Jesus left the region, and went to the districts of Judaea across the Jordan. A large crowd gathered around him, and once more, as his custom was, he taught them. Some Pharisees approached him with a question. ‘Is it permitted’, they asked, ‘for a man to divorce his wife?’ They said this to trap him. ‘Well,’ answered Jesus, ‘what did Moses command you?’ ‘Moses permitted us’, they replied, ‘to write a notice of separation and so to complete the divorce.’ ‘He gave you that command’, said Jesus, ‘because you are hardhearted. But from the beginning of creation male and female he made them; and that’s why the man must leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his wife; so that the two become one flesh. ‘There you are, then: they are no longer two, but one flesh. What God has joined, humans must not split up.’ When they were back indoors, the disciples asked him about this. ‘Anyone who divorces his wife’, said Jesus, ‘and marries someone else commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries someone else she commits adultery.’
The building inspector hurried across the road to where the workmen had already got the wall a few feet up from the ground.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked, in some agitation.
‘We’re building this house!’ they replied. ‘Do you have a problem with that?’
‘Yes, I do!’ he said. ‘I made it quite clear at the planning stage that the ground here wasn’t safe to build on. You need a proper foundation, and this ground won’t take it!’
Work stopped while the foreman was called. And then the architect. Then it became clear.
‘We figured out what the problem was,’ said the architect. ‘There was a layer of gravel underneath the foundations, and it was causing slippage. We dug down last week, while you were away, and we’ve got to solid rock. So we’ve built up again, and this house is going to be as sound as a bell!’
They had gone down to the foundation. The interim regulations that warned of possible danger could now be set aside, not because they were not right and proper at the time, but because the danger they reflected had been dealt with.
That is the underlying logic of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees. This was, as Mark says, a trick question, trying to trap Jesus (verse 2) – not trying to trap him with ‘theological heresy’ or any such thing, but with the more obvious snare of political trouble. There they were in ‘the districts of Judaea across the Jordan’ – in the territory of Herod Antipas, who had imprisoned and then executed John the Baptist for having the temerity to say that he, Herod, should not have divorced his first wife and then married Herodias, who in turn divorced Herod’s brother Philip to make the second marriage possible. The Pharisees knew that Jesus was likely to take a strict line, and that an unguarded word from him, suitably reported back to Herod, might do the trick. They would be able to sit back and watch Herod do their dirty work for them.
This explains the two-stage nature of the passage. As in chapter 7, with the contentious issue of clean and unclean food, and as in chapter 4, with the deeply subversive parable of the sower, the seed and the soils, Jesus will say one thing out in the open and something much more pointed and clear back inside the house. If he had said verses 11 and 12 where the Pharisees could hear, a tip-off to Herod would have followed at once.
Instead, Jesus meets their question with one of his own. ‘What did Moses command you?’ They are, after all, a self-appointed high-octane pressure group, specializing in keeping the ancestral law to the nth degree. They should know.
They quote Deuteronomy (24.1– 4). Moses set up an arrangement for how divorce was to be regulated. You couldn’t just send a woman away; she had to be given a proper legal document, for her own protection and so that everyone would know how matters stood.
That is how things stood at the time. The foundation was shaky. You couldn’t guarantee that the building would stand up. So you had to make alternative arrangements. But Jesus is going down a long way deeper. He agrees that there was indeed a problem to which Moses’ solution was the appropriate one at the time. But he is going down to bedrock. ‘From the beginning of creation,’ he says, ‘male and female he made them,’ and that’s how it’s to be: leave, cleave, one flesh. God joins them; humans mustn’t split them up.
This too, of course, is an appeal to ‘Moses’, since the book of Genesis was known as ‘the first book of Moses’. Jesus is not over-throwing Moses. He is merely claiming (merely! It’s perhaps the biggest implicit claim in the whole book) that with his work, with the launching of God’s kingdom, a new creation is under way, a creation in which the original intention can now be fulfilled.
Doesn’t that mean he is building on gravel? Are not human hearts still hard? Isn’t it cruel to deny people the permission that Moses granted?
No. Jesus is claiming, by strong implication, that with his kingdom-mission there is a cure for ‘hardness of heart’. To b e sure, it isn’t a magic cure. It doesn’t necessarily work over-night (though there are remarkable cases of dramatic trans-formation). But this, as in chapter 7, is the secret at the very centre of so much that Jesus was doing. His teaching may seem quite unrealistic – to those who still think they are building on the shaky foundation of the hardened human heart.
The church, from very early on, found this quite a challenge, which is why we find the special cases mentioned in Matthew (5.32 and 19.9) and Paul (1 Corinthians 7.15). But these ‘exceptions’ only serve to highlight the principle. All this makes a nonsense of the still popular idea that the Old Testament is fierce and legalistic and the New Testament is relaxed and easy-going. Not a bit of it. The Old Testament recognizes that, at the present moment, the foundation is not in place, so the house of God’s ultimate creation-purposes cannot necessarily stand straight upright. Jesus indicates that, with the coming of God’s kingdom, the original intention in creation can be established on the bedrock of God’s healing, forgiving love.
It is this that grounds the stern word that Jesus then speaks once they are safely back inside the house. He might have been pointing straight at Herod in verse 11, and at Herodias in verse 12. And he might well be pointing at those who, today, use the caricature of a fierce Old Testament and a kindly, easy-going New Testament as an excuse to get away altogether from God’s original creative intention, by whatever means. The challenge for us all is so to follow Jesus, so to get to know him and be transformed by his healing love, that we can be part of that building, that new creation, in whatever way he wills.
Renew our hearts, gracious Lord, by the power of your love and your spirit, that we may live as people of new creation.