Friday, October 2, 2015

On the Other Hand

Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 10:2-16) is ostensibly about divorce. The Pharisees ask Jesus whether divorce is permitted; Jesus responds with a question about the Law of Moses; and a rabbinical conversation/debate about the interpretation of scripture ensues. We are told by Mark that the Pharisees wanted to test Jesus with their question, so we know the emphasis behind the question isn't as simple as "We want to know what you think." As I've already written this week, we shouldn't ignore these words. They're important. We might not like what they say. They might have their origins in an ancient context that is remarkably dissimilar from our own. But Jesus offers an unequivocal teaching on divorce and remarriage (i.e., it's adultery) that we can't afford to ignore.

Today, however, I want to leave divorce aside and ask whether there's a more important lesson for twenty-first century Christians wrapped up in Jesus' exchange with the Pharisees. I wonder whether the presenting issue of divorce masks the more important and relevant point in this passage--that scripture doesn't always agree with itself. Maybe the most important thing for the preacher to do on Sunday is leave the congregation scratching their heads wondering how to make sense of the bible--an invitation to a deeper, more intentional, always relational reading of scripture.

Here's my shocking exegetical revelation for the day: the bible is inconsistent with itself. Sometimes it tells us to love our enemies, and other times it tells us to kill them all--men, women, children, and livestock. Sometimes it tells us to approach our brother or sister and point out to them their spiritual wrong, and other times it tells us to remove the plank in our own eye before attempting to pull out the speck in our neighbor's. Sometimes it tells us that impregnating a girl gives the baby's father the opportunity to purchase her marital rights from her father, and other times it tells us that merely looking at a woman with lust is equivalent to adultery. Sometimes it tells us that divorce and remarriage is permitted, and other times it tells us that it is strictly forbidden. How will we read and digest and believe the Word of God?

Jesus is asked about divorce, and he responds by asking the Pharisees what the Law of Moses tells us. They reply with Deuteronomy 24 in mind, reporting that Moses allows a man to issue a certificate of divorce. Jesus, however, appeals to Genesis 2, concluding that "from the beginning of creation" men and women have been created to dwell together as one flesh--a union that cannot be separated. (On a side note, I'd suggest a difference between "cannot" and "should not" be separated as a way of distinguishing between when divorce is reasonable and when it is not--all hinging on the question of whether a marriage is, indeed, a true image of God's love for the world.) Bottom line: Jesus plays the Genesis trump card.

Consider that Jesus isn't telling the Pharisees that they've misquoted the bible. He's not telling them that they're wrong. They are, of course, correct. They know the scriptures as well as anyone. But Jesus chooses to prioritize the Genesis 2 mandate over the Deuteronomy 24 prescription on the basis of "hardness of heart." As Jesus understands it, the law regarding divorce was written because human beings weren't able to live as God intended them to live. That law, therefore, takes a secondary place behind the law of creation--the most basic, pre-Genesis-3, before-the-Fall understanding of how we are supposed to live--the way we were created to be.

That approach makes sense to me, but, if it weren't Jesus making the argument, I could easily take the opposite side. Who gets to decide which parts of the bible to ignore? Deuteronomy 24 is clear. It's unambiguous. It's practical literature with clear instructions in it. Genesis 2 is a story about human nature. It's not a textbook for marriage. Jesus uses an argument to discount one part of the bible in favor of another. His teaching, therefore, has less to do with divorce than it does with reading and interpreting scripture.

Jesus shows us two critical things: 1) it's ok to let go of one part of the bible if there is another part that trumps it and 2) we should be honest and transparent in how we make those interpretive decisions. Think the death penalty is wrong? Then you should be clear about how you decide to dismiss those parts of the Old Testament that call for justice through execution. Think war and violence are always wrong? Then you should explain how passages about forgiveness and turning the other cheek take precedence over passages about God's victory over the oppressors. Think divorce and remarriage is ok? Then you should explain how Jesus' interpretation of the scriptures isn't valid anymore.

We have a great opportunity--this Sunday and beyond. We have the chance to be open and honest and thoughtful in our reading of scripture. We have the chance to say to the world that we know that the bible is a potentially confusing text. Even Jesus wasn't always consistent in how he interpreted the Hebrew bible. There is still life in these ancient words. They are still for us. They are still the foundation of our faith. If we can't say that, we need to stop calling ourselves Christians, sell our churches, and spend our Sunday mornings at Starbucks.


  1. Thank you, Evan. This is interesting. How much do you think the Bible is meant to be read as a rule book?

    1. It depends on what one means by "rule book." I do think the bible lays out principles for holy living--worship God alone, take care of the poor, turn the other cheek--but I don't think the bible tells us exactly how to live in every circumstance. I think it's a text to be applied to a situation rather than assumed to have the answer for every situation.

  2. I was wondering if I might be able to ask a private question on this over email.

    1. Just saw your comment. Yes. Check our parish webpage, where you can find my email address:


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