Is Jesus giving us a rule that we’re to follow regardless of circumstances? Should a wife who’s discovered that her husband has been sexually abusing her children, for example, stay with that husband because Jesus indicated that divorce + remarriage = adultery?
Answer: no, of course not. God hates divorce, yes. He created marriage for a reason, and He doesn’t readily accept the right of human beings to nullify it. But Jesus’ point goes deeper than this. He’s addressing not the legal act of terminating a marriage but the motivations behind it.
He’s saying: If adultery is in your heart, you don’t get to use divorce as your guilt-free way of making it happen. You don’t get to capitalize on a legal loophole to indemnify the lust you've been harbouring for someone who isn't your spouse. The Message paraphrase’s this nicely:
If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.
Matthew 5:32 (the MSG - emphasis mine)
This point is made, and should be seen, within the broader context of a sermon that is designed to get us to align our hearts with the spirit of the law, rather than arranging our lives in accordance with the letter of it. He's trying to write the law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33); he's trying to get us to clean the inside of the cup (Matthew 23:26).
Yes, generally speaking, divorce is a terrible idea. I hate the fact that it's readily seen in our society as an unhappy but legally convenient way to terminate what's proven to be an unfulfilling relationship (as if the purpose of marriage is self-centered satisfaction - it's not). Many Christian marriages have survived terrible times and went on to become wonderful unions in great part because both partners declared divorce "off the table" from the wedding day forward.
But let’s not miss the point Jesus is trying to make. When we align our hearts with the spirit of God’s perfect law, we are always free to do what’s right.
I was about to begin this blog post by pointing out how unbelievably safe we in the west are by historical standards, and how counter-intuitive it seems that we’re more fearful than ever. But then I remembered: while I need not dread dysentery or small pox, while I can be certain of my next meal, and while I needn’t worry about a militia coming down the road to kill me and enlist my children, even in comfortable Canada, I have a great deal to fear.
I watch the news of the latest mass shooting and wonder, anxiously, if someone will try the same at my children’s school, at my church, or in my workplace. I’m repeatedly informed that climate catastrophe is reaching a crescendo, and watch as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis wipe out entire communities without warning, seeming to validate this prophecy in real-time. I watch as an increasingly fragile economy behaves in ways it’s never behaved before, threatening recession or worse. I’m told that my food is filled with untested inorganic toxins, my vaccines are tainted with mercury, my water supply is short and growing shorter, my water is spiked with cancer-inducing fluoride, the government wants to take my guns away and leave me defenseless, immigrants are storming the gate so they can wipe out our democracy and set up Sharia law, our religious freedoms are being gradually eradicated and religious nuts are using their freedoms to threaten mine.
You may not place much stock in most of the terrors outlined in the preceding paragraph. You may think some of it is right on the mark, the rest hysterical nonsense. But regardless of whether you’re left or right, religious or secular, there is a fear-peddler near you with a whole lot of anxiety to give, free of charge. All you need do is sign up for the free newsletter, like the Facebook page, subscribe to the blog, follow the Twitter handle. And, if you’re a true believer, you can become a fear-peddler yourself: pay it forward, as it were.
But what does the bible tell us? “Be not afraid”!
Let that sink in. This isn’t a biblical one-off but a refrain that comes directly from God; and it is repeated over and over again – far more times than I’ve cited in the above verses. We are to let go of our fear, and trust God no matter what. He is in control.
Is this to say that I should expect everything to go well for me personally as long as I trust in Him? If I’m faithful, He’ll pay my mortgage, stave off illness and keep me comfortable? Been reading my blog long? NO! We’re not promised rewards or material blessings in this life, but in the next (Matthew 5:12, Revelation 22:12, 1 Peter 5:4).
But this doesn’t mean we ought to go walking through life as terrified of these boogeymen as our non-Christian neighbours. Where is our faith? Is this really the example we have to set, trembling before malevolent false gods who promise us personal, national and global ruin? Do we truly believe that this isn’t all a part of God’s plan?
There’s nothing wrong with being good stewards of the environment and encouraging others to do the same – it’s a good thing, in fact – but do you really believe that God will not protect His creation until it’s ready to be made new? Is this seriously keeping you up nights? Are you fearful of immigrants setting up shop in your neighborhood and corroding your nation’s identity? Why? Do you believe that your non-Christian neighbour has a more powerful message to give than you do? Really? Why not relish the opportunity to share the Gospel with someone who may have never heard it before? Are you terrified that another stock market crash is going to wipe out your retirement portfolio? If so, in whom have you put your trust?
The North American church has largely become weak, anemic, unconvincing and ineffective; and the solution to this problem isn’t going to be found in more creative programming. Imagine all that we could do and accomplish, together, if only we learned how to let go of our fear. I’m willing to give it a shot, are you?
Note carefully what Jeremiah’s saying here. Our Lord examines our hearts and minds but then judges our actions. Why is this important? Context matters.
Someone who is not the least bit tempted by something should not expect credit for his avoidance thereof. If I have plenty of money and security and feel no temptation whatsoever to steal, should I be commended for the lack of thievery in my life?
Now turn that around, do I, who have never spent a day walking in someone else’s shoes, suffering their temptations and hardships, enduring their trials, have a right to cast judgment? Depending on where someone has started, what he’s endured, his upbringing – any number of factors – it might an absolute marvel that he’s able to get through his day without becoming an utter basket case.
Now, I’ve heard a number of preachers say that you can tell a person is not really saved if he has “habitual sin” in his life. Loved ones, search your hearts. Judging others is a perverse and antithetical habitual sin that we all enjoy. While we like to piecemeal sin into bite sized portions that we can take or leave in accordance with what our egos dictate, our Lord Jesus puts his finger squarely on the offense of which we are all, every single one of us, profoundly guilty. Search your heart and tell me that you don’t instinctively, joyfully, judge others several times a day, even – especially – those you love most.
What a marvel is our Lord! Jesus sees through our theatrics and cuts right to the core of the matter. Because of this I know that He has the ability to examine our hearts and minds; and therefore, only He is qualified to cast judgement on our deeds.
Now about that habitual sin in our life. Let’s repent, pray for forgiveness, and make every effort to become wonderfully free in the name of He who died for our sin, rather than condemn us for it.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
"Circumcise yourselves to the LORD And remove the foreskins of your heart, Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else My wrath will go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, Because of the evil of your deeds."
In the above passage from Galatians, Paul instructs the church that those who become circumcised will be henceforth cut off from God’s grace. A strange declaration: prior to Jesus’ entry into the world, circumcision is what showed you to be a part of God’s Kingdom – it was the sign that you were effectively “in”. Now, Paul seems to be indicating the opposite. Circumcision now means, what, that you’re out?
Well, no. Circumcision, established as part of a covenant with Abraham, was a symbol. A symbol of what? Something deeply personal and intimate, I think, an inner-relationship with God that was meant to go beyond the rites and incantations practiced by the Hebrews' pagan neighbours. God could have chosen any symbol that he wanted, a tattoo, an earring, and in some cases He did; tassels and phylacteries served as outward symbols and reminders of the Israelites' identity as people beholden to the Lord. But in establishing His covenant, God not only chooses the most vulnerable and sensitive part of a man, He chooses an outward symbol that can’t be displayed without considerable embarrassment.
God is demonstrating, I think, what is required for us to have a relationship with Him: for us to allow Him into the most vulnerable areas of our lives, to change us from the inside out, to “circumcise our hearts”.
The Israelites had a lot of outward symbols to display their unique relationship with Yahweh, many of these established by Yahweh Himself. The problem in Jesus’ time was that these outward symbols had taken over and became ALL that was required. People became so focused on the outside that the condition of the heart (which is/was the whole point) became effectively ignored.
Further, as it was considered particularly righteous to do more than scripture required, more and more responsibilities got tacked on by the religious leaders of the day as they engaged in a game of spiritual one-upmanship. About this sort of self-indulgence, Jesus had plenty to say, none of it particularly nice:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others…
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness”.
Jesus' problem here is not only that these religious leaders have swapped out a legitimate change in heart for performance art, but that they are preventing the children of the Kingdom from taking their rightful place by turning faith into a massive burden. Christ came to set us free from this sort of nonsense; His burden is light (Matthew 11:30), and that’s what Paul is getting at here.
Does Paul care one way or another about the literal practice of removing a foreskin? Clearly not, in the book of Acts he argues vehemently against imposing the right of circumcision on the gentiles; only one chapter later he himself circumcises Timothy to establish Timothy’s street cred as a Jew (he was half-Jewish). Why? So he could move past a useless impediment to their ministry (having to constantly fight with the religious authorities to get Timothy allowed into the synagogues) and get on with preaching the Gospel: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value” …
No, the point is not whether foreskins should be removed or left alone, but that we are not to allow our freedom to be compromised by trading an intimate, personal and life-changing relationship with God for a set of religious activities or practices that serve to boost our egos, rather than humble our hearts.
The literal debate about circumcision is, for all intents and purposes, dead. But the temptation to replace a real relationship with Jesus with religious showmanship goes on; it exists in every church, and likely in every Christian heart, including my own.
It is therefore my responsibility to be on guard at all times. Yes, I must protect my soul from the more obvious sins of the flesh, and yes, I must be careful to ensure that the righteousness of Jesus shows through my daily activities; people who encounter me should be able to tell from my actions that I’m not living by the world’s rules of hedonism and pride. However, I must be equally careful to ensure that my own religious activities don’t become a snare for me. How do I know when this has happened? Typically, when I turn it into a snare for others.
It’s good to give generously to one’s church, but have I made tithing a point of pride for myself and a point of shame for others? It’s good to read the bible passionately; in doing so, however, have I set myself in judgement over those who don’t? Do I hold myself and others to standards that can't even be found in the bible, let alone in the teachings of Jesus?
Remember where this debate started in the first place: But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1 – NIV)
We mustn’t forget, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.