October 7, 2018, Hard Hearts and Fresh Starts – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000101
Recently someone very dear to me went through a course of treatment at a rehab center for drug addiction. This person is now home, and doing much better, and I am so proud of them for being brave enough to begin the hard work of recovery. But their life is different now than it was before the rehab, and it is different than it was before drugs came into their life. And one of the big changes is that for now, at least, there are a lot more rules. There are rules about attending meetings, and rules about going to counseling. And there are rules about where it’s ok to go and who it’s ok to hang out with – and where and who it’s not ok to go or to be with. And strict curfews. Things like that. Life, for now, has a lot of rules. Because rules and laws are for people who are broken.
And that is very much what Jesus was saying when he talked about the laws that Moses made for the Israelites with regard to divorce. “It was because of your hardness of heart that Moses made that law about divorce,” he told the Pharisees, who came to test him. “But that wasn’t God’s purpose from the beginning.” The law that Jesus was talking about was a certificate of divorce. Moses commanded that when a man wanted to divorce his wife, unless she had been unfaithful to him, he had to write a certificate of divorce. And the purpose of the certificate was for the protection of the wife, so that she would have proof that she was not an adulteress. A rejected wife had a hard enough time making her way in that society without the stigma of everybody suspecting her of immorality. If a woman’s husband got tired of her cooking or just decided he preferred a younger wife, he couldn’t just cast his first wife off without some legal statement that would guard her from the contempt of the community. The law was a boundary, a kindness, to limit the evil that could be done by one sinful person to another. But it was never God’s plan for how the relationship between man and woman was supposed to go.
The fact is that law in general is never about wholeness and perfection. Law, even at its best, is only about limiting evil in a broken, foolish, sinful world. The Pharisees came to ask Jesus about marriage in terms of what is lawful, but Jesus wanted to talk about God’s purpose for whole people. Yes, Moses allowed for a certificate of divorce, Jesus told them, but in the beginning God created marriage to be an unbreakable union between two people. The certificate of divorce was only a way of putting a temporary patch on things. The tragic thing is that often when the Church has interpreted this passage, many times they have used it to make a new law, instead of seeing the grace of God’s purpose behind it all.
Some denominations have understood this passage to say that divorce used to be allowed under the Mosaic law, but now, for Christians, it’s no longer allowed, end of story. Here it is in black and white; Jesus said so. It’s an 11th commandment, or a 12th, it’s a new law. Other denominations have interpreted Jesus’ words to say that, scripturally, divorce is permissible – but remarriage after divorce is definitely out. That has been the interpretation of many churches.
Like the Pharisees – like human beings in general – the Church is very often more comfortable with the security of laws and regulations than with taking the risk of living by grace. But hear what Jesus had to say. “It was because of your hardness of heart that Moses wrote you that commandment.” Laws, Jesus was saying, are for setting boundaries. Laws are for limiting harm. But laws can’t make us good, or well, or whole.
In fact, the Bible is pretty clear in showing us that no one ever became “good” by following all the rules. Look at the Scribes and Pharisees, who devoted their entire lives to studying books that taught them how to follow the laws. The Pharisees were as close to being perfectly obedient as any Jew living at the time of Jesus. And yet it wasn’t the Pharisees who recognized the Son of God when he came; it was the prostitutes and the tax collectors, those whose lives were as UNlawful as we can imagine. And it was King David – an adulterer and a murderer – who was the one God spoke of as the man after his own heart. Law had its place, but its place was never to make us good. Laws never had the power to make us pleasing to God.
The law, Paul wrote in Galatians, was a guardian for us because we were not good, because we were and are sinners, until the time came for grace to be revealed. “The law was our guardian until Christ came,” Paul said, “in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” It is very, very hard for us to accept that we are saved purely by the grace of God. We always want to throw in a little law to make us feel more in control. We say that we’re saved by the gracious gift of God – but, of course, we’ve got to keep the 10 commandments. Or we say that we’re saved by the gracious gift of God – but also because we are basically good people. But the truth that we need to keep reminding ourselves is that there is no “but”. We are saved by the gracious gift of God. Period.
And so how does the grace of God work when we speak of marriage, since we are still broken, hard-hearted people. After all these centuries, human nature is pretty much what it always was. Jesus has come, and we believe in him, and we live by faith, but our relationships still break down. We still hurt one another. We hear Jesus saying that God created marriage to be a beautiful and indissoluble union, but how do we live that out in a broken world without making more laws?
Some years ago, Carroll and I knew a couple whose marriage was seriously broken. At the time we attended a church that absolutely forbade divorce. The church was right to view marriage in the highest terms, because Jesus tells us that in marriage “they are no longer two, but one flesh.” Jesus himself said, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” That a marriage should be kept until death separates the couple – that is truly the good and perfect intention God has for marriage. But in this particular marriage, the husband no longer had any interest in trying to make the marriage work, and finally it became clear that the marriage itself had died. And because the church held divorce to be forbidden by law, they had no way to extend grace to the wife. In the eyes of the church, she was committed forever to that relationship – but it was a relationship that no longer existed. It was as if she were condemned to be chained forever to a corpse. The ungrace of that church became a burden that was too hard for the woman to live with, and she left. She was a casualty of the law. As far as I know, she stopped going to church altogether, though I hope and pray that God brought her to another church where she could find healing.
In the gospel reading today, when the disciples questioned Jesus further about marriage and divorce, Jesus spoke in the strongest terms against the willful abandonment of the marriage commitment. If you leave your husband or your wife for another person, even if you get a certificate of divorce, you are no better than an adulterer, he told his disciples. The certificate, the law, was not put there by Moses so that you could trade your spouse in for a new model and do it according to the regulations, all legal and righteous. Having a legal certificate never made divorce “OK”.
But Jesus’ intention was not to set up a new law, or to tighten up the old law. His intention was to call us to bring our marriages to God in humility, with our foolishness and our sinfulness and our broken relationships, so that his grace can make us whole. Sometimes that means humility and hard work to repair a wounded marriage. Sometimes that means acknowledging the death of a relationship and receiving grace for a new beginning as forgiven children of God. Law can set boundaries and provide protection, but it can never bring healing and new life. Only grace can do that. That’s why Jesus gave his church the power to forgive and to release so that people don’t have to live without hope, so that they can have new beginnings.
The person I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon is beginning the long process of recovery. For now, for their own protection, they are living with a lot of rules and restrictions. But the end goal of recovery, by the grace of God, is to grow out of needing those restrictions, to become well again and able to handle making their own choices, to grow into freedom. It’s something we all need to be learning as a church, and as individual children of God, because in a very real sense we are all in recovery from our own particular weaknesses and selfishness and pride. “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,” Paul wrote. “Only don’t use your freedom to serve your flesh, but through love serve one another.”
For the followers of Jesus Christ, there is no commandment outside of the command to love God and to love one another. Any rules or regulations that we set up, for ourselves or for others, that get in the way of loving one another have no place in the kingdom of God. There are helpful guidelines about honesty and morality and other good virtues, but unless they serve the purpose of love they are useless. In fact, they can become worse than useless; without love, laws just become weapons with which we harm one another and injure ourselves. In Galatians, Paul asked, “What is the law for then?” And he answered, “It was added because of transgressions.” – just like Jesus said to the Pharisees, “It was because of your hardness of heart.” And then Paul continued, “The law was added until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.” And that offspring is Jesus, the Son of God who has come, and who has offered us hope for a new beginning – not only in our marriages but in every part of our lives – as healed and forgiven children of the Father.