When Jesus makes reference to something known as “The Law,” He is referring to perhaps the central concept of the Jewish faith, and for us as His followers, of our faith.
We could go on for hours describing the nuance of The Law, or Torah and what it means. But the best way to describe it is not as a set of laws or as a legal code, comparing it to the U.S. criminal justice system. The Law is something far richer. It is a relationship.
We call the first five books of Hebrew Scripture “Torah,” which means “the law” because it is the origin story of GOD’s relationship with humanity, and a specifically chosen people. Torah is a story, telling our origin, liberation, commitment, and search for home. It is also the story of GOD’s commitment and mercy toward a wayward humanity. The true substance of the Torah is therefore the interplay between GOD and humanity, rather than a divine legal code arbitrarily given or applied. This is not to say that The Law may not be a reference to actual laws, as Torah has many. But focus should never be so much on the adherence of any one individual to any one law contained in Scripture. Instead, the focus must be on our relationship with GOD.
This is why throughout the gospels Jesus is perpetually knocking against the religious authorities and their understanding of The Law. And why Jesus could be both incredibly radical in his time and incredibly consistent with his adherence to The Law. He wore the sacred garments and followed the traditions. He also pointed out the places in which those traditions went against The Law: that relationship with GOD.
If we look near the end of Jesus’s teaching in Mark 12, when Jesus is asked by a scribe which is the greatest commandment, Jesus responds, not with a law, but with a prayer: the Sh’ma:
“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
He then attaches a teaching from Leviticus about loving others as ourselves. The scribe, upon hearing this responds authoritatively (because he knows the Scripture):
‘You are right, Teacher…this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’
Here, and every time The Law is raised, Jesus demonstrates, not so much a blind allegiance to a legal code of conduct, but to the parameters of a relationship: what is expected of humanity and GOD.
That is perhaps why we are more than likely to be confused by Jesus’s teaching on divorce. We might see his statement as affirming the legal code. But Jesus takes it way beyond the law to speak about relationship with GOD. It would be ridiculous to say that Jesus does not condemn divorce: He clearly does. But He is articulating that marriage isn’t a contract between two people which simply must be maintained, but an equal binding of lives together. In other words, the marriage laws and expectations we all have are not enough. His view of marriage goes far beyond ours. And more troubling for us, our spouses.
It is bad enough to have to maintain such a challenging commitment as the right relationship with GOD that Jesus espouses throughout the gospels, but then to add a co-equal commitment to another person to that and double-down on that commitment to one another? Jesus is taking the idea of marriage to a whole new level!
It seems that when approaching the subject of marriage, we aren’t actually looking for anything like the answer Jesus gives. Not for either those who themselves are divorced or those who hate divorce. Jesus is having us look at how we are together—whether we show that unity of love that is truly inseparable—and could very well be talking about our relationship to GOD.