Jericho to Jerusalem

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts

Lecture: Jericho to Jerusalem

I. Opening Remarks

At last, the synoptics converge in the Gospel of John to narrate the final road to the Cross, which will lead Jesus to his crucifixion and resurrection. The Gospels converge at this point with Jesus in the vicinity of Jericho. In route, he has been asked questions by followers, some apparently well intended while others trying to trap him. Beginning of Mark 10 and parallel, the question put forth, when is ever divorce allowed, comes; a debate that has already divided followers of the competing Pharisaic schools of thought (Hillel and Shammai). Followers of Shammai, particular conservative on most debated issues took their cue from Deuteronomy 24:1 which allowed divorce and even mandated divorce if there was sexual unfaithfulness. The School of Hillel on the other hand which was more liberal and granted permission for divorce in a wide variety of cases against the wife not conforming to the desires of her husband. It was still very much a one sided context in which men could only initiate the process. Jesus’ answer appears to differ little from the Shammai approach. Indeed, it is only Matthew chapter 19 with its longer account that in verse 9 allows for divorce in the case of ‘pomeia’ a term which has been greatly debated. Some wish to harmonize this text with Mark’s version in which no explicit exceptions are given at all to the probation on divorce. People have tried to give pomeia, a more specialized meaning, such as incest or premarital adultery or sexual behavior, so that one could view the marriage as not having taken place, according to God’s designs in the first place and thus more along the lines of the later Catholic Church which called it ‘annulment’ rather than divorce.

II. Marriage and Divorce in Matthew 19 and I Corinthians 7

On the other hand, pomeia, in Matthew was the broadest term for sexual sin in the Greek language. So it seems unlikely such a narrowing of meaning is in view. Contemporary application today, sometimes broadened it even further, however, to refer to the use of pornography, or even to visual or mental adultery, incompatibility whereas in the ancient Greek, the term was always used in the act of improper sexual behavior between two individuals who were not lawfully heterosexually and monogamously married. More interesting is the contemporary application in the subsequent teaching in 1st Corinthians 7 in which divorce is apparently seen as acceptable in the case of an unbelieving partner who wishes to abandon the marriage. In historic Protestantism the conventional explanation for this exception has been when one converts to Christianity, the other already existing marriage partner wants nothing whatsoever to do with this new religion and ultimate loyalty of the partner desires to dissolve the relationship and leave. There are a number of issues that have to be addressed at this juncture by ones who want to be faithful. On the one hand, there is the question on what each of these texts means in an individual context. There have been those who have tried to explain away, saying that 1st Corinthians 7 doesn’t permit divorce, but their expedience seems far less persuasive.

More synthetically is the question of what should be distinctive about these two situations that would allow Jesus and Paul to grand the possibility of divorce under exceptional circumstances. If one goes back to the text of Genesis 2 that was cited in both Testaments and testamental Jewish literature, the religious constitution as it were for marriage, ‘one reason a man should leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife and the two shall become one flesh.’ One takes leaving and cleaving together as equivalent to transfer one’s human allegiance from parents to spouse and becoming one flesh as the sexual confirmation of the relationship. Then it is intriguing, at least, and perhaps telling at most, that these two fundamental constituent elements of a marriage are best defined as the interpersonal loyalty normally demonstrated by physical and geographical presence and proximity or at least a desire for such; when travel, warfare or other such circumstances would require separation, and the unique lifelong sexual fidelity implied. And as equally intriguing and telling that the so-called exception clause in Matthew and Pauline privilege as church historians have come to name it in 1st Corinthians 7 represents the undoing of one or the other of these constituent elements of a marriage, such that ‘de facto’ partners are no longer married according to this basic definition anyway. The desire for physical presence and the ultimate interpersonal loyalty or the lifelong sexual fidelity has already been violated.

All this leads to yet another question with original meaning and contemporary application and that is whether Jesus or Paul could have provided any other situation in which divorce would have been permissible. Those who reply in the negative, typically are with good intentions of remaining as faithful to Scripture as possible, correctly observing that neither these nor any other passages of Scripture explicitly allow for divorce or further circumstances. On the other hand, the question comes up, if Paul who is aware of Jesus’ teaching on the topic in 1st Corinthians 7:10 but goes on to add his own inspired additional application in verse 12. If Paul who did understood Jesus in Matthew 19 would be willing to give a comprehensive list and only one situation which divorce could have been legitimately allowed, then how could he believe God was inspiring him to add a second exception to the list or conversely if Paul was truly perceiving God’s inspiration, how could Jesus earlier and Matthew at a later date in recording also under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, his interpretation of Jesus’ words which may have more literally been along the lines of Mark 10, adding even the one exception clause that he did.

This suggests that there are other circumstances in which divorce could be permitted and that both of the text of Matthew 19 and 1st Corinthians 7 are replying to situations specifically debated, but not meant to cover every possible scenario. Clearly that is the case with Matthew 19 as the very Jewish leaders that came to Jesus were trying to trap him rather than seeking genuine information and they do so by alluding to a Jewish debate. 1st Corinthians 7, on the other hand, deals with a situation in the mist of terms of Paul’s gentile mission that probably Jesus would not have confronted during his life time in and around Israel and vice versa. Harmonizing Matthew with Mark then is probably best accomplished by recognizing that Matthew is bringing out explicitly what is already implicit in Mark, sense all known Jewish and Roman schools of thought at the time of Christ allowed for, and indeed mandated, divorce in the case of sexual unfaithfulness. Rather than creating a longer list, therefore, in applying these principles in other times and places and somehow creating the impression that automatically in the case of physical abuse, for example, other kinds of abuse, life imprisonment, irreversible mental illness, etc. that divorce is always an object.

It is better to deal with each situation on a case by case basis and ask if in that situation something has occurred that is equally de facto in destructiveness in having already created, if not by law but in reality, a failed marriage rather than just one having difficulty. And never counseling divorce parse but sharing the kinds of interpretive remarks that one has made in this lecture and then leaving the person contemplating divorce before God, to him alone he or she must answer to on judgment day. They should search their consciences and seek council from others they trust and know well. If indeed they have exhausted all resources for salvaging the marriage and as a leader or Christian Councilor promising to support such an individual should they then choose to make a decision to formally end a marriage under such circumstances. We tread on very difficult and very sensitive and very agonizing situation at this juncture. There is no question that in terms of making easy decisions, it is far more difficult simple to say that there shall be no divorce, whatsoever or no divorce beyond the situation clearly mandated in Scripture but it is not clear that these are as sensitive or even in implementing the actual principles that lead Jesus and Paul to state what they did in the particular context in the New Testament.

On the other hand, we quickly stress that, at least, in the western world, the number of items that individuals, including Christians, have used as rationale for divorce have gone far beyond anything that could legitimately to be considered as equivalent destructiveness to infidelity, sexual infidelity or permanent abandonment. And therefore, one must find ways to walk that narrow way and stress equally as one council individuals moving toward marriage that the promises and vows they make to one another are indeed vows of live long fidelity and agreement to work out difficulties no matter how hard they get. We recognize that Jesus and Paul, unlike the other Jews of their day, never mandate divorce even for the situations in which they permit it. Those who want to marry need to understand what they promise each other without exception, no matter what the situation is they must find ways to work things out. Of course, this goes against so much modern western rights centered thought of ‘I want what I want when I want it’, but then so do all the rest of Christianity because it is about sacrificing ones rights for the sake of the other.

III. Jesus blesses the children

The next question that confronts Jesus is dealt with far more summarily and involves far fewer exegetical conundrums in which Jesus blesses little children when others would have pulled them away from Christ. There is nothing in this text to warrant application to infant baptism because nothing in any of the Gospels describes either infant or baptism. But it a reminder of God’s concern for little children in societies where they are often not valued or not treated at least de facto as full pledged human beings. Now, the story of the rich young ruler which has troubled many people with a sensitive conscious; it should have troubled others with a less sensitive conscious. The question of course comes up, how wide spread should one apply the command Jesus gives to this young man to sell all that he had and distribute his possessions to the poor and come and follow him. It is perhaps to some relief to observe that there is no other single recorded instance elsewhere in the whole of Scripture with its divers teachings on giving, what today we would call the Lord’s work. No other similar command is ever issued. But as one commentator puts it, that provides ultimately relief only to the type of person whom God might want to issue such a command. It’s clear from the position of commands in the Synoptic accounts of this story that Jesus recognizes this as the obstacle to the young man coming and following him.

IV. Luke on wealth and stewardship

And therefore, it is justifiable is say that whatever may form an obstacle to us, even the greatest obstacle to a person truly following Jesus as Lord in that which Jesus calls that person to give up. It’s interesting in Luke and it is only Luke 18 through appended comments and the miracle with Bartimaeus and related verses. Then in chapter 19:1-10, it describes the conversion of chief tax collector Zacchaeus to whom money and money gained by extortion would certainly have in many people’s minds presented an obstacle to truly following the command of God. To this individual, Jesus doesn’t issue any command at all but while dining together, Zacchaeus voluntarily announces that he will give half of his goods to the poor and those whom he has defrauded, he will restore four fold; a significant sacrifice to be sure but also significantly short of a hundred percent giving. Then immediately following in the Parable of the Talents, we have what western capitalists would like the most, a parable where servants are praised because they invested their master’s money to make more. The one servant who is condemned is precisely the one who failed to try to put his master’s money to work and make more. The theme of the parable is that all servants will have a day of reckoning and stand before their Master as all that was given to them was merely on loan and that’s worthy of the most shrewd stewardship possible.