Hello and welcome to Thursday’s podcast, I’m Bryony and this week we’ve been exploring together what Jesus’ power looks like in the world. We’ve seen the power of faith, the power of position and the power of forgiveness, three radical life transforming areas that Jesus speaks into. Today we are going to look at the power of restoration.
Now right up the top I want to say that today’s passage is a hard, much debated one in the church. But more than that it’s a passage which is deeply personal for some. Today we are going to be hearing Jesus’ word on divorce. Let’s acknowledge straight away that I am not going to unpack this completely in 8 minutes, I’m not going to go into the pastoral ins and outs of divorce. So if this is a difficult topic for you then please do reach out to a church leader or someone you love, maybe even read this passage together and ask God to speak. What I want to do is look at what this passage tells us about Jesus and his values, and I hope to leave us going into our day with renewed hope and vision.
Ok so would you allow me to share a little history lesson? I want to rewind 100 years to before Jesus was born, there were two celebrity rabbi’s, they were the sages of the times. They were popular, people loved to hear them speak, they were the quotable stars of their day. One was called Hillel and the other Shimmai. Hillel believed in keeping to the spirit of the law, he had quite a wide reading of the Torah and Shammai liked to keep to the letter of the law. Their two ‘houses’ of thought were famous and remain so to this day. They were the super stars of their day and the theology they taught was heavily influencing Jewish practices in Jesus’ day.
It seemed though that many Jewish Rabbi’s by the time Jesus enters the scene had sided with Hillel. And even today his teachings are still used, the phrase ‘If not now, when’ is one of his most famous utterances and was even accidentally quoted by Ivanka Trump who thought it was an Emma Watson quote, I mean that story alone is wonderful!
So you have these two houses, these two powerful influential leaders and the community start discussing what you can divorce a women for. It’s worth remembering that the woman had no say here, she couldn’t call for divorce, a woman had no legal authority and the witness of a woman wasn’t even considered to be worth using in a court of law. A quote from religious writings from that time said ‘he should talk not much with womankind, he brings evil upon himself’. Yep, women were definitely not respected as members of society!
Shimmai says you can only divorce a woman if she has committed adultery, he sticks to the letter of the law. But Hillel says you can divorce a woman for all reasons even, and I quote, if ‘she burns the bread’. Hillel was saying that if anything displeases you about your wife, divorce her, and this was a dominant belief and practice in the world which Jesus was born into.
Let’s read today’s passage –
BIBLE READING: Matthew 19:1-15
When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’
‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
‘Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’
Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’
The disciples said to him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’
Jesus replied, ‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.’
Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.
Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
When the leaders ask Jesus “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” they are asking, ‘who do you side with the house of Shammai or the house of Hillel?’ When Jesus replies that only in the circumstance of adultery can divorce happen he is siding with Shammai and in doing so he is protecting women. Women who had been too easily discarded by a culture which allowed woman to be rejected for any and all reasons.
But Jesus actually goes further, because he reveals that they are asking the wrong question. Once again he reveals their hearts. He points to God’s creation plan and says that what God has joined together, the beauty of marriage, it shouldn’t be separated.
The question Jesus is pointing to is not the loop hole question they came to him with about ‘what gets them out of marriage’ but we see in Jesus’ reply that the question they should be asking is ‘how can I stay in my marriage’? As he advocates for the divine nature of marriage he is lifting women up further. He is saying not only should you only divorce in limited cases but you need to think about what marriage is for and how you are joined to your wife, how that union is sacred and to be protected. Jesus’ response lifts women in exactly the opposite way to how Hillel brings them down. That’s the power of restoration. When Jesus reaches down and gives honour to the oppressed those who the world would too easily discard.
The disciples get it and say ‘wow then marriage is a hard thing, it would be better to stay single, to not marry’ and Jesus says ‘yep, basically it’s good to be single’ and this is of course something which Paul unpacks in his letters to the churches.
So what does this mean for us in Sheffield on a Thursday morning? Well it gives me hope because Jesus’ words show me that his hope, his kingdom is more radical, more generous and more restorative than we could ever imagine.
Jesus sees through our loop hole questions about how little we can get away with and says ‘my vision is bigger and more generous than that’. We saw that yesterday when the disciples asked ‘should we forgive 7 times’, Jesus smiles and says ‘70 times 7’ which is his way of saying ‘go on forgiving’. The disciples were looking for a limit to grace and Jesus says ‘nope there is no limit to grace’.
What Jesus does in this passage here for women, he does for each of us. The power of restoration means that Jesus reaches out takes us from our old lives and lifts us up. He always goes further than we would. He is always more forgiving than I would be, more generous than I would be, more loving than I would be.
That’s why I love the testimonies that we hear when people choose to be baptised. Stories from people whom Jesus has restored from lives that are so broken and so far from him that you have to just sit back in tears as you listen and say ‘what a generous God we have!’. He doesn’t just do what’s needed, he goes beyond that.
Maybe today we feel like we are needing that hope, to know that Jesus is there to throw us a lifeline. To say ‘I’m even more generous than you think’. We can feel like the women listening in to the conversation, wondering if Jesus is going to agree with discarding us. We feel like we’ve messed up and we need to know there’s even more grace for us, well today, know that there is power in the restoration Jesus offers. His very word brings life.
Or maybe we identify with the Pharisee’s, we’re looking for God to validate our minimal response to his grace. We’re saying ‘what’s the least I can get away with here?’. ‘What’s the smallest amount of my money I can give?’, ‘what the smallest part of my life or my time I can sacrifice?’, ‘what’s the limit to my generosity that still soothes my conscience?’. I know I’ve done that, I know I do that. I think God would want to remind us today of his generosity, his kindness, his extravagant grace and ask us to walk in his footsteps.
Jesus, thank you for this part of scripture, that even though it’s challenging it’s a reminder that you call us up to a higher way of living and being. That you are in the business of restoration not just repair. You want to overhaul our understanding of what it means to live an extravagantly generous life. Speak to us today and teach us how to love like you. Amen.