Tuesday, May 30th, 2023
the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
Barclay's Daily Study Bible Daily Study Bible
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Matthew 19". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ dsb/ matthew-19.html. 1956-1959.
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Matthew 19". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
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JEWISH MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE ( Matthew 19:1-9 )
19:1-9 When Jesus had finished these words, he left Galilee, and came into the districts of Judaea which are on the far side of the Jordan. Many crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
Pharisees came to him, trying to test him. "It is lawful," they said, "for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and he said, 'For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? They are therefore no longer two, but one flesh. What, then, God has joined together, let no man separate." They said to him, "Why, then, did Moses lay it down to give her a big of divorcement, and to divorce her?" He said to them, "It was to meet the hardness of your heart that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives; but in the beginning that was not the state of things which was intended. I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of fornication, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries her who has been divorced commits adultery."
Here Jesus is dealing with what was in his day, as it is in our own, a vexed and burning question. Divorce was something about which there was no unanimity among the Jews; and the Pharisees were deliberately trying to involve Jesus in controversy.
No nation has ever had a higher view of marriage than the Jews. Marriage was a sacred duty. To remain unmarried after the age of twenty, except in order to concentrate upon the study of the Law, was to break a positive commandment to "be fruitful and multiply." He who had no children "slew his own posterity," and "lessened the image of God upon earth." "When husband and wife are worthy, the glory of God is with them."
Marriage was not to be entered into carelessly or lightly. Josephus outlines the Jewish approach to marriage, based on the Mosaic teaching (Antiquities of the Jews 4. 8. 23). A man must marry a virgin of good parentage. He must never corrupt another man's wife; and he must not marry a woman who had been a slave or a harlot. If a man accused his wife of not being a virgin when he married her, he must bring proofs of his accusation. Her father or brother must defend her. If the girl was vindicated he must take her in marriage, and could never again put her away, except for the most flagrant sin. If the accusation was proved to have been reckless and malicious, the man who made it must be beaten with forty stripes save one, and must pay fifty shekels to the girl's father. But if the charge was proved and the girl found guilty, if she was one of the ordinary people, the law was that she must be stoned to death, and if she was the daughter of a priest, she must be burned alive.
If a man seduced a girl who was espoused to be married, and the seduction took place with her consent, both he and she must be put to death. If in a lonely place or where there was no help present, the man forced the girl into sin, the man alone was put to death. If a man seduced an unespoused girl, he must marry her, or, if her father was unwilling for him to marry her, he must pay the father fifty shekels.
The Jewish laws of marriage and of purity aimed very high. Ideally divorce was hated. God had said, "I hate divorce" ( Malachi 2:16). It was said that the very altar wept tears when a man divorced the wife of his youth.
But ideal and actuality did not go hand in hand. In the situation there were two dangerous and damaging elements.
First, in the eyes of Jewish law a woman was a thing. She was the possession of her father, or of her husband as the case might be; and, therefore, she had, technically, no legal rights at all. Most Jewish marriages were arranged either by the parents or by professional match-makers. A girl might be engaged to be married in childhood, and was often engaged to be married to a man whom she had never seen. There was this safeguard--when she came to the age of twelve she could repudiate her father's choice of husband. But in matters of divorce, the general law was that the initiative must lie with the husband. The law ran: "A woman may be divorced with or without her consent, but a man can be divorced only with his consent." The woman could never initiate the process of divorce; she could not divorce, she had to be divorced.
There were certain safeguards. If a man divorced his wife on any other grounds than those of flagrant immorality, he must return her dowry; and this must have been a barrier to irresponsible divorce. The courts might put pressure on a man to divorce his wife, in the case, for instance, of refusal to consummate the marriage, of impotence, or of proved inability to support her properly. A wife could force her husband to divorce her, if he contracted a loathsome disease, such as leprosy, or if he was a tanner, which involved the gathering of dog's dung, or if he proposed to make her leave the Holy Land. But, by and large, the law was that the woman had no legal rights, and the right to divorce lay entirely with the husband.
Second, the process of divorce was fatally easy. That process was founded on the passage in the Mosaic Law to which Jesus' questioners referred: "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..." ( Deuteronomy 24:1). The bill of divorcement was a simple, one-sentence statement that the husband dismissed his wife. Josephus writes, "He that desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever (and many such causes happen among men) let him, in writing, give assurance that he will never use her as his wife any more; for by this means she may be at liberty to marry another husband." The one safeguard against the dangerous ease of the divorce process was the fact that, unless the woman was a notorious sinner, her dowry must be returned.
JEWISH GROUNDS OF DIVORCE ( Matthew 19:1-9 continued)
One of the great problems of Jewish divorce lies within the Mosaic enactment. That enactment states that a man may divorce his wife, "if she finds no favour in his eyes, because he has found some indecency in her." The question is--how is the phrase some indecency to be interpreted?
On this point the Jewish Rabbis were violently divided, and it was here that Jesus' questioners wished to involve him. The school of Shammai were quite clear that a matter of indecency meant fornication, and fornication alone, and that for no other cause could a wife by put away. Let a woman be as mischievous as Jezebel, so long as she did not commit adultery she could not be put away. On the other hand, the school of Hillel interpreted this matter of indecency in the widest possible way. They said that it meant that a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner, if she spun, or went with unbound hair, or spoke to men in the streets, if she spoke disrespectfully of his parents in his presence, if she was a brawling woman whose voice could be heard in the next house. Rabbi Akiba even went the length of saying that the phrase if she finds no favour in his eyes meant that a man could divorce his wife if he found a woman whom he liked better and considered more beautiful.
The tragedy was that, as was to be expected, it was the school of Hillel whose teachings prevailed; the marriage bond was often lightly held, and divorce on the most trivial ground was sadly common.
To complete the picture certain further facts must be added. It is relevant to note that under Rabbinic law divorce was compulsory for two reasons. It was compulsory for adultery. "A woman who has committed adultery must be divorced." Second, divorce was compulsory for sterility. The object of marriage was the procreation of children; and if after ten years a couple were still childless divorce was compulsory. In this case the woman might remarry, but the same regulation governed the second marriage.
Two further interesting Jewish regulations in regard to divorce must be added. First, desertion was never a cause for divorce. If there was desertion, death must be proved. The only relaxation was that, whereas all other facts needed the corroboration of two witnesses in Jewish law, one witness was enough to prove the death of a partner in marriage who had vanished and not come back.
Secondly, strangely enough, insanity was not a ground of divorce. If the wife became insane, the husband could not divorce her, for, if she was divorced, she would have no protector in her helplessness. There is a certain poignant mercy in that regulation. If the husband became insane, divorce was impossible, for in that case he was incapable of writing a bill of divorcement, and without such a bill, initiated by him, there could be no divorce.
When Jesus was asked this question, at the back of it was a situation which was vexed and troubled. He was to answer it in a way which came as a staggering surprise to both parties in the dispute, and which suggested a radical change in the whole situation.
THE ANSWER OF JESUS ( Matthew 19:1-9 continued)
In effect, the Pharisees were asking Jesus whether he favoured the strict view of Shammai or the laxer view of Hillel; and thereby seeking to involve him in controversy.
Jesus' answer was to take things back to the very beginning, back to the ideal of creation. In the beginning, he said, God created Adam and Eve, man and woman. Inevitably, in the very circumstances of the creation story, Adam and Eve were created for each other and for no one else; their union was necessarily complete and unbreakable. Now, says Jesus, these two are the pattern and the symbol of all who were to come. As A. H. McNeile puts it, "Each married couple is a reproduction of Adam and Eve, and their union is therefore no less indissoluble."
The argument is quite clear. In the case of Adam and Eve divorce was not only inadvisable; it was not only wrong; it was completely impossible, for the very simple reason that there was no one else whom either of them could possibly marry. Therefore Jesus was laying down the principle that an divorce is wrong. Thus early we must note that it is not a law; it is a principle, which is a very different thing.
Here, at once, the Pharisees saw a point of attack. Moses ( Deuteronomy 24:1 http://www.crossbooks.com/verse.asp?ref=Dt+24%3A1) had said that, if a man wished to divorce his wife because she had found no favour in his eyes, and because of some matter of indecency in her, he could give her a bill of divorce and the marriage was dissolved. Here was the very chance the Pharisees wanted. They could now say to Jesus, "Are you saying Moses was wrong? Are you seeking to abrogate the divine law which was given to Moses? Are you setting yourself above Moses as a law-giver?"
Jesus' answer was that what Moses said was not in fact a law, but nothing more than a concession. Moses did not command divorce; at the best he only permitted it in order to regulate a situation which would have become chaotically promiscuous. The Mosaic regulation was only a concession to fallen human nature. In Genesis 2:23-24 http://www.crossbooks.com/verse.asp?ref=+% Genesis 23:1-20 A23-24 , we have the ideal which God intended, the ideal that two people who marry should become so indissolubly one that they are one flesh. Jesus' answer was: "True, Moses permitted divorce; but that was a concession in view of a lost ideal. The ideal of marriage is to be found in the unbreakable, perfect union of Adam and Eve. That is what God meant marriage to be."
It is now that we are face to face with one of the most real and most acute difficulties in the New Testament. What did Jesus mean? There is even a prior question--what did Jesus say? The difficulty is--and there is no escaping it--that Mark and Matthew report the words of Jesus differently.
I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity,
and marries another commits adultery ( Matthew 19:9).
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery
against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another,
she commits adultery ( Mark 10:11-12).
Luke has still another version of this saying:
Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits
adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her
husband commits adultery. ( Luke 16:18).
There is the comparatively small difficulty that Mark implies that a woman can divorce her husband, a process which, as we have seen, was not possible under Jewish law. But the explanation is that Jesus must have well known that under Gentile law a woman could divorce her husband and in that particular clause he was looking beyond the Jewish world. The great difficulty is that both Mark and Luke make the prohibition of divorce absolute; with them there are no exceptions whatsoever. But Matthew has one saving clause--divorce is permitted on the ground of adultery. In this case there is no real escape from a decision. The only possible way out would be to say that in point of fact, under Jewish law, divorce for adultery was in any event compulsory, as we have seen, and that therefore Mark and Luke did not think that they need mention it; but then so was divorce for sterility.
In the last analysis we must choose between Matthew's version of this saying and that of Mark and Luke. We think there is little doubt that the version of Mark and Luke is right. There are two reasons. Only the absolute prohibition of separation will satisfy the ideal of the Adam and Eve symbolic complete union. And the staggered words of the disciples imply this absolute prohibition, for, in effect, they say ( Matthew 19:10) that if marriage is as binding as that, it is safer not to marry at all. There is little doubt that here we have Jesus laying down the principle--mark again, not, the law--that the ideal of marriage is a union which cannot be broken. There is much more to be said--but here the ideal, as God meant it, is laid down, and Matthew's saving clause is a later interpretation inserted in the light of the practice of the Church when he wrote.
THE HIGH IDEAL ( Matthew 19:1-9 continued)
Let us now go on to see the high ideal of the married state which Jesus sets before those who are willing to accept his commands. We will see that the Jewish ideal gives us the basis of the Christian ideal. The Jewish term for marriage was Kiddushin. Kiddushin meant sanctification or consecration. It was used to describe something which was dedicated to God as his exclusive and peculiar possession. Anything totally surrendered to God was kiddushin. This meant that in marriage the husband was consecrated to the wife, and the wife to the husband. The one became the exclusive possession of the other, as much as an offering became the exclusive possession of God. That is what Jesus meant when he said that for the sake of marriage a man would leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife; and that is what he meant when he said that man and wife became so totally one that they could be called one flesh. That was God's ideal of marriage as the old Genesis story saw it ( Genesis 2:24), and that is the ideal which Jesus restated. Clearly that idea has certain consequences.
(i) This total unity means that marriage is not given for one act in life, however important that act may be, but for all. That is to say that, while sex is a supremely important part of marriage, it is not the whole of it. Any marriage entered into simply because an imperious physical desire can be satisfied in no other way is foredoomed to failure. Marriage is given, not that two people should do one thing together, but that they should do all things together.
(ii) Another way to put this is to say that marriage is the total union of two personalities. Two people can exist together in a variety of ways. One can be the dominant partner to such an extent that nothing matters but his wishes and his convenience and his aims in life, while the other is totally subservient and exists only to serve the desires and the needs of the other. Again, two people can exist in a kind of armed neutrality, where there is continuous tension and continuous opposition, and continuous collision between their wishes. Life can be one long argument, and the relationship is based at best on an uneasy compromise. Again, two people can base their relationship on a more or less resigned acceptance of each other. To all intents and purposes, while they live together, each goes his or her own way, and each has his or her own life. They share the same house but it would be an exaggeration to say that they share the same home.
Clearly none of these relationships is the ideal. The ideal is that in the marriage state two people find the completing of their personalities. Plato had a strange idea. He has a kind of legend that originally human beings were double what they are now. Because their size and strength made them arrogant, the gods cut them in halves; and real happiness comes when the two halves find each other again, and marry, and so complete each other.
Marriage should not narrow life; it should complete it. For both partners it must bring a new fulness, a new satisfaction, a new contentment into life. It is the union of two personalities in which the two complete each other. That does not mean that adjustments, and even sacrifices, have not to be made; but it does mean that the final relationship is fuller, more joyous, more satisfying than any life in singleness could be.
(iii) We may put this even more practically--marriage must be a sharing of all the circumstances of life. There is a certain danger in the delightful time of courtship. In such days it is almost inevitable that the two people will see each other at their best. These are days of glamour. They see each other in their best clothes; usually they are bent on some pleasure together; often money has not yet become a problem. But in marriage two people must see each other when they are not at their best; when they are tired and weary; when children bring the upset to a house and home that children must bring; when money is tight, and food and clothes and bills become a problem; when moonlight and roses become the kitchen sink and walking the floor at night with a crying baby. Unless two people are prepared to face the routine of life as well as the glamour of life together, marriage must be a failure.
(iv) From that there follows one thing, which is not universally true, but which is much more likely than not to be true. Marriage is most likely to be successful after a fairly long acquaintanceship, when the two people involved really know each other's background. Marriage means constantly living together. It is perfectly possible for ingrained habits, unconscious mannerisms, ways of upbringing to collide. The fuller the knowledge people have of each other before they decide indissolubly to link their lives together the better. This is not to deny that there can be such a thing as love at first sight, and that love can conquer all things, but the fact is that the greater mutual knowledge people have of each other the more likely they are to succeed in making their marriage what it ought to be.
(v) All this leads us to a final practical conclusion--the basis of marriage is togetherness, and the basis of togetherness is nothing other than considerateness. If marriage is to succeed, the partners must always be thinking more of each other than of themselves. Selfishness is the murderer of any personal relationship; and that is truest of all when two people are bound together in marriage.
Somerset Maughan tells of his mother. She was lovely and charming and beloved by all. His father was not by any means handsome, and had few social and surface gifts and graces. Someone once said to his mother, "When everyone is in love with you, and when you could have anyone you liked, how can you remain faithful to that ugly little man you married?" She answered simply: "He never hurts my feelings." There could be no finer tribute.
The true basis of marriage is not complicated and recondite--it is simply the love which thinks more of the happiness of others than it thinks of its own, the love which is proud to serve, which is able to understand, and therefore always able to forgive. That is to say, it is the Christlike love, which knows that in forgetting self it will find self, and that in losing itself it will complete itself.
THE REALIZATION OF THE IDEAL ( Matthew 19:10-12 )
19:10-12 His disciples said to him, "If the only reason for divorce between a man and his wife stands thus, it is not expedient to marry." He said to them, "Not all can receive this saying, but only those to whom it has been granted to do so. There are eunuchs who were born so from their mothers' womb; and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let him who is able to receive this saying, receive it."
Here we come to the necessary amplification of what has gone before. When the disciples heard the ideal of marriage which Jesus set before them, they were daunted. Many a rabbinic saying would come into the mind of the disciples. The Rabbis had many sayings about unhappy marriages. "Among those who will never behold the face of Gehinnom is he who has had a bad wife." Such a man is saved from hell because he has expiated his sins on earth! "Among those whose life is not life is the man who is ruled by his wife." "A bad wife is like leprosy to her husband. What is the remedy? Let him divorce her and be cured of his leprosy." It was even laid down: "If a man has a bad wife, it is a religious duty to divorce her."
To men who had been brought up to listen to sayings like that the uncompromising demand of Jesus was an almost frightening thing. Their reaction was that, if marriage is so final and binding a relationship and if divorce is forbidden, it is better not to marry at all, for there is no escape route as they understood it--from an evil situation. Jesus gives two answers.
(i) He says quite clearly that not everyone can in fact accept this situation but only those to whom it has been granted to do so. In other words, only the Christian can accept the Christian ethic. Only the man who has the continual help of Jesus Christ and the continual guidance of the Holy Spirit can build up the personal relationship which the ideal of marriage demands. Only by the help of Jesus Christ can he develop the sympathy, the understanding, the forgiving spirit, the considerate love, which true marriage requires. Without that help these things are impossible. The Christian ideal of marriage involves the prerequisite that the partners are Christian.
Here is a truth which goes far beyond this particular application of it. We continually hear people say, "We accept the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount; but why bother about the divinity of Jesus, and his Resurrection, and his risen presence, and his Holy Spirit, and all that kind of thing? We accept that he was a good man, and that his teaching is the highest teaching ever given. Why not leave it at that, and get on with the living out of that teaching and never mind the theology?" The answer is quite simple. No one can live out Jesus Christ's teaching without Jesus Christ. And if Jesus was only a great and good man, even if he was the greatest and the best of men, then at most he is only a great example. His teaching becomes possible only in the conviction that he is not dead but present here to help us to carry it out. The teaching of Christ demands the presence of Christ; otherwise it is only an impossible--and a torturing--ideal. So, then, we have to face the fact that Christian marriage is possible only for Christians.
(ii) The passage finishes with a very puzzling verse about eunuchs. It is quite possible that Jesus said this on some other occasion, and that Matthew puts it here because he is collecting Jesus' teaching on marriage, for it was always Matthew's custom to gather together teaching on a particular subject.
A eunuch is a man who is unsexed. Jesus distinguishes three classes of people. There are those who, through some physical imperfection or deformity, can never be capable of sexual intercourse. There are those who have been made eunuchs by men. This represents customs which are strange to western civilization. Quite frequently in royal palaces servants, especially those who had to do with the royal harem, were deliberately castrated. Also, quite frequently priests who served in temples were castrated; this, for instance, is true of the priests who served in the Temple of Diana in Ephesus.
Then Jesus talks about those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We must be quite clear that this is not to be taken literally. One of the tragedies of the early Church was the case of Origen. When he was young he took this text quite literally and castrated himself, although he came to see that he was in error. Clement of Alexandria comes nearer it. He says, "The true eunuch is not he who cannot, but he who will not indulge in fleshly pleasures." By this phrase Jesus meant those who for the sake of the Kingdom deliberately bade farewell to marriage and to parenthood and to human physical love.
How can that be? It can happen that a man has to choose between some call to which he is challenged and human love. It has been said, "He travels the fastest who travels alone." A man may feel that he can do the work of some terrible slum parish only by living in circumstances in which marriage and a home are impossible. He may feel that he must accept some missionary call to a place where he cannot in conscience take a wife and beget children. He may even find that he is in love and then is offered an exacting task which the person he loves refuses to share. Then he must choose between human love and the task to which Christ calls him.
Thank God it is not often that such a choice comes to a man; but there are those who have taken upon themselves voluntarily vows of chastity, celibacy, purity, poverty, abstinence, continence. That will not be the way for the ordinary man, but the world would be a poorer place were it not for those who accept the challenge to travel alone for the sake of the work of Christ.
MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE ( Matthew 19:10-12 continued)
It would be wrong to leave this matter without some attempt to see what it actually means for the question of divorce at the present time.
We may at the beginning note this. What Jesus laid down was a principle and not a law. To turn this saying of Jesus into a law is gravely to misunderstand it. The Bible does not give us laws; it gives principles which we must prayerfully and intelligently apply to any given situation.
Of the Sabbath the Bible says, "In it you shall not do any work" ( Exodus 20:10). In point of fact we know that a complete cessation of work was never possible in any civilization. In an agricultural civilization cattle had still to be tended and cows had to be milked no matter what the day was. In a developed civilization certain public services must go on, or transport will stand still and water, light, and heat will not be available. In any home, especially where there are children, there has to be a certain amount of work.
A principle can never be quoted as a final law; a principle must always be applied to the individual situation. We cannot therefore settle the question of divorce simply by quoting the words of Jesus. That would be legalism; we must take the words of Jesus as a principle to apply to the individual cases as they meet us. That being so, certain truths emerge.
(i) Beyond all doubt the ideal is that marriage should be an indissoluble union between two people, and that marriage should be entered into as a total union of two personalities, not designed to make one act possible, but designed to make all life a satisfying and mutually completing fellowship. That is the essential basis on which we must proceed.
(ii) But life is not, and never can be, a completely tidy and orderly business. Into life there is bound to come sometimes the element of the unpredictable. Suppose, then, that two people enter into the marriage relationship; suppose they do so with the highest hopes and the highest ideals; and then suppose that something unaccountably goes wrong, and that the relationship which should be life's greatest joy becomes hell upon earth. Suppose all available help is called in to mend this broken and terrible situation. Suppose the doctor is called in to deal with physical things; the psychiatrist to deal with psychological things; the priest or the minister to deal with spiritual things. Suppose the trouble still to be there; suppose one of the partners to the marriage to be so constituted physically, mentally or spiritually that marriage is an impossibility, and suppose that discovery could not have been made until the experiment itself had been made--are then these two people to be for ever fettered together in a situation which cannot do other than bring a lifetime of misery to both?
It is extremely difficult to see how such reasoning can be called Christian; it is extremely hard to see Jesus legalistically condemning two people to any such situation. This is not to say that divorce should be made easy, but it is to say that when all the physical and mental and spiritual resources have been brought to bear on such a situation, and the situation remains incurable and even dangerous, then the situation should be ended; and the Church, so far from regarding people who have been involved in such a situation as being beyond the pale, should do everything it can in strength and tenderness to help them. There does not seem any other way than that in which to bring the real Spirit of Christ to bear.
(iii) But in this matter we are face to face with a most tragic situation. It often happens that the things which wreck marriage are in fact the things which the law cannot touch. A man in a moment of passion and failure of control commits adultery and spends the rest of his life in shame and in sorrow for what he did. That he should ever repeat his sin is the least likely thing in the world. Another man is a model of rectitude in public; to commit adultery is the last thing he would do; and yet by a day-to-day sadistic cruelty, a day-to-day selfishness, a day-to-day criticism and sarcasm and mental cruelty, he makes life a hell for those who live with him; and he does it with callous deliberation.
We may well remember that the sins which get into the newspapers and the sins whose consequences are most glaringly obvious need not be in the sight of God the greatest sins. Many a man and many a woman wreck the marriage relationship and yet present to the outer world a front of unimpeachable rectitude.
This whole matter is one to which we might well bring more sympathy and less condemnation, for of all things the failure of a marriage must least be approached in legalism and most in love. In such a case it is not a so-called law that must be conserved; it is human heart and soul. What is wanted is that there should be prayerful care and thought before the married state is entered upon; that if a marriage is in danger of failure every possible medical, psychological and spiritual resource should be mobilized to save it; but, that if there is something beyond the mending, the situation should be dealt with not with rigid legalism, but with understanding love.
JESUS' WELCOME FOR THE CHILDREN ( Matthew 19:13-15 )
19:13-15 Children were brought to him, that he might lay his hands on them, and pray for them. The disciples spoke sternly to them. Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as they are." And after he had laid his hands on them, he went away from there.
It may well be said that here we have the loveliest incident in the gospel story. The characters all stand out clear and plain, although it only takes two verses to tell it.
(i) There are those who brought the children. No doubt these would be their mothers.
No wonder they wished Jesus to lay his hands on them. They had seen what these hands could do; had seen them touch disease and pain away; had seen them bring sight to the blind eyes, and peace to the distracted mind; and they wanted hands like that to touch their children. There are few stories which show so clearly the sheer loveliness of the life of Jesus. Those who brought the children would not know who Jesus was; they would be well aware that Jesus was anything but popular with the Scribes and the Pharisees, and the Priests and the Sadducees and the leaders of orthodox religion; but there was a loveliness on him.
Premanand tells of a thing his mother once said to him. When Premanand became a Christian his family cast him off, and the doors were shut against him; but sometimes he used to slip back to see his mother. She was broken-hearted that he had become a Christian, but she did not cease to love him. She told him that when she was carrying him in her womb a missionary gave her a copy of one of the gospels. She read it; she still had it. She told her son that she had no desire to become a Christian, but that sometimes, in those days before he was born, she used to long that he might grow up to be a man like this Jesus.
There is a loveliness on Jesus Christ that anyone can see. It is easy to think of these mothers in Palestine feeling that the touch of a man like that on their children's heads would bring a blessing, even if they did not understand why.
(ii) There are the disciples. The disciples sound as if they were rough and stern; but, if they were, it was love that made them so. Their one desire was to protect Jesus.
They saw how tired he was; they saw what healing cost him. He was talking to them so often about a cross, and they must have seen on his face the tension of his heart and soul. All that they wanted was to see that Jesus was not bothered. They could only think that at such a time as this the children were a nuisance to the Master. We must not think of them as hard; we must not condemn them; they wished only to save Jesus from another of those insistent demands which were always laying their claims upon his strength.
(iii) There is Jesus himself. This story tells us much about him.
He was the kind of person children loved. George Macdonald used to say that no man could be a follower of Jesus if the children were afraid to play at his door. Jesus was certainly no grim ascetic, if the children loved him.
Further, to Jesus no one was unimportant. Some might say, "It's only a child; don't let him bother you." Jesus would never say that. No one was ever a nuisance to Jesus. He was never too tired, never too busy to give all of himself to anyone who needed it. There is a strange difference between Jesus and many a famous preacher or evangelist. It is often next door to impossible to get into the presence of one of these famous ones. They have a kind of retinue and bodyguard which keep the public away lest the great man be wearied and bothered. Jesus was the opposite of that. The way to his presence was open to the humblest person and to the youngest child.
(iv) There are the children. Jesus said of them that they were nearer God than anyone else there. The child's simplicity is, indeed, closer to God than anything else. It is life's tragedy that, as we grow older, we so often grow further from God rather than nearer to him.
THE GREAT REFUSAL ( Matthew 19:16-22 )
19:16-22 And, look you, a man came to him and said, "Teacher, what good thing am I to do to possess eternal life?" He said to him, "Why do you ask me about the good? There is One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." He said to him, "What kind of commandments?" Jesus said, "'You must not kill; you must not commit adultery; you must not steal; honour your father and your mother.' And, 'You must love your neighbour as yourself.'" The young man said, "I have observed all these things. What am I still lacking?" Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be complete, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me!" When the young man heard that saying, he went away in sorrow, for he had many possessions.
Here is one of the best-known and best-loved stories in the gospel history. One of the most interesting things about it is the way in which most of us, quite unconsciously, unite different details of it from the different gospels in order to get a complete picture. We usually call it the story of the Rich Young Ruler. All the gospels tell us that this man was rich, for therein is the point of the story. But only Matthew says that he was young ( Matthew 19:20); and only Luke says that he was a ruler ( Luke 18:18). It is interesting to see how, quite unconsciously, we have created for ourselves a composite picture composed of elements taken from all three gospels ( Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23).
There is another interesting point about this story. Matthew alters the question put to Jesus by this man. Both Mark and Luke say that the question was: "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" ( Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19). Matthew says that the question was: "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good" ( Matthew 19:17). (The text of the King James Version is in error here, as reference to any of the newer and more correct translations will show.) Matthew's is the latest of the first three gospels, and his reverence for Jesus is such that he cannot bear to show Jesus asking the question: "Why do you call me good?" That almost sounds to him as if Jesus was refusing to be called good, so he alters it into: "Why do you ask me about what is good?" in order to avoid the seeming irreverence.
This story teaches one of the deepest of all lessons for it has within it the whole basis of the difference between the right and the wrong idea of what religion is.
The man who came to Jesus was seeking for what he called eternal life. He was seeking for happiness, for satisfaction, for peace with God. But his very way of phrasing his question betrays him. He asks, "What must I do?" He is thinking in terms of actions. He is like the Pharisees; thinking in terms of keeping rules and regulations. He is thinking of piling up a credit balance-sheet with God by keeping the works of the law. He clearly knows nothing of a religion of grace. So Jesus tries to lead him on to a correct view.
Jesus answers him in his own terms. He tells him to keep the commandments. The young man asks what kind of commandments Jesus means. Thereupon Jesus cites five of the ten commandments. Now there are two important things about the commandments which Jesus chooses to cite.
First, they are all commandments from the second half of the decalogue, the half which deals, not with our duty to God, but with our duty to men. They are the commandments which govern our personal relationships, and our attitude to our fellow-men.
Second, Jesus cites one commandment, as it were, out of order. He cites the command to honour parents last, when in point of fact it ought to come first. It is clear that Jesus wishes to lay special stress on that commandment. Why? May it not be that this young man had grown rich and successful in his career, and had then forgotten his parents, who may have been very poor. He may well have risen in the world, and have been half-ashamed of the folks in the old home; and then he may have justified himself perfectly legally by the law of Korban, which Jesus had so unsparingly condemned ( Matthew 15:1-6; Mark 7:9-13). These passages show that he could well have done that, and still have legally claimed to have obeyed the commandments. In the very commandments which he cites Jesus is asking this young man what his attitude to his fellow-men and to his parents was, asking what his personal relationships were like.
The young man's answer was that he had kept the commandments; and yet there was still something which he knew he ought to have and which he had not got. So Jesus told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor and follow him.
It so happens that we have another account of this incident in the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which was one of the very early gospels which failed to be included in the New Testament. Its account gives us certain very valuable additional information. Here it is:
"The second of the rich men said to him, 'Master, what good thing
can I do and live?' He said unto him, 'O man, fulfil the law and
the prophets.' He answered him, 'I have kept them.' He said unto
him, 'Go, sell all that thou ownest, and distribute it unto the
poor, and, come, follow me.' But the rich man began to scratch
his head, and it pleased him not. And the Lord said unto him,
'How sayest thou, I have kept the law and the prophets? For it is
written in the law: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself; and
lo, many of thy brethren, sons of Abraham, are clad in filth,
dying of hunger, and thine house is full of many good things, and
nought at an goeth out of it unto them.'"
Here is the key to the whole passage. The young man claimed to have kept the law. In the legal sense that might be true; but in the spiritual sense it was not true, because his attitude to his fellow-men was wrong. In the last analysis his attitude was utterly selfish. That is why Jesus confronted him with the challenge to sell all and to give to the poor. This man was so shackled to his possessions that nothing less than surgical excision of them would suffice. If a man looks on his possessions as given to him for nothing but his own comfort and convenience, they are a chain which must be broken; if he looks on his possessions as a means to helping others, they are his crown.
The great truth of this story lies in the way it illumines the meaning of eternal life. Eternal life is life such as God himself lives. The word for eternal is aionios ( G166) , which does not mean lasting for ever; it means such as befits God, or such as belongs to God, or such as is characteristic of God. The great characteristic of God is that he so loved and he gave. Therefore the essence of eternal life is not a carefully calculated keeping of the commandments and the rules and the regulations; eternal life is based on an attitude of loving and sacrificial generosity to our fellow-men. If we would find eternal life, if we would find happiness, joy, satisfaction, peace of mind and serenity of heart, it shall not be by piling up a credit balance with God through keeping commandments and observing rules and regulations; it shall be through reproducing God's attitude of love and care to our fellow-men. To follow Christ and in grace and generosity to serve the men for whom Christ died are one and the same thing.
In the end the young man turned away in great distress. He refused the challenge, because he had great possessions. His tragedy was that he loved things more than he loved people; and he loved himself more than he loved others. Any man who puts things before people and self before others, must turn his back on Jesus Christ.
THE PERIL OF RICHES ( Matthew 19:23-26 )
19:23-26 Jesus said to the disciples, "This is the truth I tell you--it is with difficulty that a rich man shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Again I say unto you--it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." When the disciples heard this, they were exceedingly astonished. "What rich man, then," they said, "can be saved?" Jesus looked at them, "With men," he said, "this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
The case of the Rich Young Ruler shed a vivid and a tragic light on the danger of riches; here was a man who had made the great refusal because he had great possessions. Jesus now goes on to underline that danger. "It is difficult," he said, "for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven."
To illustrate how difficult that was he used a vivid simile. He said that it was as difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as it was for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Different interpretations have been given of the picture which Jesus was drawing.
The camel was the largest animal which the Jews knew. It is said that sometimes in walled cities there were two gates. There was the great main gate through which all trade and traffic moved. Beside it there was often a little low and narrow gate. When the great main gate was locked and guarded at night, the only way into the city was through the little gate, through which even a man could hardly pass erect. It is said that sometimes that little gate was called "The Needle's Eye." So it is suggested that Jesus was saying that it was just as difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as for a huge camel to get through the little gate through which a man can hardly pass.
There is another, and very attractive, suggestion. The Greek word for camel is kamelos ( G2574) ; the Greek word for a ship's hawser is kamilos. It was characteristic of later Greek that the vowel sounds tended to lose their sharp distinctions and to approximate to each other. In such Greek there would be hardly any discernible difference between the sound of "i" and "e"; they would both be pronounced as ee is in English. So, then, what Jesus may have said is that it was just as difficult for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven as it would be to thread a darning-needle with a ship's cable or hawser. That indeed is a vivid picture.
But the likelihood is that Jesus was using the picture quite literally, and that he was actually saying that it was as hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as it was for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Wherein then lies this difficulty? Riches have three main effects on a man's outlook.
(i) Riches encourage a false independence. If a man is well-supplied with this world's goods, he is very apt to think that he can well deal with any situation which may arise.
There is a vivid instance of this in the letter to the Church of Laodicaea in the Revelation. Laodicaea was the richest town in Asia Minor. She was laid waste by an earthquake in A.D. 60. The Roman government offered aid and a large grant of money to repair her shattered buildings. She refused it, saying that she was well able to handle the situation by herself. "Laodicaea," said Tacitus, the Roman historian, "rose from the ruins entirely by her own resources and with no help from us." The Risen Christ hears Laodicaea say, "I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing" ( Revelation 3:17).
It was Walpole who coined the cynical epigram that every man has his price. If a man is wealthy he is apt to think that everything has its price, that if he wants a thing enough he can buy it, that if any difficult situation descends upon him he can buy his way out of it. He can come to think that he can buy his way into happiness and buy his way out of sorrow. So he comes to think that he can well do without God and is quite able to handle life by himself. There comes a time when a man discovers that that is an illusion, that there are things which money cannot buy, and things from which money cannot save him. But always there is the danger that great possessions encourage that false independence which thinks--until it learns better--that it has eliminated the need for God.
(ii) Riches shackle a man to this earth. "Where your treasure is," said Jesus, "there will your heart be also" ( Matthew 6:21). If everything a man desires is contained within this world, if all his interests are here, he never thinks of another world and of a hereafter. If a man has too big a stake on earth, he is very apt to forget that there is a heaven. After a tour of a certain wealthy and luxurious castle and estate, Dr. Johnson grimly remarked: "These are the things which make it difficult to die." It is perfectly possible for a man to be so interested in earthly things that he forgets heavenly things, to be so involved in the things that are seen that he forgets the things that are unseen--and therein lies tragedy, for the things which are seen are temporal but the things which are unseen are eternal.
(iii) Riches tend to make a man selfish. However much a man has, it is human for him to want still more, for, as it has been epigrammatically said, "Enough is always a little more than a man has." Further, once a man has possessed comfort and luxury, he always tends to fear the day when he may lose them. Life becomes a strenuous and worried struggle to retain the things he has. The result is that when a man becomes wealthy, instead of having the impulse to give things away, he very often has the impulse to cling on to them. His instinct is to amass more and more for the sake of the safety and the security which he thinks they will bring. The danger of riches is that they tend to make a man forget that he loses what he keeps, and gains what he gives away.
But Jesus did not say that it was impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Zacchaeus was one of the richest men in Jericho, yet, all unexpectedly, he found the way in ( Luke 19:9). Joseph of Arimathaea was a rich man ( Matthew 27:57); Nicodemus must have been very wealthy, for he brought spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus, which were worth a king's ransom ( John 19:39). It is not that those who have riches are shut out. It is not that riches are a sin--but they are a danger. The basis of all Christianity is an imperious sense of need; when a man has many things on earth, he is in danger of thinking that he does not need God; when a man has few things on earth, he is often driven to God because he has nowhere else to go.
A WISE ANSWER TO A MISTAKEN QUESTION ( Matthew 19:27-30 )
19:27-30 Then Peter said to him, "Look you, we have left everything and have followed you. What then will we get?" Jesus said to him, "When all things are reborn, and when the Son of Man shall sit on the throne of his glory, you too, who have followed me, will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Anyone who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or lands for my name, will receive them a hundred times over, and he will enter into possession of eternal life. But many who were first will be last, and many who were last will be first."
It would have been very easy for Jesus to dismiss Peter's question with an impatient rebuke. In a sense, it was entirely the wrong question to ask. To put it bluntly, Peter was asking, "What do we get out of following you?" Jesus could well have said that anyone who followed him in that kind of spirit had no idea what following him meant at all. And yet it was a natural question. True, it had its implicit rebuke in the parable which followed; but Jesus did not scold Peter. He took his question, and out of it laid down three great laws of the Christian life.
(i) It is always true that he who shares Christ's campaign will share Christ's victory. In human warfare it has been too often true that the common soldiers who fought the battles were forgotten once the warfare was ended, and the victory won, and their usefulness past. In human warfare it has been too often true that men who fought to make a country in which heroes might live found that that same country had become a place where heroes might starve. It is not so with Jesus Christ. He who shares Christ's warfare will share Christ's triumph; and he who bears the Cross will wear the crown.
(ii) It is always true that the Christian will receive far more than ever he has to give up; but what he receives is not new material possessions, but a new fellowship, human and divine.
When a man becomes a Christian he enters into a new human fellowship; so long as there is a Christian Church, a Christian should never be friendless. If his Christian decision has meant that he has had to give up friends, it ought also to mean that he has entered into a wider circle of friendship than ever he knew before. It ought to be true that there is hardly a town or village or city anywhere where the Christian can be lonely. For where there is a Church, there is a fellowship into which he has a right to enter. It may be that the Christian who is a stranger is too shy to make that entry as he ought; it may be that the Church in the place where he is a stranger has become too much of a private clique to open its arms and its doors to him. But if the Christian ideal is being realized there is no place in the world with a Christian Church where the individual Christian should be friendless or lonely. Simply to be a Christian means to have entered into a fellowship which goes out to the ends of the earth.
Further, when a man becomes a Christian, he enters into a new divine fellowship. He enters into possession of eternal life, the life which is the very life of God. From other things a Christian may be separated, but he can never be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus his Lord.
(iii) Finally, Jesus lays it down that there will be surprises in the final assessment. God's standards of judgment are not men's, if for no other reason than that God sees into the hearts of men. There is a new world to redress the balance of the old; there is eternity to adjust the misjudgments of time. And it may be that those who were humble on earth will be great in heaven, and that those who were great in this world will be humbled in the world to come.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)