The Wrong Bible Verse

Text: Mark 10:2-16
Date: Pentecost XVIII (Proper 22) + 10/4/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

Do people desire to become Christians or to be the more committed Christians primarily because they are thinking about going to heaven when they die or is it because they are looking for something that can make sense out of our otherwise confused lives right now, today? It may be one or the other or even both. On the one hand, Jesus came, and, in today’s Gospel, we see Him more and more determined to make His way to accomplish His sacrificial death on the cross. He came for the purpose of dying for the sin of the world and to open the kingdom of heaven to all. On the other hand, there is also concern for how we make it through our days in this life, even while we wait for sin and death to be done with and attempt to walk along the path of faith in Christ, living in the forgiveness of our sins. So while we are concerned about salvation, about heaven, about what our destiny and lot will be after this life, we also hope to lead lives of faith now, lives that at least try to be pleasing to God and receive and reflect His guidance and blessing even amid the difficulties and problems that sin causes every step of the way.

With the very first words of today’s Gospel St. Mark keeps Christ’s primary goal before us when he calls the Pharisees’ approach and question a “test.” This is one in a series of “tests” that attempt to trip Him up on the way to the cross, tests that are intended to trap Jesus, to discredit Him and His ministry. How was this question about divorce a test?

During this time there were two schools of thought regarding valid grounds for divorce, the schools of Shammai and Hillel. The followers of Rabbi Shammai adopted his more strict or narrow or “conservative” reading of the Law of God. The followers of Hillel, on the other hand, allowed a more liberal interpretation. It’s not unlike our current political situation with regard to the United States Constitution and the appointment of Supreme Court Justices. Shammai was what we might call an “originalist” with regard to the Ten Commandments, Hillel, on the other hand, in favor of a so-called “living and breathing” Decalogue which, of course, meant allowing interpretations of the Law that were more and more lenient and convenient to the passing wishes and desires of popular opinion. The Pharisees were trying to label Jesus as either a conservative or liberal in order that they might build any sort of case against Him in the public eye.

They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” That is, is it “lawful” with regard to God’s Law. What do you say? Yes or No? Instead of a simple answer thereby falling into their trap, Jesus turns the table and asks them, “What did Moses command you?” In other words, it sort of depends on which Bible passage you’re talking about. There is a major, primary answer to the question to be found in the Book of Genesis. But then there is another answer related only to our secondary problem of sin in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Is divorce lawful? What did Moses command? They immediately went for the Deuteronomy passage, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” This answer didn’t even address the question of “grounds” or the acceptable reasons for divorce. Those of the Shammai school would say divorce is allowed only for grievous sins (short of adultery which had its own punishment, namely, death by stoning). The Hillel school allowed for divorce for the slightest of reasons.

Jesus’ response can be paraphrased as if He were saying, “You’re reading the wrong Bible verse!” “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, (Genesis 1:27) ‘God made them male and female.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” With these words Jesus points them to the original design in Genesis 1 and 2. God created marriage to be a life-long vocation, so solid that only death can break it apart. In other words it is never lawful in God’s eyes for a man to divorce his wife! Jesus could have also pointed to Malachi 2:16 which, according to the older translation at least, says straight out, “For the Lord, the God of Israel, says that he hates divorce.” When you study everything that the Bible has to say about marriage, divorce and remarriage, you must begin with this, God’s original intention for the life-long bond of one man and one woman. And you are to come away from God’s Word with a redeemed attitude that is intent on concentrating not on how to divorce or get rid of each other but rather how to make marriage work.

As happens so often in this section of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus proceeds to enter the house where they were staying where He explains what just took place to His disciples. He told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” In other words, regardless of the “grounds” for divorce, it ends up, ultimately, a violation of the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” That is, as the Small Catechism explains it, “We should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honor each other.” This is as if to say, to “allow for” or “excuse” divorce as something lesser than an outright violation of the Ten Commandments will be to take God’s gift of forgiveness and reconciliation the more lightly also. On the other hand, the greater the sin, the greater the Savior.

While the subject matter at hand seems to be the question of marriage, divorce and remarriage, the greater question is how people, especially God’s people, use and interpret and believe God’s Word. Are we allowing God’s Word to set our priorities aright? to straighten out and order our thinking in line with God’s Word and will? Are we reading the right Bible passages? Or are we studying the Bible only in order to find loopholes, excuses for our sins? Are we reading the wrong Bible verses? There are many who think they find contradictions in the Bible. When they do, they are actually only revealing their lack of spiritual knowledge, their ignorance of the true unity and inspiration of the scriptures.

Spiritual blindness affects not only Jesus’ enemies, but, as we see over and over again, also His own disciples who are so slow to understand. Interestingly, this chapter ends with the miracle of restoration of sight to Blind Bartimaeus just before our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It is as if to say that spiritual sight with which alone a person can see God’s mercy, grace and deliverance is always and only a gift of God, and a miraculous one at that. May the Lord show each of us His kindness by opening our eyes and giving us true understanding as we hear His Word and rely on His guidance so that we may travel the road of faith and arrive safely at the goal of eternal life in the presence of God forever.