TWO themes are common across the disagreements between Jesus and the Pharisees on the interpretation of the Law, whether they are on ritual washing, sabbath observance, or, as in this week’s Gospel, divorce.
First, on each matter, Jesus criticises the Pharisees for interpreting the Law in a way that entrenches privilege and power, and which places unnecessary burdens on the most vulnerable.
Second, Jesus’s treatment of the Law implies a claim about his own status. As Benedict XVI notes, he is not relativising the authority of God’s word. Rather — precisely because he is the Word made flesh — Jesus can teach with an authority that the Pharisees and scribes lack (Jesus of Nazareth: From the baptism in the Jordan to the transfiguration).
Our epistle draws out some of this Christological point in more detail. As Daniel Harrington explains, the Letter to the Hebrews offers a “sustained theological argument” (New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Hebrews). Its opening chapters describe the “many and various” ways in which God has spoken to his people, culminating in “these last days” in his definitive word: “He has spoken to us by a Son” who is “the exact imprint of God’s very being”.
Harrington observes that the “interpretive principle” of the epistle is that Christ is “the key to the scriptures”. It is only through Jesus’s teaching that we understand fully the purpose of the Mosaic law. Similarly, it is through Jesus’s sacrificial, liberating death that we can recognise the rituals prescribed in the Torah as a foreshadowing of God’s definitive work of redemption.
The epistle demonstrates this principle in its interpretation of our psalm. As Susan Gillingham explains, “Psalm 8 is one of the best examples in the Psalter of the different trajectory of reception found in Jewish and Christian tradition,” interpreting it respectively as “a hymn to God as Creator, or a prophetic text about a redeemer” (Psalms through the Centuries: Volume two).
From a Christian perspective, the two readings are not unconnected: the Psalmist cries out in amazement at the honour that God has given to humanity as the crown of creation, and it is in Christ’s incarnation that we see the full dignity that God has accorded to women and men.
Jesus’s teaching on divorce both asserts his own authority and then uses that authority to challenge religious teachings that oppress the most vulnerable. He tells the Pharisees that the Mosaic commandments (allowing a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce his wife) were given “because of your hardness of heart”.
He speaks against too lax a view of divorce, appealing to the vision of marriage given in our first reading from Genesis. As Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza observes, Jesus’s vision of marriage rejects patriarchal understandings, in which the woman “is given into the power of man in order to continue ‘his’ house and family line” and can be sent away when the man tires of her. In the verses that Jesus quotes from Genesis, “It is man who shall sever connections with his own family and ‘the two persons shall become one sarx [flesh]’” (In Memory of Her: A feminist theological reconstruction of Christian origins).
Jesus’s teaching on divorce and marriage flows from a more comprehensive understanding of marriage as sacramental rather than merely transactional. We cannot simply “send away” our spouses when we tire of them, because, in marriage, two human beings have become “one flesh”.
Moreover, the fidelity being fostered in marriage is a good for wider society, and not merely the couple. That is most obviously — but by no means only — in its creation of a stable context for the nurture of children. It is the most vulnerable who lose most when relationships of faithfulness are reduced to the temporary and transactional. Indeed, after challenging the Pharisees on the unjust treatment of women, Jesus immediately confronts his own disciples about their attitude to children — who were the “least of the least” in first-century Palestine.
The dignity that Jesus accords each person is grounded in their creation in God’s image, and the fact that he has been sent by God to die for our salvation. As our epistle proclaims, Christ’s sacrifice will bring “many children to glory”.
We find our fullest dignity in him; “For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”