Hardness of Heart



MATTHEW 5:27-30


MATTHEW 19:1-12




Divorce. It’s a subject many ministers dare not talk about. I might put it under the category of sermons you preach if you want people to leave your church or if you want to get fired. I know some of you have either been through a divorce or know someone who has. And perhaps you are wondering how this ancient debate about Jewish divorce law applies to us today? Well, in my study I found it applies more directly than perhaps even I would have thought.

As the This American Life Episode Sunrise Sun-Get reports, “The news was pretty startling. A group of men, including a Brooklyn rabbi named Mendel Epstein, had been arrested for conspiring to kidnap a husband and torture him until he gave his wife a get. The get is simply a piece of paper a husband hands his wife saying, essentially, it’s over. We’re divorced. Jews can get civil divorces like anyone else. But if you’re an Orthodox Jew, strictly following Jewish law, the get is the only real way to end a marriage.” As Mark Oppenheimer, an NPR religion correspondent, tells us, usually the issuing of the Get by the husband goes off without a hitch. But sometimes the husband is less than cooperative. And that is where Rabbi Epstein comes in. To quote Oppenheimer,

“According to the complaint, Epstein talked about forcing compliance through the use of tough guys who utilize electric cattle prods, karate, handcuffs, and placing plastic bags over the heads of the husbands.” But as Oppenheimer points out, when the story first broke, what got lost was that it wasn’t about “cash, karate, and cattle prods, it’s also about women who were stuck, essentially trapped in failed marriages.”

Gital Dodelson is an Orthodox Jewish woman whose husband is using the Get against her to get out of her all he can. He wants $2 million and 50/50 custody, even though she lives in New Jersey and he on Staten Island. Gital reports that at one time, her husband demanded that they get rid of the coordinator who is overseeing the custody of their son. Another time, he insisted they agree that when their four-year-old son was old enough, they tell him the divorce was all his mother’s fault. Gital admits that she should have saw it coming. In her words,

“I was young and dumb. And there were a lot of things that maybe should have been red flags that I wasn’t paying attention to. While we were dating, he told me once that he’s always right. Now, I laughed because I don’t know who says that when– no one says that seriously, so I assumed he was joking. And he wasn’t joking.

A week into my marriage, I was looking back and kicking myself because, I mean, I should have stopped dating him right there. But I didn’t realize. And by the time I realized, it was too late.” Orthodox Jews have a term for Gital. They call her an agunah. To quote Oppenheimer, “That’s the word in Hebrew for a woman whose husband refuses to give her a divorce. Literally it means a chained wife.”

When I first heard this story several months ago, my first thought was this is exactly what Jesus was dealing with, though perhaps without the karate and cattle prods. In today’s passage, Jesus is addressing the same root problem, though with different results. The basis of Jewish divorce law at the time, and Orthodox Jewish Law today, comes from Deuteronomy 24. Again, just as in the case of adultery, there is a double standard in divorce. According to the old interpretation of the Law, a man could sleep with another woman as long as she wasn’t married, but a woman had to remain pure and chaste. With divorce, a man could divorce a woman, but a woman could not divorce a man. Jesus, as we learned last week, challenged this double standard involving adultery, saying that if a man lusts in his heart he commits adultery, whether the woman he is lusting after is married or not. With divorce, the debate at the time was not whether a woman could divorce her husband, but upon what grounds a man could divorce his wife.

At the time, there were two rabbinical schools of interpretation. The Hillel school argued that a man could divorce his wife for any reason, even if she cooked a bad meal, or the husband found someone else to be more attractive and wanted to replace her. Certainly, the Pharisees in Matthew 19 are referencing to this school of thought. The Shammi school taught that only adultery was grounds for divorce. In Matthew 19, which is meant as a deeper explanation of Matthew 5:31, the Pharisees are asking Jesus what is lawful, what is required of them, what is their lowest level of responsibility. Perhaps they are also trying to trap Jesus. We may remember that King Herod divorced his wife, and John the Baptist challenged him on that issue, and got decapitated.

But we should note that Jesus doesn’t talk about what is lawful; instead, he talks about our purpose, our relationship to God, how we were made. And when asked why then Moses allowed for divorce, Jesus responds it was a divine concession because of ”your hardness of heart.” The Greek word for hard means, “fierce, hard, harsh, rough, stiff, violent, offensive, intolerable.” The heart in Biblical thought is the very center of one’s being. Not just what we may think of as our emotions, but our mind, our spirit, our soul, the very thing that drives us. Jesus is saying at the very center of your beings, you have forgotten what it means to be human, you have forgotten what it means to be made in the image of God.

And he has come to set both men and women free. For at the time, a woman who was dismissed from her husband would have been sure to face stigma and poverty. The Pharisees ask what is permissible, what rules they have to follow. Jesus points them to their hearts and their relationship with God. As John 8:36 declares, “If the Son sets you free you are free indeed.” His point in this passage is to set both women and men free from the bondage of sin. But 2,000 years later, it appears that the Orthodox Jewish community has not heeded his teaching.

And to be fair, neither has the rest of the world, or even the vast majority of the Christian Church. This teaching on divorce was meant to set people free, but more often than not, whether it is interpreted strictly to never allow divorce or to allow divorce because you have lost the feeling of love and are going through hard times in your marriage, I have found the way this scripture has been used has left men and women in chains, whether they remain married or not. And we can not bear it any longer. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. And we must know what Jesus is saying, both then and now. I think the key to this passage is this notion of hardness of heart. So today I want you to understand:

  1. What exactly hardness of heart is and how this changes our idea of sin
  2. How understanding hardness of heart reframes our understanding on divorce and remarriage.

First, let us think about what hardness of heart is. E. La B. Cherbonnier, in his book Hardness Of Heart, argues that the term hardness of heart encapsulates the Biblical idea of sin. Cherbonnier argues that the Bible sees a world of false gods vs. the one True God Yahweh. The Bible presents to us a question of commitment, of covenant, of relationship, of binding oneself to the True God and forsaking the false gods. As Martin Luther aptly put it, “Whatever, then, thy heart clings to and relies upon, that is properly thy god” (Cherbonnier, pg 40).

Religion is described by the philosopher Karl Marx as the opiate of the masses. And certainly we all could name houses of worship, even those that call themselves Christian, that incarcerate rather than liberate, that chain us down rather than set us free. But we must admit that the world’s definition of freedom – that being a lack of restraint, that being having no one telling us what to do – is a poor definition of freedom. I am a single man, and I largely have the ability to do what I want with my money and free time. But being in a serious relationship for the first time in my life is teaching me there is a deeper freedom of love one finds when one shares life with another. Sometimes marriage is described, “as the old ball and chain.” Relationships are sometimes seen as baggage, sometimes thought to tie us down. But Yahweh describes himself as Israel’s husband and presents to Israel a marriage covenant that is liberating. As the Old Testament suggests to us, God is a God of steadfast love. And as the New Testament suggests, God is a God of agape love, a love that seeks the ultimate good of the other. This is why God’s relationship to Israel is described as a marriage in the Old Testament and Christ’s relationship to the Church is described as a marriage in the New Testament. Because it is a love that binds together, a love that does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth (1 Cor 13). The book of Malachi tells us that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). But this is first about Israel leaving Yahweh in search of foreign gods. Indeed, Cherbonnier argues that sin is not at its core about doing bad things. To quote Cherbonnier, “Sin is rather any orientation of the heart which destroys agape and ‘bad works’ simply its visible manifestation” (Cherbonnier, 62).

You see, the church has fallen into two polar opposite errors when it comes to sin. First, is the error of Pelagius, defining sin as the breaking of the rules, and thus we fight sin by focusing on keeping the rules. This is basically the heresy of moralism. Jesus’ words on divorce and adultery may sound harsh, but we must also look at how Jesus lives them out. When a woman is brought to him by a crowd to be stoned for the sin of adultery, Jesus convicts the crowd by saying, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone,” while also calling the woman to “go and sin no more” (John 8). In Cherbonnier’s words, “The last word need not be retribution, but redemption.” Jesus did not hang out with the harlots and sinners because he approved of their behavior, and just because we believe in Jesus and are covered by his grace does not mean he approves of our behavior either. Instead, as Cherbonnier argues, he hung out with them because “they were not desperate to prove their own virtue, they still retained the two qualities without which no one can hear him. They could be honest with themselves, and they still had a heart.”

The second error Christianity fell into in regards to sin is to focus on sin being something intrinsic and inescapable in human nature. To quote Cherbonnier, “In their struggle against Pelagius and against late medieval Catholicism, respectively, St. Augustine and the Reformers formulated for all time and in unmistakable terms Christianity’s case against moralism. The tragedy, however, was that in doing so they fell into the opposite error. They did not consistently oppose moralism with a biblical view of sin but lapsed instead into a disparagement of human nature” (Cherbonnier, 84). The truth is both Augustine and Pelagius touched on parts of the truth but were both unwilling to accept the whole truth. The truth is we are broken and beautiful. The truth is we are good and bad. The truth is our hearts long for Eden, for the ideal, but we also fall short of that ideal.

There is an alternative to saying we are masters of our own fate or saying we are wretched creatures who are cursed to be born. To quote Dr. Henry Cloud, author of Changes That Heal, “Acceptance of good and bad is the biblical alternative. It’s called grace and truth. In this alternative, we deny neither the ideal nor the bad. We accept and forgive the bad. We accept and forgive the bad, while clinging to the ideal as an unrealized goal that we strive for in an atmosphere full of acceptance. We stand in grace. This strategy does not split the good and the bad, nor does it get angry and condemning, but it grasps onto both the good and the bad at the same time“ (Cloud, 181). Cloud agrees with Cherbonnier in that it is agape love, love that does not let go, but love that also sets limits for us, that defines our relationship to God and our relationship to others. Cloud tells his readers that often he asks his patients if he gave them a baseball bat and gave them permission to bash his face in, would they do it? To quote Cloud, “People who say they would not hit me with the baseball bat because ‘That is a bad thing to do’ are not basing their statements on the highest Christian morality. Since condemnation is out of the picture for the Christian, the real reason is the one based on love: ‘No, because it would hurt you.’ Jesus says this when he says the whole law could be summed up in the law of love. When we see our failures and sin as a lack of love for another person, instead of ‘badness’, then we have moved to a more mature way of seeing issues of good and bad” (Cloud, 185).

This is what it means to have a heart open to the true God and open to true relationship with others. Knowing this, what then can we say about divorce and remarriage in this passage? Many people’s minds immediately go to the exception clause in this passage. Because the teaching sounds harsh, we want a way out of it, so we grasp onto any lifeline we can find. This sermon hasn’t just been an academic exercise for me. As some of you may know, my girlfriend whom I respect and love deeply is divorced and we wouldn’t be dating unless we both had our eyes set towards marriage. But if I am to take this passage seriously, I must ask myself the question if I risk making her an adulteress if I do marry her. I used to say I didn’t believe in divorce. And before I met Kari, the idea of dating someone who was divorced never entered my mind. But all last year, I lived in a retreat center, full of committed Christians, most of whom were divorced, some of whom were remarried. This fall, the Lord had me pray for a woman who had been struggling through a divorce. I prayed that she would be reconciled to her husband. After I prayed that prayer for weeks, I felt I had prayed the wrong prayer, though I knew not why. And now I have met Kari. And she has been full of pure grace towards me. I want to know what the exceptions are. I want to know if my relationship with her is pleasing to the Lord.

In regards to the exception clause in this passage, the word for “sexual immorality” is where we get our modern word porn. It is a very broad term; the word itself implies treating sex as a transaction or exchange, though it is basically used in the New Testament to describe any sexual relations outside of marriage. And besides, in last week’s passage, Jesus expands adultery to mean lustful thoughts. So it seems he doesn’t agree with Hillel, that group who will allow divorce for any reason, and he doesn’t agree with Shammi, which allows for divorce only for physically cheating on your spouse. The exception is unclear, and hotly debated today. Perhaps that is why Paul expands on the exception in 1 Corinthians 7 to say if an unbelieving spouse leaves a believing one, this is grounds for divorce and remarriage. It seems Paul, who met the risen Christ and perhaps had a better sense of his intentions than any of us, recognized that the exception Jesus made was meant to guide people, not to be a hard and fast rule.

But the focus on the exception betrays the state of our hearts. It reveals that our hearts have become hard. That we have become cynical about God’s intentions towards us. And thus, Jesus brings us back to the beginning. To quote Jesus, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” We should note that Jesus said let no man separate what God has brought together. The emphasis here is on what should be done, not that a separation can not occur. We all know in many ways that separation can and does happen, and perhaps once separated, the two cannot and should not be brought back together.

I know you want an answer. I know you want God’s “okay.” I do, too. But the thing is, we are asking the wrong questions. And until we know the right questions, we will not know God’s answers for each of our lives. The right questions are, is it loving? Does it hurt? Does it heal? Is there grace? Is there truth? Where does my allegiance lie? In what I have done, in what I am doing, in what I will do, am I serving the One True God? Or do I suffer from hardness of heart?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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