Weary no doubt from dealing with challenging and messy marriage situations in his congregation, my long-ago-sainted father was heard to quip that dealing with such situations in Old Testament times surely must have been much cleaner when adultery was a capital offense.
I’m sure he realized his oversimplification. Aside from a notable two-for-one impaling by Phinehas (Numbers 25), and God’s large-scale judgment for class-action adultery on Israel’s way to Canaan, Sunday’s gospel makes it clear that dealing with messy marriage situations is no New Testament ministry novelty.
As Jesus points out, so great was the hardness of heart of so many in Israel that Moses, among his more distasteful civil duties, permitted the Israelite clerk of courts office to issue certificates of divorce as public record of a dissolved marriage. Yet, as Israel’s spiritual leader, Moses understood that this was most of all public evidence to hard-hearted distortion of God’s original plan for marriage.
How such situations must have sought to wear away the patience of Moses’ pastoral heart. How such situations still want to wear away the patience of our pastoral hearts. As God’s people wrestle with various temptations to grow hard-hearted toward God’s will for marriage, that becomes simultaneously a temptation for us to pastoral hard-heartedness. Such pastoral hard-heartedness tempts us to resort to “resolving” the messiness either by overly zealous legalistic strong-arming of fruits of repentance or by apathetic antinomian refusal even to bother to expect much if any fruit. We are tempted to substitute the counterfeit solution of seeking quickly to clear the tangled mess off our pastoral plates rather than seeking patiently to clear the tangled mess off our peoples’ hearts!
But our Lord Jesus, as he refused to be trapped into empty debate by the Pharisees’ duplicitous question, holds out a better way. What does he do in the face of such hard-heartedness? He patiently reiterates that our loving Creator’s plan at Eden was for marriage to be his good gift. He thereby simultaneously maintained that marriage remains a good gift from the Creator’s hand even when entered by two sinful people. Instead of finding loopholes through which hardening hearts can slip unnoticed, he calls hearts to find again a loving Creator and Redeemer’s path away from despair and hopelessness.
But that doesn’t change the fact that our biggest challenge may not be “out there” with our members’ hearts. Before we can lead anyone away from the disastrous paths down which hardening hearts are tempted to walk, the cross we bear as under-shepherds of Jesus points us to die first to any nascent pastoral hard-heartedness. And there in death we find life! Waiting for us in that daily death is the wonder of Jesus’ life-breathing patient love for us. He clears away the guilt of all budding hard-heartedness. What is more, as I rest in his patient pastoral heart for me, I find his additional gift of a renewal of a patient pastoral heart for those I serve.
So, what to do the next time someone wants to test you (and your patience) by hunting for lawful sounding loopholes to dispense with a troubling husband or wife? Check if you are dealing with the temptation to hardness of heart (first check your heart then theirs). But most of all, remember that there is no lasting answer for hardness of heart for pastor and member apart from the patient, forgiving heart of the Savior.
Marriage is his gift. Living in it in blessing – and helping others to do so – that is his gift too!