Luke tells us here how the Pharisees reacted to Jesus' teaching. He describes them as "lovers of money" which, especially if we're right about all of chapters 15 and 16 being about stewardship -- how we manage what God has entrusted to us -- means they're going to react negatively to Jesus' specific teachings here.
In point of fact, how we see the heart of God (that is Jesus' main point in chapter 15, after all) matters. If we see God as a distant sovereign with high expectations, we will react accordingly. If we see God as an indulgent guy who winks at sin, we'll live like that. What the Pharisees apparently missed -- for all that they had right, and they had a lot of things right -- was the joyful heart of God that passionately loves sinners. If that passion for broken, hurting people is at the core of who God is (and the Bible is so clear about this) then our stewardship -- our management of our wealth and resources -- has to reflect that passion.
I'm seeing in a new way these days how these verses are connected to all that has gone before. I believe Jesus is so stern with the Pharisees because by focusing on the law, by managing their own morality and the morality of others, they have missed the heart of God. Jesus says that he himself, along with his proclaiming the kingdom, supersedes the Law and the Prophets, and so it transforms how we read them. Instead of doing what the Pharisees did and reading the Law and the Prophets as a rule book, we now read them as setting the foundation for Jesus' own appearance and the proclamation of his kingdom. The Law does not go away, Jesus is very clear. There are Christians who claim that Jesus' followers should not read the Old Testament -- but they have no biblical leg to stand on. But the reading of those books is transformed, and we rightly see them now through the lens of Jesus himself. Everything in the Old Covenant is preparing the way, laying the foundation, and pointing toward Jesus and his kingdom. That's Jesus' point as he lays the hearts of the Pharisees bare.
So what to do with these few words about divorce in verse 18? This seems like such a non sequitur to us. The New Testament's teachings on divorce are nearly always taken out of context, and this verse is no exception. Why would this verse be sandwiched in between four parables about stewardship and the heart of God (15:1-16:13) and the story of the rich man and Lazarus that follows? Is this simply a pebble of Jesus' teaching that didn't fit elsewhere so Luke throws it in here?
No. We tend to import Jesus' words about divorce -- and the Bible's words about divorce in general -- into our own context with very little understanding of what they meant in biblical times and cultures. In the context to which Jesus was speaking, women had absolutely no rights. They couldn't own property, they couldn't inherit, they couldn't serve as witnesses in court. A woman whose husband divorced her had absolutely no recourse. There was, in fact, a lively debate among the Jewish teachers of Jesus' own day as to exactly how formal a divorce had to be. The school that said a man could divorce his wife "for any reason" claimed that if he was upset with her, or tired of her, or if she burned dinner some evening, all he had to do was say "I divorce you" three times, and she was out on the street. The more formal school that had a tiny little bit of sympathy for the plight of women stipulated that the man should give her a written certificate of divorce to prove that she had once been legitimately married and that there was some legitimate reason to dissolve the marriage before getting rid of her. Neither option gave the woman anything in the way of help or rights. Women were literally considered property, like cattle or land. A man could dispose of his property as he wished, as long as he observed the proprieties.
Jesus is, in fact, continuing his teaching about stewardship -- about property management. He is saying in effect that marriage (as the Bible clearly teaches) is a covenant relationship that is designed by God to reflect God's relationship with us (see for example Genesis 1:26-27 and Ephesians 5:21-33). And if that is true, the Pharisees' own attitudes about what was acceptable in the arena of divorce needed to be reexamined. "I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you" was a disgraceful way to treat a relationship designed to mirror God's love for his creation. The "letter of the law" interpretation of both schools of Jewish teachers, Jesus says, is not a legitimate way to end a marriage. Instead, it actively puts people in the position of breaking God's law.
What do we do with this? We no longer understand women as property. As the father of two brilliant, beautiful daughters, I'm extremely thankful for this! It is important for us to understand marriage as a covenant, as a relationship designed by God to reflect his passionate love for creation. Nowhere is the brokenness of creation in light of sin more apparent than in the painful throes of a marriage relationship headed for divorce. Divorce is a painful reality, because sin is a painful reality. We should do all we can to create strong marriages and to strengthen those who are hurting without seeing divorce as an easy out. Absolutely. At times, hopefully rarely, a marriage relationship is so broken that it needs to come to an end. It has strayed so far from mirroring God's heart that continuing the broken relationship does more harm to the image of God than good, and efforts to get it back on track are unable to fix things.
And even in our day, we understand that property management is a huge issue in these situations. I've known too many couples who've moved in, bought a house together, etc. -- because they were "in love" -- without bothering to get married because it seems old fashioned or legalistic. But if that relationship goes bad, they start to see the legal issues involved in dissolving home ownership, etc., and how that painful process of dissolving a marriage is about so much more than just moving out. Breaking a marriage -- or any kind of covenant -- should be hard, and heartbreaking. The legal structure of divorce, as rough as it is, provides (or should) some measure of protection for each party.
Some of you who read this blog know that I'm a little over a year past my own separation and divorce. These issues hit close to home. I've spent a LOT of time in the past year prayerfully reading texts like this, pondering what the Bible says and why, on these issues -- not looking for loopholes, but because in all of this I want to know the heart of God, and experience both his grace and his conviction in their depth. I've also spent a ton of time looking at my own sins, and the patterns that should have been different in that marriage from the start a quarter century ago, and what I wish I'd done different over the years. It's been an uncomfortable time, especially as a Jesus-follower and as a public Christian leader. It's been devastating and humbling and eye-opening. It has also been hugely important. And I continue to process these difficult thoughts in prayer, in counseling, in conversations.
Marriage and divorce are enormous issues for today's church, as they have been throughout the centuries. I've had so many conversations with people in the past year who struggle with their own broken relationships. Some of those struggles (and I've experienced this as well) include ways the church shames people for their brokenness, wagging a moralistic finger at those who are in the middle of devastation and hurt.
But let's bring the conversation back to scripture here and see this particular verse in its context, where Jesus speaks it. Here, it's a stewardship issue. And stewardship is also a huge, huge issue for the church today. In his own context, Jesus is confronting a culture in which men experienced divorce as easy and painless, and women had no rights and lived at risk of offending their husbands. It was unjust, wrong on so many levels. Jesus rightly confronts it as part of his teaching on stewardship, of how we manage our lives and all the good gifts God has given us. He doesn't give us easy answers, but (again) he points us back to the heart of God and what it means to live in covenant with him.
That's the center of the next story he tells as well.