Is it lawful?

It was the beginning of another college semester. He had signed up for a full load of classes, and as usual each class took time to look over the syllabus. They covered the class objectives, learning outcomes, assignments, schedule, tests, grading, and so on. He noticed, however, that they failed to address one item of particular importance, to him at least. He thrust his hand into the air and blurted, “How many absences are we allowed to take?”

Though this is only a parable, I’ve often wondered what kind of message this sends to a teacher. Essentially, the student is saying, “Though I signed up for this class, I’m not at all interested in you teaching me. So, how often do I have to be here and still pass the class?” Pretty much a slap in the face.

A similar question was asked to a teacher a long time ago.

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Mark’s account of this conversation in chapter 10 seems to have a different focus than Matthew’s (in chapter 19). The Pharisees asked in Matthew’s account, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” This was more in line with the current rabbinical debate when considering the prevalence of divorce during that time. However, Mark chooses to simplify the question even more, perhaps to focus on the root of the matter.

The Pharisees, seeking to test Jesus, essentially ask him, “Can a man divorce his wife and still be keeping the law?” As usual, Jesus fires a question right back at them, “What did Moses command you?” They answer, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” Notice how Jesus asked what Moses commanded and how the Pharisees answered with what Moses permitted them to do. The word for ‘commanded’ here is entellomai, which carries a sense of urging someone with instruction, and it emphasizes the end-objective or purpose of the command. The word translated as 'permitted’ is epitrepó, which means to ‘allow’ or ‘entrust.’ It’s root word, tropé, means “a turning, change, or mutation.” This root word is used only one time in the Bible; found in James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” God does not shift or change like shadows.

Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ argument with, “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law. But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.’ '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. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Jesus is quoting Genesis (1:27 and 2:24), another ‘Book of Moses.’ Jesus wasn’t asking what Moses allowed them to do but what he commanded them to do. What did God say from the beginning about marriage? A man is united to his wife. The word ‘united’ here means “to glue or cement together” or “to cleave.” Literally, marriage is the cementing of a husband and wife together, they are not to be separated. The word for ‘joined together’ literally means, “yoked together,” as in the yoke used for oxen. Among the ancients, they would often times put a yoke upon the necks of a newly married couple to symbolize that they both were to equally pull together in all concerns of life. Marriage is about sharing life with someone.

Later on, Jesus discusses the matter further with his disciples, and says, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” During Jesus’ time, there were two main schools of rabbinic thought on the idea of divorce. The school of Shammai argued that the passage in Deuteronomy 24 (the scripture the Pharisees used for their argument) allowed divorce only if one’s spouse was unfaithful, while the other school, Hillel, said that a man could divorce his wife if she burned the toast. During his ministry, Jesus sided with Hillel on many matters of interpreting the law, but on the issue of divorce Jesus clearly sides with Shammai. But, he doesn’t stop there, he takes the law even further with the idea that divorcing someone and marrying another is the same as adultery.

Perhaps the reason Jesus doesn’t offer this last bit of teaching to the crowd or Pharisees is because of timing. During this time, a scandal had broken out between Herod and his newly acquired wife, Herodias (the wife of Herod’s brother). John the Baptizer spoke out against Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (Mark 6:18) And, because of this, Herod put John in jail, and eventually beheaded him at the request of his wife’s daughter. Jesus has already claimed that the Son of Man must suffer many things and die at the hands of the chief priests and teachers of the law, but it isn’t the time or place, yet.

Back to the law. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once described the polarity of Jewish thought and theology in terms of a body and spirit. Thus, the law (or mitzvah) was meant to be balanced between the deed (halakhah) and the intention (agadah) behind the deed:

“There is no halakhah without agadah, and no agadah without halakhah. We must neither disparage the body nor sacrifice the spirit. The body is the discipline, the pattern, the law; the spirit is the inner devotion, spontaneity, freedom. The body without the spirit is a corpse; the spirit without the body is a ghost. Thus a mitzvah is both a discipline and an inspiration, an act of obedience and an experience of joy, a yoke and a prerogative. Our task is to learn how to maintain a harmony between the demands of halakhah and the spirit of agadah.” (Between God and man: an interpretation of Judaism, p.178)

N.T. Wright put it this way, “Hardheartedness, the inability to have one’s heart in tune with God’s best intention and plan, thwarted God’s longing that Israel should be his prototype of renewed humanity.” (Mark for Everyone, p.132)

Therefore, is it lawful? If by that, we mean, “Does it fulfill God’s will and original intention of creation?” Then, no, a man divorcing his wife is not lawful. No, putting any other gods or idols before God is not lawful. No, ignoring the cry of the oppressed in this world is not lawful. The law was put in place so that we might live beyond the deed and practice its intention of renewed humanity.

To live out God’s kingdom and will on earth as it is in heaven.

jensnow: These mensches, last night after HAMILTON. “I fucking love bagels. God bless New York for that. Such a mitzvah,” said @daveeddiggs.

I asked Lin a question that kind of wasn’t a question, more like: thank you for writing a story that is such a New York story and such a story about telling stories.“ And he got it and said: "I’m SUCH a New Yorker. And Hamilton was the ultimate New Yorker.” Which, of course. (@hamiltonmusical

When I become a bestselling author, my debut novel’s gonna be about a werewolf who forgets EVERY SINGLE FULL MOON that she’s a werewolf.