October 28, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: Divorce and wealth

See Matthew 19:1-30, Mark 10:1-31, Luke 16:18 and Luke 18:18-23

Nobody has ever said that it is easy to follow all Jesus’ teachings. Two examples are what he had to say about divorce and wealth during the time that he was teaching in the province of Perea.

In the first case, some Pharisees asked Jesus to take sides in a Jewish dispute over legitimate reasons for divorce. Hillel taught that Jews may divorce for all sorts of reasons while Shammai permitted it only in cases of adultery. Just as he had done earlier (Mt 5:31-32), Jesus came down on the strict teaching: “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.”

When reminded that Moses had permitted a man to give his wife a bill of divorce and dismiss her, Jesus said that he had done that only “because of the hardness of your hearts” and it wasn’t like that in the beginning. (He was not asked about a woman initiating a divorce because neither Greek nor Roman law permitted it.)

Only in Matthew’s Gospel does Jesus seem to suggest a possible out when he says, “Whoever divorces his wife [unless the marriage is unlawful] and marries another commits adultery.” It’s believed that Matthew added that exceptive clause because of a situation peculiar to his community: the violation of Mosaic Law forbidding marriage between persons of certain blood or legal relationship, considered to be incest. Other than that, Jesus forbade divorce in any valid marriage.

As for wealth, the three Synoptic Gospels all tell the story of the rich man with their own special touches. Generally, though, a sincere wealthy man asked Jesus what he had to do to gain eternal life and Jesus told him to keep the commandments. He had always done that, he said, but he wanted to do more. So Jesus told him that if he wanted to be perfect to sell his possessions and give to the poor, then follow him. The man went away sad because, as much as he wanted to be perfect, he was very rich.

That prompted Jesus to declare how difficult it is for wealthy people to enter the kingdom of God because of their attachments to their possessions. All this astonished his disciples because the Old Testament taught that wealth and material goods are considered a sign of God’s favor. Then Jesus told them that salvation is not possible for wealthy humans, but is possible for God.

“But what about us?” Peter asked, reminding Jesus that his disciples had given up everything to follow him. Jesus assured him that everyone who gives up his or her family and material possessions for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel would “receive a hundred times more in this present age and eternal life in the age to come.”

Jesus obviously did not, and does not, call everyone to follow him to the extent his disciples did. But Jesus still loved the rich man, Mark’s Gospel says. Not everyone can be perfect. †


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