was from the beginning when God made them male and female and said, ‘The two become one flesh.’ They’re not two but one, inseparable. And what God joins together with His Word, you can’t tear apart with your paperwork.” So much for Moses. He who lives by Moses, dies by Moses. You see, the question needs to be reframed, doesn’t it. The question is not, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” but “Is it faithful for a man to divorce his wife?”
The Pharisees with their legal loopholes denied the gift. In looking for justification for divorce, they lost sight of the essence of marriage. The two become one flesh. Male and female joined together in intimate union become something completely different and more. One flesh. Only male and female can do that. And what God joins together, you can’t separate. You can tear down the fence, but you can’t destroy the field. You can take down the covenant with the anti-covenant of a divorce but you can’t undo the one flesh union you have with your husband or wife. Only death undoes that, and death is God’s business, not yours.
So instead of siding with the liberals or the conservatives over divorce, Jesus goes to the heart and essence of marriage itself – not the covenant, not the ceremony, not the exit strategy, but the two become one flesh. That’s the heart of marriage – the intimate union of male and female in an indissoluble union that typifies the union of Christ and the Church. You’ll never see the gift if you’re looking for loopholes.
The disciples are concerned. They realize the implications. They’re young married men themselves. Jesus connects the dots. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” In their own way, the disciples are no different than the Pharisees. They may not be trying to test Jesus, but they are looking for their own loopholes. In Matthew’s account of this episode, the disciples say, “If that’s how it is, it’s better not to marry at all,” as if you could avoid sin by staying single. Again, loopholes which become a noose around the neck of the legalist. You wind up hanging by your own attempts at commandment keeping, and all the while, rejecting or ignoring the gifts of God all around you.
Here’s the hard fact: Jesus didn’t come to save marriage from all our attempts at messing it up. He didn’t come to save society from its descent into decadent decay. He didn’t come to focus on the family. He came to seek and to save the lost in their lostness. He came to save sinners. The upright ones and the not so upright ones. The conservative ones and the liberal ones. The never married and the multiply married. The Samaritan woman at the well with her string of five husbands and a sixth to whom she was never married. The woman caught in adultery whom the Pharisees wanted to stone. The prostitute whom no man wanted to marry. He came to save the upright Pharisee and the tax collector.
Jesus came not to repair but to raise up, not to rehabilitate humanity but to resurrect humanity as a new creation in Him. He came not simply to bear our sin but to be our Sin – to become the adulterer, the murderer, the liar, the thief – so that baptized into Him, believing in Him we might become the righteousness of God. He came to do the Law in order free us from the Law so that we might be free to be who God has made us without fear, without dread of judgment, without the shame that causes us to hide and the blame to throw at each other while justifying ourselves. He came to free us from our loopholes, to untie the snares of legalism that bind us.
By way of contrast, people were bringing little children to Jesus so that He would touch them and bless them. And it was the disciples – the disciples! – who stood in the way and rebuked the mothers and fathers who had brought their children. “Leave the Master alone! Don’t pester Him with your bratty kids! He has kingdom work to do!”
Jesus was indignant and rebuked them. “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Do you want to see what faith looks like? Look at a little child – trusting, receiving the gifts. That’s how you receive the kingdom. Not as a big, sophisticated grown up who knows better. But as a trusting little child. Someone once asked, “Do you beieve in infant baptism?” Yes, we do! We believe that in Baptism we become infants in the kingdom, born anew from above by water and Spirit, utterly trusting in our Father in heaven, our Brother Jesus who died and rose for us, the Spirit He sends to be our Comforter and Guide. No matter how old you are when you are baptized, you become a newborn. It’s the only way to receive the kingdom.
Do you have a children’s church? Yes, we do! We’re all children in this church because that’s how the kingdom of God is received. As a little child.
He took them in His arms and He blessed them, those little ones. They’re the only ones in today’s Gospel who get it in the way of faith. They do nothing but rest in the arms of Jesus. No testing questions, no legalistic loopholes, no attempts to justify themselves. Just resting in the arms of this Jesus. This Jesus who won’t be co-opted to our causes, who won’t let even a little stroke of the pen be lifted from the Law by our clever loopholes, and who dies to fulfill the whole thing. This Jesus who left His Father’s throne and His mother at the foot of the cross to be joined to His Bride the Church drawn from His side as He slept in death, who became bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh and went down to our death to raise us to life in Him.
I don’t think you can stand in a pulpit today and not at least acknowledge the events of this past week in a school in Oregon. A young man, deeply troubled in mind, took some guns and ammo in the school he himself was attending and began to shoot his fellow students. He reportedly asked them their religion, and if they answered “Christian,” he shot them in the head, saying that in a second or so they would meet their God. I can’t begin to fathom the demonic level of hatred and darkness that prompts this kind of evil. I don’t understand it. I fear this won’t be the last of this sort of thing. We talk about government persecution and the culture’s “war on Christianity” because they won’t say “Merry Christmas” or let us sing Christmas songs in the public square, but it seems as though, at least in the minds of some deeply disturbed young men with guns, it’s open season on Christians. An incident like this makes me wonder how we, how I, would react if someone pointed a gun at me and asked me what I believed, knowing that he would shoot me in the head for confessing Christ. I think of a friend of mine who actually faced a kid with a loaded gun and said to him, “Your aim better be good, because I have nothing to lose.”
I think of Peter, who denied his association with Jesus three times, whom Jesus forgave and restored not only as a disciple but an apostle. I think of those Jewish Christians, who had to answer a similar question when Saul came to their synagogue, and who were arrested, interrogated, tortured, and killed for confessing Jesus as Christ and Lord. I think of Stephen and James and the martyrs of the faith, who could have spared their lives and gone on with their business simply by denying Christ. I think of those who were shot for being Christian in the same way. These nine are modern martyrs of the faith. And it doesn’t really matter whether the gun is held by a madman or the government or a Muslim terrorist.
When you are facing your own death, when you are staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, when the shooter is asking you, “Are you one of His disciples?” then questions like “Is it lawful to divorce your wife?” quickly disappear into an hazy oblivion of irrelevance. All our sophisticated analyses and sharp-penciled theologies and clever analogies become so much nonsense. We are as little children. Is God your Father? Is Jesus your Brother and Savior? Your answer could cost you your life. But then, you’ve already died, so what’s there to lose?
He took them in His arms and blessed them, laying His hands on them, these little ones who believe in Him. No questions. No self-justifying loopholes. Just faith. Trust. Resting in the arms of Jesus. That’s where you belong.
In the name of Jesus,