Michael W Hopkins
The Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene
Proper 22B: The 18th Sunday after Pentecost
October 8, 2006
The Jesus Hardness Test for the Bible
On a Sunday when we seem to have a difficult Gospel reading to deal with we actually have a wonderful opportunity for Jesus himself to teach us how to interpret Scripture.
What’s happening in this story? It’s quite simple, really. Pharisees come to Jesus and try to catch him up in one of the religious controversies of his day. Strange as it may seem, it has to do with human sexuality (as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever).
[I want to say right up front that the Rev. Dr. William Countryman is helping me preach this morning, my primary source being a sermon he preached on this text three years ago. Most of the following thoughts originated with him].*
The religious controversy in which the Pharisees try to snag Jesus had to do specifically with divorce. The Jewish Law (the Torah) mentions divorce only once, and even then, in passing. It was a matter of some significant disagreement as to how that passage should be interpreted.
Now the first thing to note here is that people of Jesus’ own day had trouble figuring out the precise meaning of the Bible. There is nothing new to conflict over the interpretation of biblical texts.
Deuteronomy 24:1-3 says that a man may divorce his wife. It is not at all clear on what grounds he could do so. Was it just because he felt like it? Or did he need some clear reason? We know from non-biblical sources that Jewish authorities of Jesus’ day disagreed about the answer to these questions. Jesus is being asked to take sides in their debate.
Instead of taking the debate head on, however, Jesus goes in a different direction. First guideline to interpreting the Bible: don’t get caught answering somebody else’s question.
Jesus says something that would have been quite outrageous to all sides of the debate.
Moses wrote this commandment because of your hardness of heart.
What is Jesus saying here? Well, first of all, he’s saying do not assume that just because it’s in the Bible it is the will of God. Jesus said that. I didn’t make it up because I’m some revisionist heretic liberal. Jesus said that. Do not assume that just because it is in the Bible that it is the will of God.
Sometimes what is in the Bible is about people’s hardness of heart rather than the will of God. And not just “bad” people. After all, Jesus is saying this to a group of perfectly good religious people. Moses wrote this commandment because of your hardness of heart, he says.
What is the hardness of heart about here? A big piece of it was that these were male rules written by males for males. Males made all the decisions about marriage in Jesus’ day (as well as in Moses’ day). Marriage was a contract between two males, one of whom was “giving away” his daughter in order for children to be born for the other one’s family. The woman had no security in this arrangement whatsoever until she had produced a male heir and he had reached the age of maturity. Then, and only then, did she have a secure place in his family. Until that point if she was divorced and sent away, her son stayed with his father and she had to hope that her own father would take her back.
Divorce, like marriage was something men did to women. And divorce was almost always disastrous for women unless they were the very rare exception of being a woman with some independent wealth.
That is the cultural context for this story. And the biblical story backing it up was the story in Genesis to which Jesus refers. Jesus goes back to that story as well, but he re-interprets it. This is what God really meant, he says. In the beginning God made them male and female, equal. And when they are married they become one flesh, equal. The man should leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, not receive her from them as if she were a piece of property. So he adds his own bit of commentary to the Genesis story, “Therefore what God has joined together, no one should separate.”
God did not mean what Moses told you. What Moses told you only reflected your own prejudices, your own hardness of heart and your own mean-spiritedness.
The Law preserved the power of men in Jewish society. Jesus is clearly concerned about the abuse of that power. If he seems to advocate the abolishing of divorce altogether it is in order to protect women, something completely and totally new from a religious authority of his day.
But now we are left with the problem of Jesus prohibiting divorce, aren’t we?
Perhaps. But surely Jesus did not intend simply to set up a new and different license for hardness of heart. Interestingly enough, Eastern Christianity (the Orthodox and related Churches) have never understood what Jesus says here as absolutely prohibiting divorce. They hold that Jesus was establishing the ideal of lifelong marriage, which is different from setting up a new, rigid rule.
Western Christianity, however, did set up a new, rigid rule. No divorce, period. If you are divorced, you cannot remarry. It is still true in the Roman Catholic Church. It was true in our Church until the 1960’s. Does this rule condemn you to living in an abusive relationship? Sorry, that’s just the way it is. Does this rule mean that you are not a Christian in good standing if you re-marry? Tough luck, those are the rules. As Bill Countryman says, “Hardness of heart sneaks in the back door again.”
He goes on,
What Jesus is really doing in this story is turning the whole use of Scripture on its head. The Scriptures, he says, are not a book of statute law to protect the powerful. They are a book of astonishing insights into God’s extraordinary generosity. The purpose of God all through the Scriptures is the well-being of God’s beloved human creatures. If you find things in the Scriptures that seem to speak otherwise, consider who benefits from that. Whose hardness of heart caused that blemish in the sacred text? Whose hardness of heart is maintaining that interpretation even now?
One of the big problems in reading the Bible is that most of us read it selfishly, not intentionally selfishly, mind you, but selfishly nevertheless. We read it expecting it to be primarily about us, telling us what to do, usually so that God will be happy with us.
But what if that is not the primary intention of Scripture at all? What if the primary intention of Scripture is not to tell us about ourselves, particularly how bad we are, but to tell us about how good God is? The Bible is first and foremost about God, not about us.
I believe that Jesus believed that about the Bible. He was not what we would call a biblical literalist or conservative. He felt free to re-interpret it and to throw parts of it out. On the other hand, he was also not a biblical revisionist or liberal. He expected the Bible to say something serious to us.
Jesus expected the Bible to teach us about relationship with God, a living God full of surprises and challenges and, mostly, love and when something in the Bible got in the way of this living God, they had to go.
Of course, the hard part is knowing what to keep and what to throw away. But Jesus gives us a standard in the story this morning. I call it The Jesus’ Hardness Test for the Bible. When the Scriptures either confirm your own hardness of heart, or seem to want to harden your heart, they fail the test. When they do that they are not about God, they are about our hardness of heart and we should throw them out just like Jesus did.
The Bible, when it is being the true voice of the living God, should instead break open our world and make it bigger and, most importantly, more loving, since the Name of the living God has been revealed to us as Love itself.
Remember Jesus Hardness Test for interpreting Scripture as you listen and as you read. It will serve you, and, more importantly, God, well.
*The Rev. Dr. L. William Countryman is the Sherman E. Johnson Professor in Biblical Studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. The Sermon was preached October 5, 2003 at Good Shepherd, Berkeley, California. It can be found online at www.clgs.org/marriage/sermon_countryman.html.