Legalism

He set out from there and went to the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Then crowds converged on Him again and, as He usually did, He began teaching them once more. Some Pharisees approached Him to test Him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

He replied to them, “What did Moses command you?”

They said, “Moses permitted us to write divorce papers and send her away.”

But Jesus told them, “He wrote this commandment for you because of the hardness of your hearts. But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female.

For this reason a man will leave
his father and mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two will become one flesh.

So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, man must not separate.” (Mark 10:1-9)

The purpose of legalism is to find a way of doing what you want without getting into trouble when you do it. Many of those who were part of the religious establishment only wanted to know all the rules so they could live their lives without getting into trouble. They didn’t love their neighbor. They didn’t love God.

In Jesus’ day, there were two schools of thought among the Pharisees concerning the issue of divorce. One group believed that divorce could happen for even the most trivial of reasons, such as a wife burning the dinner. The other school of thought believed that divorce was permissible only in the most extreme of circumstances: adultery. The Pharisees wanted to know how they could get out of their marriages.

So Jesus responded to their question with a question. He hoped to jar them from their waywardness: what did God say about divorce? They responded merely with the relevant passage from the Bible, which in their mind they found inadequate, since God hadn’t bothered to explain why they could get divorced. Jesus gave them another biblical passage, explaining that divorce did not exist because God liked it, but because human beings were flawed and needed a way out of their mistakes.

Just because something is legal, Jesus pointed out, didn’t make it a good thing or the right thing. The Pharisees were missing the whole point of the Bible and were asking the wrong question. It’s easy to get so caught up in our own issues that we entirely miss God’s issues.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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