Jesus 2020: Family Values

Scripture: Matthew 19:3-12

I’ve never preached on Jesus’ teaching on divorce before. I don’t think that’s been intentional – I’ve never actively steered away from it – but I’ve never felt especially compelled to wade into this territory, either. This feels like tricky ground. There are those of you here – probably more than I even know – for whom this passage is not just a theoretical debate about a matter of God’s law. It’s about your own lives and your own choices or the situations you’ve found yourselves in that you never chose at all.

I have not had the experience of getting or being divorced, but I have friends and teachers and mentors who have. Many of them are my colleagues in ministry. My mom was married and divorced before she ever met my dad, and I presumably wouldn’t be here if not for that severing of one relationship which allowed a new one to begin. I preach with all of these realities in mind.

This topic may seem like a strange choice for a series on politics – divorce really isn’t a focus of our political discourse today, for the most part, outside of the policy positions of some hardcore family values groups or perhaps the chance to comment on the character of some of our leading politicians. But the conversation Jesus has about it in today’s passage is a political one, if only because this is once again a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees over a matter of interpretation of Jewish law. And as such, it’s a chance to learn something about the values Jesus thinks should govern life together, which after all, is a lot of what politics is.

Once again, it begins as a test. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, teaching and healing in in the region of Judea across the Jordan River, and our Pharisee friends – remember them? – once again show up with a question. “Does the Law allow a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” they ask. I do have to wonder what made them pick this question, in particular. Maybe, as one commentary I read suggested, it’s because at this point in the story John the Baptist has recently been beheaded precisely for opposing King Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law. It’s a topic in the news. Or maybe, it’s just a common enough feature of life in 1st century Judea that they think they’re sure to get some traction with the question.

Jesus answers this question more directly than usual. “Haven’t you read Scripture?” he asks – knowing they have. “Doesn’t it say that God made male and female and that a man leaves his family to become one with his wife?” What God has joined together, let no one separate. (We still say that at weddings.)

Our Pharisees seem to have figured that he would answer along these lines, and they are ready with their response: “Then why did Moses say all we needed was a certificate of divorce?”

“Moses said that,” says Jesus, “because of the reality of your hard-heartedness, but that’s not the way it was meant to be. I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife – except on grounds of adultery – and marries another commits adultery himself.”

There is, of course, lots of complicated and tricky stuff to unpack here. There is the fact that Jesus refers to marriage as between a man and a woman – and yes, he does assume that, though it doesn’t quite seem like the point of what he’s saying here to me. There is the fact that while the church today is all too happy to wax eloquent on the ethics of same-sex marriage, it is largely silent – at least on a political level – about the ethics of divorce, which is what Jesus is actually addressing here. There are accusations of hard-heartedness for those who have needed the possibility of a legal divorce and adultery for those who have chosen to remarry. A hard word to swallow, no doubt, for people who have tried their best to make it work, people who have spent hours on a couch in couples therapy, people for whom happily ever after didn’t unfold as planned.

A friend of mine got married right out of college and divorced her husband a few years later. “No one gets married thinking they’re going to get divorced,” she said once. “You get married because you think it’s going to be forever.”

One of my mentors in ministry said going through divorce was the worst pain he’d ever felt, worse even than sobering up. Is that hard-heartedness? Both of those friends are remarried now. Does God not honor those new commitments they’ve made, and the families that have come through that?

Jesus is supposed to be about grace, not judgment, right? Doesn’t this hard, unforgiving stance on the Law seem ironically more like a Pharisee kind of thing than a Jesus one?

Well, I don’t know. Jesus often raises the bar on the Law rather than abolishing it altogether. Maybe you remember this from the Sermon on the Mount. You’ve heard it said that you should repay someone only an eye for an eye, but I tell you if someone takes your shirt, give them your coat as well. You’ve heard it said that you should love your neighbor, but I tell you also to love your enemy. You’ve heard it said that if you get divorced you should give your wife a certificate of divorce, but I tell you whoever gets divorced and remarries commits adultery.

Jesus is not a legalist, but far from abolishing the Law, he wants us to hear the kind of life that the Law is supposed to point us to. Not that that makes it easier, here, to swallow his teaching on divorce.

Does God care about the promises we make to each other before God in marriage? I believe that God does. Even through hard times? Yes, of course. Is it a sign of the general brokenness of our world that we are not always able to follow through on those promises? I imagine most of you who have been divorced would agree there is brokenness involved. Does God also care about abundant life for people who are no longer able to find that in the marriage they are in? I have to believe that, too. And, honestly, I wonder if this had been a genuine question asked of Jesus by someone in pain, rather than another test from the Pharisees, if his response might not have been different.

And I also wonder what else we might be able to hear in this exchange in Matthew 19 if we listen to it again. First of all, who is the subject of the Pharisees’ question? Does the Law allow a man to divorce his wife? This is no amicable, mutually negotiated separation in question. As usual, when we’re talking politics, there are power dynamics involved here.

What happens to a woman, in Jesus’ day, who is divorced by her husband? While businesswomen are not unheard of at the time, for the most part, women are economically dependent on men – first their fathers, then their husbands. Where does that leave a divorced woman? Potentially nowhere.

So maybe what Jesus means is that it shouldn’t be as easy as that, to just fill out a form and be done with someone. Maybe we owe each other more than that, not just as spouses, but as people. Maybe our obligations to love and care for someone who has been entrusted to us go beyond just what’s formally required.

Maybe Jesus’ interpretation of the Law comes down, once again, to protecting people who are vulnerable. Maybe we’re too good sometimes at finding loopholes in our obligations to each other.

I do have to laugh a little at the disciples’ reaction when Jesus says whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery. “If that’s the case,” they say, “then it’s better not to get married at all!” Really, y’all? Jesus, however, seems to say, yeah. In some cases, at least, it’s better not to get married at all. For there are eunuchs, he says, who were born that way, and those who have been made that way, and those who have chosen that status because of the Kingdom of Heaven. “Eunuch” isn’t really a societal role we have these days, but they were people who weren’t able, either physically or culturally, to be in an intimate relationship. Jesus says it’s possible to choose this. Neither marriage nor divorce is the end-all, be-all here: there is another possibility, of choosing another primary commitment, and that is also good.

In the end, that’s the primary commitment he asks of all of us, regardless of our relationship status: commitment to God, commitment to love and care for one another and especially those who are vulnerable, commitment to the Kingdom of God.   

But those things aren’t political, right? Well, again, if they inform the choices we make about living real life with other people in community, then they are.

The Law that Jesus comes not to abolish, but to fulfill, is a law that points us time and again to our inescapable obligation to each other – all of us, in all the different ways we might live into that. And there are no loopholes. But it is the only way, I believe, to find our happily ever after.

Jesus 2020: Religious Freedom

Scripture: Matthew 12:3-14

You may have noticed by now that the Pharisees are never the good guys in these Gospel stories. They are always depicted as Jesus’ opponents, hypocrites who are looking for ways to trap him; they are irredeemable legalists who love the law for the law’s sake.

You should know as we get into today’s reading that some scholars, Jewish scholars especially, have pushed back on this characterization of the Pharisees. The Pharisees, they say, were part of a Jewish religious movement focused on understanding God’s law and following it well. Some have even argued that Jesus himself was Pharisee, and that all the anti-Pharisee talk we find in the Gospels has more to do with the growing divide between Christianity and Judaism at the time they were written than with Jesus himself.[1]

We’re talking this fall about times in the Gospels when Jesus gets political, and we’ve already encountered and will encounter his political opponents “the Pharisees” a lot. It’s always easy to demonize our opponents. But I hope that we can hold two ideas in tension as we move into our story today: on the one hand, #NotAllPharisees. On the other hand, we can still hear the human issues at the heart of this conflict that Jesus finds himself in.

In our reading today, Jesus and his disciples are on the road, and they happen to walk through a wheat field. The disciples are hungry, and they begin to pluck some heads of grain and eat them. Not a big deal, probably, except that some of our Pharisee friends happen to be lurking in this wheat field as well, and it happens to be the Sabbath, and you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath, and to these Pharisees, that includes plucking grain.

Not all Jews would have agreed that plucking heads of grain was breaking the Sabbath. The Bible doesn’t say that. The Bible says you shouldn’t work on the Sabbath, and you shouldn’t make other people work for you, either (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5.) OK, clearly harvesting is labor; you shouldn’t harvest on the Sabbath. Well, then, what counts as harvesting? Do oxen have to be involved? Can you go out into your own field with a sickle? How about just plucking a few heads of grain?

As Christians I think we’re kind of pre-conditioned to laugh these questions off, but I don’t want us to do that. I want us to hear them as genuine questions about how to live faithfully. These are the kinds of questions Pharisees asked. But of course it’s possible to take this line of questioning too far; it’s possible that your answers and what you stake on them become less religious discernment and more political power play.

And such is the case with our Pharisees in this story. “Look!” they say to Jesus. “Your disciples are working on the Sabbath!”

I like to imagine the disciples looking up, wide-eyed, mid-chew. I like to imagine the look that Jesus gives his accusers. “Come on,” he says, “you know even David and his troops ate the offering bread off the altar in the Temple when they were hungry.” He’s establishing precedence, here. And the work of the Temple still goes on on the Sabbath. Don’t you know, he says, that something greater than the Temple is here?

As usual, Jesus didn’t ask for a debate, but he’s not going to back down from one, either.

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Jesus says. Sometimes hungry people getting to eat is more important than perfectly following the rules.

Jesus is hardly upending Judaism here. In fact, he’s quoting the prophet Hosea. The idea that mercy comes before a rigid application of the law is itself ingrained within Jewish tradition.  Once again, it’s not the law itself that is the problem! The Sabbath was a God-given gift to God’s people, a respite from the grind of six days of labor, a protection for people and even animals who worked for other people, so they wouldn’t be exploited. The purpose of God’s law was never to weigh us down. It’s supposed to guide us in living well.

From the wheat field, Jesus follows the Pharisees into their synagogue, where they find a man with a withered hand. “What about him?” the Pharisees ask Jesus. “Is it lawful to cure him?”

Jesus shakes his head and says, “The Sabbath was never about preventing good,” and he heals the man’s hand.

The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, you see, is never really about the Law. Rather it’s about a stance toward the law that makes the law the end rather than the means to abundant life. It’s his opponents’ overly tight grasp on the law that’s the problem. And remember, this is not a particularly Jewish problem (#NotAllPharisees) but, like most things in the Bible, it’s a human problem playing out in one particular place and time.

Like most political conflicts, this one is about power, because the Pharisees hold power if they hold authority over how the law is interpreted and wielded.

But it’s also about so-called sacred cows, and what happens when they’re challenged.

Have you ever challenged someone else’s sacred cow? One of those things that is so important to a person or community that one dare not even bring it into question?

These can often be small things, that may even sound funny to those of us on the outside. My pastor colleagues will often tell stories about how they stumble upon these things in church – who would have known that one particular piece of art on the Fellowship Hall wall was Never To Be Moved?

And sometimes they’re bigger things. A flag in the front of the sanctuary. A statue in a public park. A certain way of telling history that has turned out to not be so historically accurate.

Maybe a better question is this: have you ever been the one who had a hard time loosening your grasp on one of these things?

A few months ago my high school came up in the local news. I went to a magnet school where you had to take a test to get in. The school consistently ranks very highly among the people who rank these things. It’s also been the case since I was there that there are very few Black and Latino students at this school; the student body is mostly white and Asian. That was the case again this spring when admissions data came out, and the number of Black students admitted was recorded as “too small to count.”

In the alumni group, people started talking. They talked about how standardized testing has been shown to contain inherent racial bias, and how the dearth of Black and Latino students doesn’t really serve anyone well, and how maybe the whole concept of the school needed to be reconsidered.

I read that and I felt myself getting defensive. Because of course I loved my school, and you know, the status quo had worked out OK for me.

And I noticed the gut reaction I felt at the thought of changing something that I liked, something that made up some small part of my identity, and then I thought, oh, maybe this is how people feel about those Confederate statues.

The fight over my high school went on to the School Board, which just this weekend voted to remove the admissions test from the application process. They didn’t totally abolish the concept of the school, though to hear some of the reactions, they might as well have. I’m sure there’s room for legitimate disagreement on this topic, but it seems to me that wanting to keep the status quo, wanting to maintain some level of control over the whole admissions process, does have to do with the power and privilege we so often fight to maintain. Of course those aren’t the main arguments that people would make, but I say that because I think that’s what it was for me.

Jesus has a way of challenging these sacred cows.

Sometimes just because I think something’s important doesn’t make it good for everyone. It doesn’t mean that thing serves the church’s mission, or that it furthers the cause of liberty and justice for all in our country, or that it reflects God’s ultimate will.

God’s will is always abundant life for God’s children. That was the purpose of the Sabbath law in the first place. When it came down to a question of ritual observance vs. meeting basic human needs like hunger or healing, of course the human needs win out.

And yet in today’s Gospel passage, it’s enough to make this group of Pharisees want to “destroy” Jesus.

I wonder what those places might be where we have trouble letting go of our own stuff in favor of mercy and justice. Because as I now understand, it’s not just a problem for Pharisees. It’s a problem for me, too. And maybe, in some aspect of your life or our life together, it’s a problem for you.

But Jesus Christ is Lord of the Sabbath and Lord of our lives. And there is something greater in our midst than anything else we so tightly hold onto. It’s the Kingdom of God, where all God’s children are fed, and healed, and treated with dignity, and free. It’s that to which the Law points us. And it’s that toward the Spirit guides us. And it’s that for which Jesus invites us to let go of whatever is holding us back.


[1] Cf. Amy Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus; Hyam Maccoby, “Jesus the Pharisee” in Jewish Quarterly, Vol. 51, Issue 2, 2004.

Jesus 2020: Foreign(er) Policy

Scripture: Matthew 8:5-13

Back in 1997, comedian Ellen DeGeneres made waves early when she came out as a lesbian on the Oprah Winfrey Show. That, however, was a long time ago. When she became the host of her own daytime talk show in 2003, Ellen made a career out of being about as uncontroversial and unpolitical as it gets. Other people talked about the news; Ellen pranked other celebrities, shared funny drawings by kids, encouraged kindness, and – always – invited people to dance.

In the past couple years, Ellen has been back in the news a few times. Why? For her friendship with George W. Bush. She and her wife were first shown sitting with the Bushes at a football game late last year. Some people thought this was charming: two unlikely friends reminding us that we can transcend everything that divides us! But Ellen happened to have a lot of fans who were not necessarily George W. Bush fans, who in fact thought that George W. Bush had done some pretty problematic things, and they were not amused. Ellen pushed back: “When I say, ‘be kind to one another,’” she said, “I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”[1]

I’ll let you make up your own mind about Ellen and George and their unlikely friendship. I’m not here to preach about that. What I am here to preach about is times in the Gospels when Jesus gets political. And sometimes, something as simple as who you choose to associate with can be political.

In today’s story, Jesus is approached by a person in need of a miracle. That in itself isn’t unusual. People in need of miracles seek out Jesus all the time. In this particular case, the man has a servant at home who is paralyzed.

Somewhat more unusual is that the person looking for a miracle in this story is not Jewish.  Jesus does interact with Gentiles from time to time in the Gospels – after all, they were part of the world he lived in, too. Usually, though, when we read about Jesus interacting with a foreigner, it’s not by accident. Our ears are meant to perk up a little.

It may sound quaint, this idea that just interacting pleasantly with someone from a different part of the world would be somehow notable. And yet perhaps we’re not as far removed from that kind of thing as we think. I’m not just talking about our attitudes toward literal “foreigners.” I mean anyone we perceive as different, as other, as outside the fold in some way: people of different races, religions, socioeconomic strata, sexual orientations, or – dare I say? political affiliations. In fact, these days that last one seems like it has more power to overtly make us foreign to one another than anything else.

As Ellen and George show us, even interacting nicely with someone across that boundary can still make some ears perk up.

The “foreigner” who comes to Jesus in this particular story is not just a Gentile. He’s a centurion – an officer in the Roman army, which is to say, the occupying army. He plays an active role in the oppression and subjugation of Judea. His literal job is to promote Roman supremacy. He is not just someone from a different place or someone who bears a different identity; he is someone who consciously or unconsciously has chosen a side.

Knowing this, what will Jesus say?

It is possible that we do hear a note of reluctance in Jesus’ voice at first. The text renders his response “I will come and cure him,” but the Greek probably reads more like, “You want me to come and heal him?”

The centurion is unfazed. “I know how these things work,” he says. “I obey commands from someone over me, too, and I know all you have to do is say the word, and it will be done. You don’t even have to come.”

And Jesus shakes his head in amazement, and the centurion’s slave is healed.

I could make this a sermon about bridging our divides and how we can all just love each other despite our differences. I could, but I don’t actually think it’s that easy. In last week’s passage, Jesus was standing up to the hypocritical Temple elites, turning their accusation of a powerless woman back on them. I really wrestle with the fact that in the Gospels, Jesus spends so much time condemning the Temple leadership, the local leaders in cahoots with the Roman government, and yet seems to take such a moderate stance toward the actual Roman oppressors. Don’t get me wrong, Jesus does his own part to subvert the power of the Roman Empire in favor of the Kingdom of God. But never once does he look a Roman in the face like he does the Pharisees and say “Woe to you.”

In fact, in this case, he says “In no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

But this faith is the faith of the oppressor.

And so his response is political. Certainly many of his fellow Judeans would have seen it that way. Because sometimes who you choose to associate with is political. Who you sit with at a football game is political; who you say woe to and who you heal and who you praise, all of that is political.

And I struggle with it, I do. I struggle with the fact that this centurion is surely just a regular guy, doing the job he was taught to do, valuing the things he was taught to value, just like all of us surely are, on both sides of the so-called aisle or neither; and yet he is actively part of a system doing real harm. I struggle with the calls I sometimes hear to just be friends, and find unity despite our differences, despite the real injustices at play, despite the real people “unity” inevitably leaves behind. Because it’s one thing to disagree over taxes, right? And it’s another thing to disagree over whether white supremacy should or should not be condemned, and still go on with your dinner party.

But Jesus doesn’t go into all that. Instead what he sees is someone who needs a miracle – and not only that, but someone, even, whose “foreign” life experience has taught him something about what faith means. Jesus many initially be taken by surprise at the centurion’s request – but in the end, he refuses to put this human being before him into any of the boxes that the surrounding world has drawn.

And still, last week Jesus was standing firmly on the side of the powerless, and the week before that he was preaching good news to the poor. And I struggle, I do, with how to hold it all together, how to be uncompromising and unflinching in my stand for what is right, how to live into my baptismal vow to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves; while refusing to let my heart be hardened against those who may not see things the way I do.

And I really don’t have it figured out. But somewhere in the struggle I hear Jesus calling me to both.

And maybe, just maybe, there is grace in the struggle. And maybe, just maybe, we can struggle together.


[1] https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/08/entertainment/ellen-degeneres-george-bush/index.html