Law, Perfection and the Freedom of the Spirit with special reference to Tithing and Divorce

By Martin Harris

The Abolition of Law?

When I was reading Matthew recently, I noticed a big chunk of text which seemed to fit nicely into a package beginning with Matthew 5:17 Matthew 5:17

17 Don't think I came to set the law or the prophets aside: I didn't come to set them aside but to fulfil them.
and ending with Matthew 7:12 Matthew 7:12

12 Therefore, all those things which you would want people to do to you, these are the things you must do to others for this is the meaning of the law and the prophets

This is the bulk of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. The parts before and after the main section seem to be about the theme of true discipleship, wrapping up a middle part which is a detailed expansion of this point.

Many Christians seem preoccupied with their relationship to the law and that was the main reason why over a long time I developed these thoughts on the matter. A lot of debate has gone on in the past about the exact meaning of the word fulfil in 5:17. Does it for instance mean that we would no longer be subject to the law? Or does it mean that Jesus is now laying down a newer set of more strict laws to apply to his disciples? This latter would seem to be borne out by his later saying in 5:20 that unless our righteousness exceeded that of the Scribes and Pharisees (who were renowned for being scrupulous keepers of the law) then we would not stand the slightest chance of getting into the kingdom of heaven.

A lot of us would no doubt consider ourselves to be of weak mental disposition who sometimes envy the leaders of our companies or other people we look up to who have so much energy, health and drive, self-discipline and focussed priorities. But for probably the majority of us, the thought of having to keep a complicated law totally and then keep some more even stricter laws to even stand a chance of being considered a disciple, is a very daunting one. It seems to colour the gospel in favour of the strong rather than the weak. That is after all exactly what the Pharisees and Scribes were - the strong ones in their society and their sin was so great because they abused their position not only to get financial advantages over others but also a psychological one, making them believe that they were in danger of losing God's approval unless they did exactly what the Pharisees and Scribes told them to do. The populace lived in moral fear and financial penury and often without realising that this was due to the oppression of the Pharisees and Scribes, whom they really looked up to to give moral leadership. It came as a complete surprise then that Jesus should assert that the righteousness of these high-standing people should be insufficient to get God's approval.

Another perceived problem with this verse is its relation to Romans 7:6 Romans 7:6

6 But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.
, which seems at first sight to say the opposite of what Jesus said in Matthew 5:17 Matthew 5:17

17 Don't think I came to set the law or the prophets aside: I didn't come to set them aside but to fulfil them.

Many people have therefore looked for explanations round this interpretation and some of the ways round it have been a) to regard only the 10 commandments themselves as still binding on Christians, b) to treat ceremonial laws as abolished by Jesus' once for all sacrifice but other laws as still valid, c) to treat the whole law as no longer valid and just do whatever feels right at the time, d) to distil the law into certain principles for action and transpose these into our modern culture.

Here is a brief critique of each of the above positions:

a) to regard only the 10 commandments themselves as still binding on Christians.

There seem to be several flaws in this popular position. It would require Christians to keep the Jewish Sabbath. If you suggest that the Sabbath is now the Sunday, you have arbitrarily changed the law to suit yourself. There again, it seems arbitrary anyway to single out the 10 commandments. If Jesus said that not one jot of the 'law and the prophets' were to pass away, then that is a whole lot more than just the 10 commandments. In the NT there is very little evidence that the 10 commandments were given any special significance over the rest of the law and the prophets. Also, there are different versions of the 10 commandments in different parts of the Pentateuch so I don't think anyone can be really certain what the 10 commandments exactly are. Jesus also appears to lay down rules about divorce and alms giving (as examples) which are not subjects treated by the 10 commandments so his intention seems to be at least a lot broader than just these. In summary, the main difficulty with this view is that no one can say why the 10 commandments should be singled out from the rest of Old Testament law. Unless a really good reason can be given, the position falls down.

b) to treat ceremonial laws as abolished by Jesus' once for all sacrifice but other laws as still valid.

This idea has more merit than the one above because it gives a good reason why certain parts of the law should be abolished and therefore has a semblance of logic to it which Christians can cling to. It suffers however from two serious weaknesses. The first is that it is not at all easy to distinguish between what is ceremonial and what is not. The ancient people of Israel were a theocratic state so there is a complete blur between politics, ethics and ceremony and further, there are many ceremonial aspects of the law which did not relate to sacrifice so one could argue that these still apply. The second weakness is that it is all but impossible in our modern world for Christians to keep the Old Testament law. Laws like only wearing clothes made of one type of cloth would render it sin to wear a cotton and polyester mix! Laws about isolating yourself outside the camp (or town) for 7 or more days if you are a woman after your period or if you are a man and you e-jaculate and the semen goes over you at night. Laws about abstaining from blood would entail every Christian going to the local kosher butcher and men would be getting themselves circumcised. These are just a few examples, it is easy to see that the Old Testament law was written for a people living in a theocratic state, not for believers living as salt and light in whatever situation they may be around the world. There is also a reason given by Paul in Galatians 5:3 that if a Christian is regarded as bound to keep just one law because it is law then he is bound to keep the whole law. In this text he is referring to circumcision but it could easily be widened such that it would seem that one must either accept the whole law as binding or none of it.

c) to treat the whole law as no longer valid and just do whatever feels right at the time.

This treats 'fulfil' as meaning that the law has now been superseded. Although many Christians will say that they adhere to either a) or b) above or some similar principle, in practice this is what most Christians take as their guiding principle. To some, this will seem a rather lax and sloppy alternative because it makes everything right even if Christians differ as to exactly what is right and wrong in any given situation. It is relative and doesn't seem to give an absolute direction towards right and wrong. However, to many, this is the only known option which is intellectually and psychologically viable. It is intellectually viable because they can say that it is the Holy Spirit who is guiding their actions and psychologically viable because they can say that in their heart they love Jesus, therefore everything else seems ok to their consciences. (And no one wants to have a bad conscience.) However, even if they can say that the Holy Spirit guides them in their actions, it seems like a recipe for moral chaos in the church. It seems to me that this very prevalent attitude is the one which gives the modern western church its present and rather watery character more than anything else. Because there is no strong ethical principle to teach prospective converts, we teach them instead formulas like giving their lives to Christ or being saved through faith in Jesus or having one's sins forgiven by his atoning death. We also teach them worship, i.e. how to adopt proper attitudes in the worship service and get the right feeling from it, how to do Bible study and speak the right language so that fellowship with other Christians can be had in abundance. We even teach missionary and evangelistic activity and at great expense any young person can go to a foreign country and participate in a summer mission or dish out food and clothing to the poor or build a hospital in some former iron curtain country. It is perhaps a tad cynical on my part to put it like that and all these things are good and in cases necessary, but there seems to be something decidedly lacking in all this and that thing is the very reason why we are converted to be Jesus' disciples at all, namely to possess a radically changed, saved and renewed life. This c) principle doesn't really fit the bill, it looks more like a person centred ethic rather than a Christ centred one.

"A man's ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death." - - Albert Einstein, Religion and Science, New York Times Magazine, 9 November 1930.

The above quote epitomises what many non-Christians think of the Christian life. It simply does not have a real, earth centred purpose. This is why it seems to me that the church finds great difficulty in offering purpose to unbelievers, all we can offer them is our theology, we are largely unable to offer them a distinct and vital purpose, exemplified in the life of the church.

d) to distil the law into certain principles for action and transpose these into a different set of laws suited to our modern culture.

This sounds very promising and well-motivated and can lead to some good principles for the church to follow. It recognises that the law had a good purpose and tries to impart some of that purpose to our modern church life without going to the obvious extremes of a literal adherence which would be the case with a) and especially b) above. However, it ultimately suffers from two weaknesses. Firstly, Jesus has already given us a summary of the principle of the law in Matthew 7:12 Matthew 7:12

12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
, so this doesn't seem to help us. Is it really worth troubling ourselves to work out a summary of the law which is different from one which Jesus himself gave us? Secondly, it doesn't at all grapple with the word 'fulfil' in 5:17. Whatever that word means exactly, it entails some kind of change in the way we deal with the law. However, in essence no change is being proposed here, merely a cultural reinterpretation which is in danger of ending up in little more than a treatise on how to be good citizens.

The Logical Conclusion of the Law

Let's go on from here then and try to see if Jesus has something else in mind. I would like to follow along the lines of "fulfil" in 5:17 as meaning "bring to a logical conclusion". What kind of conclusion, is hinted at in 5:13-16 Matthew 5:13-16

You are the light of the world... let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven..

This expresses a significant change in attitude: the purpose in keeping law was understood to be the acquisition of personal righteousness or, put crassly, earning points with God or, conversely, protecting yourself from God's wrath. An entirely self-centred purpose. Here, Jesus states that the aim of the conduct of a disciple is outward to others and to God. When Jesus says "see your good works' I feel sure he also means "see" in the sense of "have the benefit of", in other words it is not merely a case of being transparent to others about how we love one another as disciples but how we can love and serve all men in general. Jesus complains in 5:20 that it is possible to keep every last bit of the law but still not attain the righteousness of God. The law pointed to something but it was a something which could not be perfectly expressed in the law itself. Indeed, the law in itself, without that to which it points, is of no value in securing righteousness at all. This negative aspect of the law is highlighted in Colossians 2:14 Colossians 2:14

14 having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.
in which Paul speaks of the "bond which stood against us as decrees".

This is further expanded on by Paul in Romans ch. 7, for example: "Shall we say, then, that the Law itself is sinful? Of course not! But it was the Law that made me know what sin is. If the Law had not said, 'Do not covet,' I would not have known coveting. (Rom 7:7)"

Jesus' teaching aims at what the law pointed to and on the way transforms the law from something negative to something positive. How does he do this?

Firstly, he gives several examples, which are often typified by the phrase "Go the extra mile!" Jesus encourages us not to be bound by the limits of the law as if there was always a tension between our desires and the precepts of the law. Taking that view, it would be perfectly permissible to hold feelings of hatred and anger in your heart and not be found in any wrongdoing. Jesus refutes this and instead lays down his own principle of discipleship in 5:48: "You must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect"

To use an analogy, the law of our country says that you must pay your taxes. Most of us would endeavour to pay the absolute minimum required. By analogy, Jesus would say pay more than the minimum! Now that is a very difficult pill to swallow and everyone would think you were mad if you tried it because you regard your money as your own and you only give away what you have to. But it is only an analogy: Jesus is saying when it comes to the righteousness of God, we must not hold back to the minimum requirement as if our life were our own. Instead we must make our entire personalities and desires conformed to God's own righteousness so that there is no longer a tension between what we want and what God desires. Righteousness thus consists of a unanimity with God, in fellowship, friendship and sonship. To even think that by keeping the law, God would deem us righteous, is therefore an error and there will be many people who will be sorely disappointed in the day of judgement when they come all self-confidently in the knowledge that they kept the whole law (however they perceived it) only to be told that they are complete strangers to God's ways.

The examples Jesus gives to illustrate this principle come not only from the law but from areas where the law did not apply. For instance, the law said do not murder but Jesus expands this to do not be angry with your brother. But he also says do not parade your almsgiving in public. The law said nothing about this subject. So the principle of Christian perfection is not just an extension of the law but it has completely general application. Why is this so and why could it not have been so during the Old Testament period? Well, to some extent it was true even in the Old Testament and Jesus quotes some instances to illustrate that the law was made for men's benefit, not to enslave them. (e.g. Mark 2:24-28Mark 2:24-28

24 The Pharisees said to him "'Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?" 25 He answered, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions" 27 Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."
). But in general the law had to be kept and there were punishments for breaking it. The reason it was necessary was because mankind was living in separation from God. Only through Jesus do we have restored fellowship with our father in heaven. Once we have restored fellowship, there is no barrier between us which results in the distinction between what is ours and what is God's. When such a barrier existed, the law was necessary to create a stable, reasonably right living and sustainable society which God could use as a witness to himself. Now that Jesus has obtained for us full fellowship with the father, all law is unnecessary but we must still live authentically within the context of that new union and that means a life of perfection.

The law therefore is certainly not abandoned in that it still fulfils the purpose of pointing to a righteousness which is beyond itself, it serves as an example of something more general. Indeed, tampering with it would affect its message and that is exactly why Jesus states in Matthew 5:18-19 that it must not be added to or subtracted from. In the context of the theocratic state of ancient Israel, the reward for keeping the law as a nation was a long and peaceful existence in the land of Israel (Deut.4:40) and one of its purposes was that other nations would be given a witness to the greater righteousness of the covenant God YHWH (Deut 4:4-7). But the Christian disciple's obligation to keep such law has lapsed because the theocratic nation of Israel was dissolved, because he already has full fellowship with the Father and because his ethical principle is the life of perfection which the law pointed towards.

Law Keepers of Modern Christianity

Why is the desire to keep some or all of the Old Testament Law so common in the church? Firstly, we should cite lack of faith as the most common cause. On his way, Jesus met a man who said "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?' (Mark 10:17ff)

Many people today are still looking for something to do. They either ignore or have forgotten Paul's words that no one can possibly be justified by the works of the law. (Gal 2:16). Jesus' answer to the man was to give him something that was fairly easy to do, as a test. "You know the law, do not....." but the man wanted something a little more difficult otherwise he would feel cheated, he would feel that eternal life wasn't worth much. So Jesus gave him something that, to say the least, was a little harder to do,

"Go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, then come and follow me!

The man went away unhappy because he was very wealthy. If only he had seen that it wasn't by doing anything at all that he would inherit eternal life. Jesus had given him a task which he knew would be impossible in order to show up the falsity of wanting to work your way into God's kingdom. The man wasn't interested in following Jesus, he just wanted a ticket to heaven. But many of us today still hold this attitude. It can come rather subtily disguised as an emphasis on obedience. There is nothing wrong with obedience to God but this kind of obedience is the kind which asks "why haven't we got the guts to take God at his word?" If you look closely. you can see the macho, self-assured attitude coming through - "I'm humble/clever/spiritual enough to follow these commandments, why aren't you?" An example of this kind of attitude is the small but often vociferous minority of Christians who insist on Sabbath keeping. They happily convert Saturday to Sunday unconcerned to thus distort the law for their own convenience but forget Paul's argument that they are really under obligation to keep the whole law. They want to be able to do something to obtain qualification into the kingdom of God but it has to be something which is convenient for them to do!

A second reason for stressing Old Testament law is lack of faith! The failure to perceive the perfection which we have and are called to in Christ can result in us looking for different ways to obtain a purpose which fulfils our psychological needs. For those who do not have the faith to accept that God loves them independently of their works, purpose can be achieved by linking to the ancient people of God, the Israelites. The Israelites take on a mystical or legendary aspect, these were the people whom God actually chose as a real nation to be his people! This excessive fascination for Israel can take several forms: a few like to show that they are actually descended from the Israelites or have a Jewish background, even whole sects or denominations can be focussed on descent from biblical personages. Others will go in search of ancient artefacts. But most in this category will be content to keep the law of the Old Testament or as much of it as suits their consciences or intellects.

A third reason is yet more lack of faith. Without the God-centred purpose that comes from faith, a few will try to dominate others. They think that by providing 'strong leadership' they can 'save' the church or its members. This will give them the necessary kick that allows them to think that they are doing something useful, which functions as a means of self-justification. Typical of this kind of person is a focus not so much on the laws of the Old Testament as upon the exhortations given in the New Testament. We have to remember that many of the commands given in the New Testament by Jesus and the apostles are given as examples of the moral perfection expected of a disciple. These kind of people turn such issues into a new set of laws which must be obeyed in all circumstances. And often they are interpreted in a way which is at least far more rigid and even quite differently than they were originally intended to be interpreted. These are the people who have forgotten the simple words of Jesus that a leader must be a servant and that we are not to lord it over the flock in the way leaders in the world do. But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:25-28)

There are also the leaders who simply get their kicks out of dominating others or seeing others dominated. Jesus and others in the New Testament have warned against these "wolves in sheep's clothing". The imposition of rules as a means of control is central to the modus operandi of these people. They are surprisingly common in the church - Christians are easy prey to such people, it is often difficult to distinguish submission from subjugation and we end up with a situation not dissimilar to the Judean scenario with the Pharisees and the common people which began this article. Outside the church there is far more regulation (at least in our developed world) which would prevent such abuse of authority. Inside the church, there is generally less regulation and correspondingly more opportunity for the power crazed little dictators to arise. Of course in the church it is better to have less regulation rather than more because this fits with the concept of leaders being servants rather than bosses and the free use of spiritual gifts and ministries but the problem of dictatorial leaders imposing new rules and inappropriate laws must be faced. In my experience, the problem is far less acute in the orthodox churches or churches with big structures and far worse in smaller especially independent churches. The logic is easy to see. We should all be on our guard and ensure that our assurance lies in Jesus, not in obedience to man-made rules. We will thus ensure that our consciences remain intact and that we don't waste so much of our precious time in unspiritual use of our energies.

Tithing and Divorce

Now that the idea of Christian perfection has been aired, we can see how this works out in some specific subjects. In the light of what has been said so far, this is hardly the place to lay down new rules therefore the following should be taken as guidance, principles for effective and realistic action. You have heard it said that Abraham gave one tenth of the spoils of battle to Melchizedek, the high priest without origin or heritage. But I tell you, give everything to the Lord for the whole world was created by him and in Christ you are his children, sharing as joint owners of the assets of the universe. Do you like my addition to the sermon on the mount? As Jesus said when sending out his disciples, "Freely you have received, freely give." (Matthew 10:8)

If Christians adopt the attitude of perfection, then our whole lives will be offered up in service to our master. Everything we do, every moment of our day, every penny we spend, every word we utter is for him. If our lives are following this principle, then the idea of a rule of tithing seems light years away from reality. It barely touches upon the joy we have in living completely for Jesus. Some practical guidelines in managing personal finances as a disciple without tithing have been written about by various authors. I would just like to mention a few to give a taster. If you are single you will be able to give away a much greater proportion of your income than a married person. As a single person you will not be so bound by protocols as married people so you can live very frugally. As an exercise try spending six months or so seeing just how very little you can actually spend on yourself. Do you really need a television? A car? Won't a bicycle and public transport do? As a married person you have responsibilities to your family first. As time goes on you will probably earn more but do you really need a bigger house and car or an extra car to suit your bigger salary? In both cases always make it your aim to give as much glory as possible to the Father in how you spend your money. Perfection in stewardship is not about what you give away it is about lifestyle.

The most important thing to stress about divorce is that Jesus was not laying down a new law for all his disciples to obey. He was setting out a principle for perfection. One of the most incongruous things I have noticed is the debate that has gone on about what is called the "exception clause". This is the phrase "except for the cause of unchastity" which Jesus uses in 5:32: "But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery".

It is so very incongruous because the aim of discipleship is perfection. So long as we focus on what we are allowed to do as opposed to what we are not allowed to do, we revert to the old basis of living according to the letter of law. We should not seek to ask, "what are the limits of Jesus' commands?". The right question is how can we be more perfect? The perfect way of a disciple is to seek reconciliation, not to seek grounds for divorce. Similarly, it is often said that the issue is not whether a couple can be divorced but whether a divorcee can be remarried. We tend to accept that there are reasons why a divorce can occur. However, if we follow the line of perfection described by Jesus, we must conclude that even separation without divorce is wrong. (I will return to this point later.) The principle Jesus gives is "let no man separate". (Matthew 19:6)

Hence in order to fulfil our calling as disciples, we need to refrain from debating the subject of whether and when divorce and remarriage is permissible and start radically being people of reconciliation. Focusing on what is permissible is to revert to the old basis of living by law. When our marriage is on the rocks and the last person we have any feelings for is our spouse, that is the time when our discipleship will hurt us. The easy thing would be to divorce. Jesus says that to qualify for a disciple we must take up our cross everyday and go out following him to the place of crucifixion. These lovely sounding words are fine with most of us until a situation like a failing marriage arises. But when it means that we must pursue our marriages to the bitter end, to keep on bashing away at reconciliation, at love, at gentleness, at politeness and respect without the reward of good feelings, despite the thought of renewed pleasures with the woman or man down the road, then it is here that discipleship seems to be put to one side. I am not talking about situations where one of the parties is being abused, but often divorce will happen simply when the feeling of love is lost between the partners, when one of them goes off with another partner as a declaration of intent to divorce or when there has simply been no real communication between the partners for many months or years.

Divorce and the Freedom of the Spirit

In Romans 7:6 Romans 7:6 (NIV)

6 But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
Paul speaks of being dead to the old written code of the law to serve in the newness of the Spirit. In Galatians he also speaks of the freedom for which Christ set us free (Galatians 5:1 Galatians 5:1 (NIV)

1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
). How is this supposed freedom, as contrasted to the bondage of the law, to be understood in relation to Jesus' apparently very strict injunctions in Matthew 5:32Matthew 5:32 (NIV)

32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
? After all, this does rather sound like a new law to be followed by all disciples. What is the difference between a law to obey and a principle of perfection? The answer is the same as I have come across before in other supposed ethical dilemmas. It is always the Freedom of the Spirit that prevails. There is never an issue where we as disciples are bound by the letter of a law. This is what I call the Freedom of the Spirit. The moment that we perceive scripture (or indeed anything) as laying down a law then our antennae should be vibrating, sensing a new form of slavery, a new way for Satan to deprive us of our inheritance in Christ, a new way to inspire in us feelings of guilt and doubt as to whether we can live an obedient life. Indeed, often the moral dilemmas which law keeping provides are a very nice sidetrack for Satan to lead us down and away from the real perfection which is glorifying to God our father. Throughout the centuries Christians have faced ethical dilemmas based on tensions between what the scriptures appear to say and what their consciences tell them. Surely much of this arises because, as Paul says, "the letter of the law kills' (2 Cor 3:6). In this article I have described a scriptural principle which resolves this kind of dilemma, that of moral perfection, expressed through the freedom of the spirit, as contrasted with simply doing what feels right or desirable, and which deals in a human way with the ethics of discipleship. God made us human and being in his image we share his glory. Paul gives us an example of working out this principle in relation to divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 and that is where we shall turn in a moment after considering Jesus' own teaching in more detail.

The context of marriage and divorce in the New Testament era can be had from I will simply mention a few points of relevance.
When Jesus quotes the Old Testament in Matthew 5:32 he is quoting from the following passage "When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house", (Deut 24:1).

The traditional Jewish interpretation of this passage was that divorce was not normally permitted but for the cause of 'indecency' it was permitted. It was also permitted for abuse and neglect as per Exodus 21:10 - 11Exodus 21:10 - 11

10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.
. No one disputed the causes of abuse and neglect as valid causes of divorce in Judaism and we surmise that Jesus did not mention these things because he did not dispute them either. However, there was a dispute in Jesus's own day introduced by rabbi Hillel. This rabbi, with a more liberal approach, translated the text of Deut 24:1 meaning "matter of indecency" as "indecency and a matter" . This had the effect that a divorce paper could be written on any matter at all and paved the way for a much more liberal approach to divorce. Hillel became very influential in many areas. It seems that it is Hillel's teaching that Jesus is refuting. Jesus is saying that the scripture should stand as "except for the cause of unchastity" and not for any cause whatsoever.

This view is supported by the fact that in verse Matthew 5:31Matthew 5:31

31 It has been said, "Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce".
the exact words Jesus quotes do not appear in Deuteronomy 24:1Deuteronomy 24:1

1 If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,
. My Bible, like many, has a special way of indicating that a passage is a quotation from the Old Testament and it indicates here that these words are from the Old Testament. However, the words Jesus quotes, though taken from Deut. 24:1-3, are not exactly what is there in Deuteronomy. They give the impression that anyone can write a divorce out for any reason. This is what Jesus wants to refute. It seems that it is Hillel's translation that he is referring to not the actual Old Testament. Divorce was commonly accepted in Judaism for unchastity and for the reasons stated in Exodus 21:10-11 and this was the position for at least 200 years before the New Testament era as is known from records. In this case Jesus is clearly affirming the biblical tradition and the sanctity of marriage.

In the Greek tradition, separation and divorce were synonymous. If a husband or spouse left the family home without explanation then a divorce had actually happened. In our present society, there is a distinction between the two but if we follow the principle of perfection then we must conclude that separation should be avoided, it is not a permissible method of being rid of one another without actually getting divorced. As always, it is the way of perfection to do absolutely everything in your power to be reconciled. Whether divorce or separation, the breaking of the marriage bond for some personal whim is contrary to God's design for us. Thus, the teaching of Jesus on divorce is not "yet another law" to be obeyed to the letter but a principle of faithfulness and love expressed in marriage, whose permanence points to God's own permanence. However this principle is not followed so as to enslave us, and the Old Testament exceptions are still valid and serve as a pointer to a greater righteousness: marriage was made for man, not man for marriage. This freedom of application can only be given to the children of God, because only they are in full possession of the assets of the kingdom as heirs of the Father. Because we are in union with him, we own the rules, the principles, they are no longer owned by God and imposed upon us, we are jointly with God possessors of the full life of the universe, kings and priests to God.

This Freedom of the Spirit is also exemplified in Paul's treatment of marriage and divorce in 1 Cor 7. Again, more is available in Instone-Brewer and I shall just mention that Paul seems to be bringing two divergent traditions into line. In the Greek world, it was assumed that marriage would be terminated by divorce. However, in Judean society, it was assumed that marriage would be terminated by death and divorce, though fully recognised as valid, was the exception. On the other hand, Greek practice and law allowed both the man and the woman equal rights in the marriage: either party could divorce the other simply by walking out on them. Marriage contracts provided for the allocation of the dowry and other benefits as appropriate and the financial protections would kick into place automatically the divorce was actioned. However, in Jewish practice, only the man could divorce and the woman had no right so to do. This is no doubt why Jesus only referred to the man divorcing the woman. Paul, it seems, stressed the need to keep together as the norm for disciples (verses 10-14) but accepted situations where it was inevitable that a divorce would happen (15). In Greek law, this could happen without the other partner having any say in the matter and it would be wrong to insist that the Christian partner on the wrong end of this was bound not to marry for the rest of his or her life. Paul obviously holds the same view as Jesus on the matter and expands this to include a position which is equal for both men and women, in line with the Greek tradition. Paul's treatment of marriage and divorce is an excellent example of the ethics of perfection applied to the Freedom of the Spirit.

Cutting out your Eye

In the critique on the c) interpretation of the law above, I mentioned that I felt the church had a rather watery reputation in its ethics. One of the ways this can happen is that the interests we have in this world can creep up on us and grow to proportions where they begin to cloud our vision of Jesus' perfection. Somehow, our wealth just grows as we go through life and before long we will find ourselves cutting corners on perfection, a little white lie here and there to protect our money, reduce our tax bills and so on. Eventually we could become plainly miserly, lacking in mercy or even engage in fraud. Cutting out our eye means starting our adult life with clear resolutions not to acquire large amounts of wealth at all: once you get used to being rich you will lose the ability to share fellowship with your poorer brothers in Christ. If you have inherited wealth, give lots of it away, if you are running an ongoing business concern or you are a top level director of a company, make sure that you take a total of 3 months holiday completely away from business each year so that your mind does not become enmeshed in the business and you lose interest in studying the Bible or are unable to relate properly with your wife and children. Never imagine that if you give away too much you won't have enough to live on. And then, in marriage stop doing the things which will prise you apart and get into the habit of doing the things which will keep you together. Don't wait until your marriage is on the rocks before you take these steps. Make sure that your spouse is always your chief pleasure and do everything to that end.

We all have difficult decisions to make in order to let others see our good works and glorify our heavenly father. But at least we have a heavenly father, at least Jesus encourages us by assuming that as his disciples we are the children of God. Keeping laws is a pushover for those who are strong and well disciplined but the perfection of Jesus involves a daily dying for every disciple and we must consider how we do this right now, not when a situation of crisis arises. Discipleship is a way of life. Jesus said that everything was normal while the law and the prophets subsisted until John (Luke 16:16) but now the kingdom of God has been announced and because of it everybody is being hard pressed. The days of the law keepers were numbered when Jesus died on the cross, only the perfection of Jesus as a way of life in the power of the Spirit is sufficient for the kingdom of God.

©Martin Harris 2003