Jesus Interprets the Scriptures

The Rev. L. William Countryman

Good Shepherd Berkeley
Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
October 5, 2003

Proper 22B: Gen. 2:18-24; Ps. 8/128; Heb. 2:9-18; Mark 10:2-9

The Rev. L. William Countryman, Sherman E. Johnson Professor in Biblical Studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (The Episcopal Seminary of the West), is a well-known biblical scholar and teacher as well as a gifted preacher. He is the author of many books, including Gifted by Otherness: Gay and Lesbian Christians in the Church (with M. R. Ritley) (Morehouse, 2001); and Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and their Implications for Today (Fortress Press, 1988).


Jesus, in this morning’s Gospel, is caught up in a religious conflict about sexuality with some people who quote Scripture at him. Does this sound familiar? Maybe it’ll be worthwhile to watch and see how he deals with that.

To start with, it’s worth noticing that people in the first century were already fighting about the meaning of the Bible. Even then it was hard to figure it out. On the matter of divorce, the Torah actually had very little to say. It only mentions it once in passing, while dealing with a related issue (Deut. 24:1-3). And we know from other sources that first-century Jewish experts disagreed about the grounds of divorce. Could a husband divorce his wife just because he felt like it? Or only if she had committed some serious fault? Jesus was being asked to take sides in that argument. That way, one side or the other—or both—could find fault with his answer. Academic communities—the more they change the more they stay the same!

But instead of just wading into the argument in the way they expected, Jesus does something shocking. He says ‘Moses only allowed divorce in the first place because of your hardness of heart.’ Yikes! What is he saying here?! He’s saying that you can’t assume that, just because it’s in scripture, it’s the will of God! Some Bible verses express nothing more than the stupidity, the sullenness, the bigotry, the hardness of heart of the people who received them in the first place—and, who knows? maybe of the people who read them now.

After all, Jesus talks to them about ‘your hardness of heart.’ Now he’s not talking to the scum of the earth. He’s talking here to the particularly good people. They pay close attention to religion, they fulfill its demands, they’re the respectable pillars of their communities. And they’re all male. I suspect that that’s the particular issue in this case. They’re all male. The Torah is addressed to males. In that world, males were the public persons; women were private persons who were supposed to keep out of the public eye.

And it was males who made the decisions about marriage. Marriage wasn’t the sort of thing we tend to assume—young people falling in love and deciding to create a new family together. Marriage was a contract between the parents’ families: the woman’s family gave her away (you recognize the language) to bear a new generation of children for the husband’s family. She never even became a member of her husband’s family. If she bore a male heir and if she and the boy both lived long enough, she would finally have a secure place in it when it became her son’s family. But if she was divorced and sent away, the son remained with his father and she just had to hope that her natal family could and would take her back.

This may be hard for us to imagine, since it’s so foreign to our own mores. But it was the norm of the time. Marriage was something men did to women; and so was divorce. And divorce was usually a disaster for the woman. There were some exceptions. We know that women from influential families sometimes had the right to divorce their husbands; but that right had to be written into the marriage contract. It was sort of like the legal work-arounds that gay and lesbian couples today have to use in order to secure some of the basic rights that come to heterosexual married couples in the normal course of events. Basically, divorce was for men.

So Jesus takes this accepted cultural practice and the Scripture that was seen as backing it up. And he says: That’s not what God meant at all. That just reflects the mean-spiritedness, the hardness of heart, that’s treated as normal in our society. And he puts his questioners right on the spot with it: Moses said this because of your hardness of heart.

But you notice that Jesus isn’t in fact discarding the Scriptures, even though he is rejecting one particular text. Sometimes, when we’re looking for an easy way to understand these arguments, we distinguish between religious conservatives who take Scripture really, really seriously and religious liberals who don’t take it seriously at all. Is Jesus here being a conservative or a liberal? The system of classification doesn’t work, does it? Yes, he’s pitching one text out. But he’s also calling another one in and making quite a big deal of it and interpreting it in a way that nobody had ever understood it before.

The text he introduces, of course, is the last part of our Old Testament reading this morning:

A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

And then he adds his own commentary: ‘Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ God, he says, has created something good here; you men can’t just use it for your human convenience and then discard it when a better match, a better family alliance comes along.

The Torah preserved the power that men had in a patriarchal society to abuse women. Jesus abolished divorce in order to protect women. [Incidentally, Jesus wasn’t the first person to notice that divorce was a bad thing. Some centuries before, the prophet Malachi had already claimed that God hates divorce (2:13-16). And Jesus grounds his changing of Scripture in Scripture itself: God didn’t intend to authorize hardness of heart; God intended to teach us how to love one another and do one another good.

Of course, some later Christians turned Jesus’ own statement into yet another license for hardness of heart. In Eastern Christianity, it was held that Jesus was establishing an ideal of lifelong marriage, a goal. But Western Christians long held that Jesus was establishing a rigid new law: no one can be divorced; if they are, they cannot remarry. Does that condemn you to spending the remaining decades of your life with an abusive spouse? Well, we’re terribly sorry, but that’s the rule. Hardness of heart sneaks in the back door again.

But what Jesus is really doing in this story is turning the whole use of Scripture on its head. The Scriptures, he says, are not a book of statute law to protect the powerful. They are a book of astonishing insights into God’s extraordinary generosity. The purpose of God all through Scripture is the well-being of God’s beloved human creatures. If you find things in the Scriptures that seem to speak otherwise, consider who benefits from that. Whose hardness of heart caused that blemish in the sacred text? Whose hardness of heart is maintaining that interpretation even now?

After all, one thing hasn’t changed. When religious people (that’s us) read Scripture, we’re still quite capable of using it to support and affirm our own hard-heartedness. White Christians in the early nineteenth century justified slavery by the Bible. After the Civil War, they justified discrimination against blacks by the Bible. Christians have justified wars by the Bible. Christians have justified Inquisitions by the Bible. Christians have justified the subordination of women by the Bible.

Hardness of heart is something that just keeps on cropping up. It wasn’t unique to the Pharisees in Jesus’ audience. It’s not specifically Jewish. It’s an equal-opportunity sin. It’s the property of the whole human race. You can’t escape it just by being religious; but you can’t escape it by ceasing to be religious, either. And if you quit reading the Scriptures, you not only lose the passages that cater to your particular kind of hard-heartedness; you also lose the ones that might wake you up and suddenly let you see how really big and generous God’s love is.

The people in our own world who like to wield the Bible as a weapon—they like to claim that they’re just reading it all literally. They’re not. They pick and choose what they will take seriously, just as Jesus did in this morning’s Gospel story. They just prefer not to notice what they’re doing. The big difference is that Jesus knew what he was doing and said it straight out.

Jesus wasn’t a biblical conservative. But he wasn’t a biblical liberal, either. He expected something important from the Scriptures; he expected to be challenged and surprised by God. And he also expected that when you are challenged and surprised by God, some of the details enshrined in the sacred text will be revealed for what they are, as concessions to hardness of heart—and they will have to go.

But how do you decide which ones to discard? That’s still the scary question for us, isn’t it? Well, you know, this passage does one more thing for us. It actually gives us a principle for making those decisions. I’m going to conclude with that because I hope you will take it away with you.

When Scripture seems to confirm your own hardness of heart, it’s wrong. Ditch it, just the way Jesus did. Conversely, when Scripture breaks your world open and makes it bigger and more loving, it is achieving its true goal.

Hang onto that principle. It may not be the whole story, but it’s a great place to begin and it will take you a long way. Hardness of heart is a dead giveaway that we’ve got it wrong. Only generous love can open the door to God’s truth.


Comments will go through moderation before they are posted. Those wishing to leave a comment must include their full name and a working email address, and all comments must be respectful and civil. Personal, ad hominem, or anonymous comments will not be allowed.