The Spirit and Not the Letter

Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” For many Christians, interpreting scripture really is that easy. The words on the page carry simple and direct instructions for everyday life, and the only question is whether we will choose to act accordingly.

Reading the Bible this way hardly does justice to the text. A truly faithful reading of scripture demands that we dig deeper and consider the context in which it was written. When we do, we will find that the lessons we glean from scripture are much closer to the heart of the text. I’ll start by looking at Jesus’ remarks on divorce and then consider the implications for the biblical teachings on homosexuality.

Jesus’ teaching on divorce comes in his Sermon on the Mount:

Jesus continued, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32, New Revised Standard Version)

I was assigned to preach on this text one Sunday during my pastoral internship. This is a notoriously difficult passage for preachers because, frankly, there are a lot of divorced people sitting in the pews, and Jesus’ teaching on divorce is harsh. It’s hard for divorcees in the crowd to hear a word of grace in this passage. Rather, Jesus’ teaching on divorce heaps yet more shame and condemnation on those who are already reeling from the pain of divorce. What’s worse, Jesus’ words don’t resonate with those who know that remaining in a failed marriage would have been more detrimental than going through with a divorce. What do we do with an uncompromising Jesus who seems so out of touch with our reality?

Here is an example where it’s helpful to consider the context of Jesus’ teaching. Divorce in Jesus’ time was very different from our modern conception of it. In first-century Jewish culture, if a man found something about his wife undesirable, he could write a certificate of divorce and send her out of the house. In such a patriarchal culture, a woman had little say in the matter. At least Jewish law required a certificate of divorce, which confirmed that the women had been divorced by her husband and would allow her to be remarried without suspicion of adultery. Really, though, divorce was a system that allowed a man to off-load a wife he didn’t want anymore, consigning her to a precarious existence devoid of a husband’s protection.

Then Jesus comes along: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'”

What Jesus is saying is this: Except in the case of unchastity, there is no divorce procedure a man can follow that will leave him with clean hands. To abandon his wife, with or without a certificate, is, in essence, to treat her as worthless. It’s demeaning and degrading. So Jesus forbids it. Jesus allows no room for the practice of divorce in a culture where divorce is an assault on the value of another person and an abuse of power. Jesus’ teaching is given to put forth some guidelines for a way of life that protects people’s safety and provides for human flourishing. Divorce in Jesus’ time was an assault on those values.

In our time, a hopelessly broken marriage can itself sometimes be such an assault on a person’s safety and on one’s hopes for abundant life. Jesus’ teaching on divorce was spoken to preserve the value of people involved in marriages. When a marriage becomes the very place where people are destroying each other, we should ask how the safety, nurture, and honor of the marriage partners can best be preserved. In our culture, it may be that living according to the essence of Jesus’ teaching sometimes necessitates divorce. It may be that Jesus’ thoughts on divorce in our own time would sound very different from the teaching that is found in scripture.

This is a radical conclusion. Yes, I really am suggesting that Jesus’ teaching on divorce as captured in scripture is outdated and irrelevant. The spirit that motivated Jesus’ teaching, however, is true as ever: God wills abundant life for all people, including and especially those who are most vulnerable. This truth is unchanging and must serve as the lens through which we interpret all scripture.

This discussion has wide-ranging implications for our interpretation of scripture. For example, it challenges traditional interpretations of biblical passages that apparently condemn same-sex sexual behavior. In Jesus’ time, such behavior usually involved violence and exploitation; it was used by victors on the battlefield to demean a conquered enemy, or by grown men to satisfy sexual urges with a young boy. The biblical condemnation of same-sex sexual behavior was intended to promote abundant life by protecting those who were vulnerable. In our own time, as same-sex couples form loving, committed partnerships that provide stability and security, the biblical proscriptions of same-sex sexual intimacy actually hinder the development of abundant life-giving relationships and thus ought to be dismissed as outdated and irrelevant. In so doing, we show ourselves to be truer to the spirit of scripture.

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