Sunday, September 19, 2021

Whoever Stealeth a Man...

A crack, and a cry of pain, sounded off to Stuart's right, but he paid it no mind as he harvested the sugarcane. It was normal to him now, after several months of this. The sun was high, and Stuart's mind drifted back to home. For Stuart was not his real name. His real name was Quobna Ottobah Cugoano. He was thirteen years old. He was far from home, and he missed it terribly. The year was 1770, and Ottobah had been staying for three months with his uncle. His uncle lived by the coast, a three-day walk from Ottobah's hometown of Ajumako, where Ottobah had grown up in the company of the children of the local chief, Ambro Accasa. But while he stayed with his uncle, he was in another chief's territory. All this was in what today we'd call Ghana. Ottobah, age 13, had been playing together in a field in the brush – catching birds, picking fruit – with his cousins and their friends one day. Suddenly, large grown men with cutlasses and pistols surrounded them, telling them to stay still or die. About eighteen or twenty youths were taken hostage that day, under a fearful threat of death.

The children were split up, and each group taken on a long walk, from village to village in unfamiliar territory. In about a week, Ottobah and his guide, who made a great show of being friendly and supportive and desiring to get Ottobah back home to his family after a stop at the shore for supplies, reached a town where, for the first time, Ottobah saw a few people with white faces. He was terrified. The tales he'd heard in childhood suggested that the white-faced people might eat him. And he had a hard time sleeping through the night. Morning came, and his guide led him to the castle on the coast. Ottobah was readily held fast by his fear of death. Along the way, Ottobah saw horrible things – men of his own Fanti tribe chained to each other, their hands tied. And when they reached the castle, Ottobah's guide accepted, from one of the white-faced people, a few things – a gun, some lead, and a piece of cloth – and abandoned him there in exchange for them. Ottobah had been sold.

Kept in the darkness of a prison for three days, Ottobah was then hastened to a ship, stuffed in the hold with the other men, surrounded by groaning voices, rattling chains, the ear-splitting crack of whips. The ship sailed from the seaside fortress to Cape Coast, where they were transferred to a second ship which set sail across the ocean. Day after day, night after night, thirteen-year-old Ottobah endured the misery of the ship's dark hold, until at length they reached the island of Grenada in the West Indies. Separated by the Atlantic from everyone he ever knew and loved, Ottobah and the others were put to work on one of Grenada's sugarcane plantations, so that the other white-faced people in a far-off land could enjoy sweet things off the sweat of Ottobah's back.

On the plantation, Ottobah lived in terror, as he had since he was kidnapped in the woods. During his months in Grenada, Ottobah witnessed some of his fellow slaves having their teeth knocked out for tasting the sugarcane; others had teeth pulled as a precautionary measure. Daily he watched his companions being lashed. The white-faced people – whose language he only at length began to understand – spoke of something called 'Christianity.' But when one of Ottobah's fellow-slaves attempted to join them at church one Sunday, they told him to get back into the fields to work – and to enforce the lesson, they gave the slave twenty-four lashes with a whip for going to church. 'Slave' – that, in the most literal and brutal term, was what Ottobah Cugoano had been made.1 Ottobah described how “slave procurers... often steal and kidnap many..., and sell them from one to another, so that if they are sought after and detected, the thieves are seldom found.”2 Ottobah was forever infuriated by “that infamous and iniquitous traffic of stealing, kidnapping, buying, selling, and cruelly enslaving men.”3

Notice that word he uses: 'stealing.' At the root of Ottobah's understanding of what happened to him, he was the victim of theft. It wasn't a theft of any particular thing he owned. It was the theft of himself. He'd been stolen – his whole person. And Ottobah was right to think that. In the next chapter after the Most High thundered to the earth, “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15), the very next time God uses that verb, he applies it to exactly Ottobah's situation: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:16). Kidnapping is a form of stealing. People can be stolen. That's what the slave trade was built on: people-stealing. That was very different from the sorts of debt-servitude that the people of Israel practiced among themselves (Exodus 21:1-11). No, this was like what Joseph's brothers did to him: steal him and sell him away. And God says here in his law, whoever steals a person is committing a crime. Whoever then sells a stolen person is committing a crime. Anybody who buys is equally guilty. And it's a capital crime.

Now, that law was given to Israel before the Golden Calf incident. But after the Golden Calf, when Israel had proved itself incapable of welcoming their God in holiness, a further law was added because of their hard hearts and continued transgressions (Galatians 3:19). And in that further law, this law is repeated, though only as it especially applies to fellow Israelites: “If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So shall you purge the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 24:7). Down through the centuries of the old covenant, God did not punish their sins as their childishly stubborn hearts deserved. But they still had both laws on the books. And from the laws, later Jewish writings were frequently aware that kidnapping, trafficking, slave-trading – these weren't just offenses against God's commandment, they were perhaps the central offenses against God's commandment not to steal.

And so when the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy, he reminds Timothy that God didn't give these laws because we were so good and righteous. No, he gave laws because we were lawless. And so, for Timothy's benefit, he launches into a list of sins and crimes that's patterned after the Ten Commandments. Where God said not to have other gods or make graven images, Paul denounces “the lawless and disobedient.” Where God said not to take his name in vain, Paul calls out “the ungodly and sinners.” Where God said to keep his Sabbath holy, Paul opposes “the unholy and profane.” Where God said to honor father and mother, Paul points to “those who strike their fathers and mothers.” God said not to murder, so Paul condemns “murderers.” Where God said not to commit adultery, Paul points to “the sexually immoral” and to “men who practice homosexuality.” And now, where God said not to steal, Paul's list catches up to “enslavers.” That's the utmost violation of this law. Paul uses a Greek word for 'man-sellers,' 'slave-dealers,' 'enslavers.' To Paul, that's the worst kind of stealing: when you enslave or sell human beings. It's to such people that God lays down his law (1 Timothy 1:9-10).

And then when John details his visions, he's very pointed in condemning the slave trade of the Roman Empire. Picturing Roman power as the new expression of ancient Babylon, the old captor and oppressor in whose lands God's people lived in exile, John hears merchants weeping when they think of all the luxury goods they'd miss buying and selling if Rome's Babylon were to collapse. And the list climaxes, John tells us, with “slaves” – and John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, editorializes: “that is, human souls” (Revelation 18:13). To those merchants, slaves are just another commodity; it's no different from trading in silk or spice or sheep. John says it's a twisted economy that can no longer distinguish souls from stuff. In such confusion, naturally the merchants buy and sell and traffick in souls – living human beings – as reduced to mere cargo. Such they did to Ottobah Cugoano.

After eight or nine months on the sugarcane plantation, teenage Ottobah was sold to a man named Alexander Campbell, who had him work for a year at other places in the West Indies but then took him to England, treating him with relative kindness. He allowed Ottobah to learn to read and write, and even sent him to school to learn. Through that, Ottobah was introduced to the Bible, “that inestimable compilation of books.”4 The other slaves helped Ottobah make his way one Friday in August 1773 to St. James's Church on Piccadilly in London, and there Ottobah was baptized into Jesus Christ. And he was set free. In time, he found employment from a local painter, he made social connections, and he joined a group of black Londoners called the Sons of Africa. In 1787, he not only wrote his story and sentiments, he sent copies to princes and parliamentarians.5 And about the slave trade, Ottobah minced no words: “I would have my African countrymen to know and understand,” he said, “that the destroyers and enslavers of men can be no Christians, for Christianity is the system of benignity and love, and all its votaries are devoted to honesty, justice, humanity, meekness, peace, and good-will to all men.” Those who claim the name of 'Christian' while keeping slaves are, Ottobah said, “abominable liars,” the “greatest enemies” of Christianity, and should “be called by its opposite: the Antichrist.”6 For, he said:

Thus saith the law of God: 'If a man be found stealing any of his neighbors, or he that stealeth a man (let him be who he will) and selleth him, or that maketh merchandise of him, or if he be found in his hand, then that thief shall die.' However, in all modern slavery among Christians, who ought to know this law, they have not had any regard to it. … It ought to be double death, if it was possible, when a man is robbed of himself, and sold into captivity and cruel slavery.7

Ottobah was right. The Christians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had every reason to be aware that the whole slave trade was a crime against God's law, and so was chattel slavery itself. So why didn't they? This week I was curious about that, so I read any old defense of slavery I could find that addressed this question. It was even flimsier than I expected. Those who didn't just brush off God's word altogether made five different excuses. The first excuse they tried was to appeal to Deuteronomy to say that stealing people is only wrong if they're your own people, but people outside your race and faith are fair game.8 But the abolitionists of the time showed how clearly wrong that was: the added law made some allowances that no longer apply after Christ, since now the whole human race is revealed as our brothers and sisters.9 The second excuse enslavers tried was to say that the law in Exodus against stealing people was really about stealing slaves away from their legal owner.10 But the abolitionists of the time pointed out that if God had meant that, he would've condemned stealing slaves, not stealing people; and if human beings are being treated as just another kind of property, then there's no explanation why this property theft is punished with death instead of a fine like every other theft.11 The third excuse enslavers tried was to say that their slaves became slaves not through kidnapping but through losing a war or being punished for a crime, and so were fair game.12 But again, the abolitionists asked, “Does not all the world know that they were kidnapped on the African coast and brought to the American continent?”13 And they pointed out that it was precisely because white people were eager to buy slaves that African coastal chiefs had greater incentives to wage unjust wars and to punish excessively by enslaving – these, too, were stealing.14 The fourth excuse enslavers tried was that, yes, the stealing in Africa was wrong, but once the slave had crossed the ocean, being bought nullified his own rights: possession is nine-tenths of the law, after all.15 The abolitionists made short work of that, too: the buyer and holder is just as guilty of theft as the original stealer, if he knows he has a stolen person and refuses to set him free.16 And finally, the fifth excuse enslavers might have tried was that perhaps buying and selling the originally stolen people as slaves was wrong, but their children were born into slavery, and so were fair game. But the abolitionists wouldn't let that pass, either. “Does not he who for gain buys, sells, or keeps in slavery the descendants of those who were unjustly deprived of their freedom thereby justify the original act and put himself in the place of the first aggressor?” they asked.17

The relentless rebuttals of the abolitionists to every feeble excuse of the enslavers mean that it should have been as obvious then to them, as it is now to us, that the whole slave system – including slavery in America – stood under the righteous sentence of God. Unmistakably, it was a gross violation of this commandment, even before being compounded by violence, cruelty, and hatred. Difficult as it may be to acknowledge this, the hard truth is that a considerable number of the Founding Fathers of this nation were guilty not only of a sin, but of a crime over which God had decreed the death penalty in his law. We can honor them for the good they otherwise did, but that crime is a strict limit on their legacy. After them, for generations, the laws of this nation defended and protected what God called a crime. The government even invested taxpayers' money – used funding from our families, in many cases – to protect that system, by taking people who escaped to freedom and forcing them back into slavery, on our ancestors' dime.18 Just as abortion is a national sin today, slavery then – including the internal slave trade that survived domestically for decades after the international slave trade was banned – does not just stain the individuals who participate. Sins like these rebuke the government that allows them. They defile the land where these crimes openly happen. And they ensnare us all, until the evil is purged.

Last Sunday, we reflected on Leviticus 6, where God outlined the four steps to dealing with the guilt of theft. The first step was to make full restoration of whatever had been stolen: to set it free to its original and proper owner. The second step was to provide additional reparation, the fifth added to it. The third step was to make a prompt delivery, as soon as the guilt was realized. And the fourth step was to make atonement to the Lord, for every crime against our neighbor is a sin against God also. What would it have looked like for Leviticus 6 to be honored after slavery? It would have begun with emancipation. It would have continued with compensation, something to repair the injury done, cover the time when people were stolen from themselves. And that would have been delivered promptly and with apology, as soon as the nation became aware of our guilt.19 Finally, all that would have been caught up in a national come-to-Jesus moment over our great national sin.

But very little of that happened. Oh, those freed from slavery certainly asked for it. As early as the late 1700s, a few former slaves managed to sue for lump-sum payments.20 Gen. Sherman tried to set aside some abandoned lands to be distributed to former slaves – each family to get forty acres and the rental of an army mule21 – but the plan was scrapped by President Johnson once he took office. Organizations later formed that helped thousands of former slaves, and later their children, to petition Congress for government pensions as reparation for the same government having defended in law their enslavement to decades of unpaid labor – all to no avail but repression.22 It might fairly be said, these many years later, that a considerable amount of our national tension today has been a direct result of a refusal to believe that God was deadly serious when he said “Thou shalt not steal,” and serious when he said to really repent after such stealing. Because if we had believed and put into action God's word on this at any time in the past few centuries, America would be blessed with a deeper peace than she now is.23

But slavery is not a thing of the past – not even in America. Today, we now have a new word for it. When it happens in America today, we call it 'human trafficking.' It doesn't thrive in the open. But it's slavery.24 It's still stealing people, treating them as possessions to be owned, denying their God-given dignity as bearers of his image, and carrying them as cargo. Every year, it's estimated that around fifteen thousand or more people are being trafficked into the United States from outside, to be kept here as slaves. That's in addition to an unknown number of Americans who are trafficked within our borders for the same purpose. Those figures make this a crime as common as murder, or more so, even though it's rarely caught and even less commonly prosecuted.25 So far as we can tell, about half are victims of sex trafficking, another quarter are victims of domestic labor trafficking, and many of the rest are victims of agricultural labor trafficking.26

If that sounds like an 'out-there' problem, Pennsylvania is one of the top ten states for human trafficking. In 2018, 621 trafficking victims were identified – and likely thousands of others weren't – in Pennsylvania.27 Interstates 81 and 78 are both “major arteries for sex trafficking.”28 Last year, a man was sentenced to up to 141 years in prison for co-running a trafficking ring that included our county.29 A few months ago, state police announced having shut down a trafficking ring in Berks County. One of the accused traffickers is a woman from Lancaster.30 That hits pretty close to home, doesn't it? It's here – and experts on human trafficking recognize that churches “can be instrumental in... raising awareness of human trafficking, pressuring governments to pass and enforce laws against human trafficking, and to protect and assist trafficked victims.”31

That's not even touching the fact that, even when slavery takes place elsewhere in the world, it still touches our lives. In industry after industry, a portion of the goods and resources that make their way to the United States were at some point worked or made by slaves. It might be iron or steel smelted by slaves in Brazil, that made its way into your car. It might be a mineral in your phone that was mined across the world by slaves. It might be frozen fish you buy in the store, harvested by slaves in Asia. It might be clothes woven by slaves in factories overseas. It's been suggested that, in small quantities, each of us may – in a given week – unknowingly eat, use, or wear something that relied on slave labor in its production.32 And our hearts should break at the thought.

Our hearts should break because each and every human being was born to be free, was made free by God in the beginning. But Adam and Eve sold their whole line into slavery for the price of a bite of fruit – slavery in one way or another. Because all of us, in our natural state outside Eden, are “slaves of sin” (Romans 6:17-20). And we have been maintained and subjected to this “lifelong slavery” through the “fear of death,” held captive by “the one who has the power of death – that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14-15). And so in the world, we spend what we call our lives with our souls being trafficked from one sin to the next, one idol to the next, one situation to the next. “For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19). And sometimes, that expresses itself outwardly in the specific sin of human trafficking. But even those who enslave men, women, and children – who buy and sell human souls as cargo – are themselves, in their spirits, slaves already to sin. As are we all, by nature. In that condition, we have each “presented our body parts as slaves to impurity and lawlessness” (Romans 6:19).

But then Jesus appeared, the Free Man from heaven, the Redeemer who came to buy us back to his birthright, to break our chains, to destroy our captor. Taking the outward appearance of a slave himself, he was perfectly obedient all the way to the cross (Philippians 2:7-8). Through his death and resurrection to divine freedom, he stepped forward to “deliver all those who, through fear of death, were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:15). Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness” (Titus 2:14). “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). And “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). “You are no longer a slave, but a son” (Galatians 4:7). Not only that, but we are just the beginning. Christ's invitation to freedom is a promise of the day when “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

In light of this freedom and this promise, we're called to guard carefully against seducers who “slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery” to sin or to the added laws and elements that merely tutored humanity until Christ came (Galatians 2:4). For now we have freedom to serve God as free and mature people, to love him in substance and not only in symbol. We have freedom to have our hearts changed and to relate to God as our genuine Father. Every heresy that aims to infect the Church, every attempt to sway God's people to something other than the pure faith of Christ, may bill itself as a more liberated life or a richer experience, but it leads away from the mature freedom of Christ. Every grave falsehood about God, about Jesus, about the Spirit, about the Church, about the Christian life, is a form of slavery of the soul – it offers us idols and their chains instead of Christ and his way.

For freedom Christ has set us free” in baptism, when he submerged us in an infinite pool of grace and anointed our hearts with the Spirit of his love. That was when Ottobah became truly free33 – and so have we, if we (like him) “stand firm, therefore,” in a faith that works through love, “and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” to the fear of death (Galatians 5:1). Don't submit to sin. Don't submit to falsehood. And don't submit to resigning yourself to the status quo of the world. For our freedom was given to us “as an opportunity” to “through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). And that free service includes many things. But among them is enlistment by Christ in his mission to “proclaim good news to the poor” and “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). And maybe that looks like showing our nation how to grapple with the sins of its past not yet repaired. Maybe that looks like keeping a watchful eye in our county for signs of trafficking or having been kidnapped. Maybe that looks like declaring the good news that sets souls free from sin, from lies, from the fear of death. And maybe that means battering slavery in all its forms with the arsenal of our prayers, as they rise to heaven and fall to earth in flame (Revelation 8:3-5). May the world see in us our Redeemer who 'died to make us holy.' May all of us show forth his amazing grace. And may each of us 'live to make all free.'

Prayer:

Lord God of Liberty, you gave each of us freedom as our birthright – freedom not to slave after the passions of the flesh, freedom not to do whatever's right in each's own eyes, but freedom to offer ourselves to righteousness and to serve one another through love. And yet with sin in the world, some have been so audacious as to steal the bearers of your very image away from the freedom that is their birthright. And our enjoyment of life in your world has been shaded by the shadow of such thefts. O God, forgive us for the burdens of the past, and inspire us to a perfect repentance. Forgive us for the webs of present sin, and inspire us to live to set all free. Forgive us for the slowness of our love and the shortness of our vision. Pour out your Spirit, in whom there is only liberty. Call us again to the freedom of Christ, that the chains of sin might crumble and that we might go forth to announce freedom to the world, to work for freedom in the world, and to hope for the freedom of the world when your Son, our Redeemer, returns and returns to all everything that sin has stolen. In Jesus Christ, Heaven's Freedom, we send you up this prayer. Send it back down in lightning, thunder, and holy flame! Amen.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

House of the Thief

Had the first bishop of the Evangelical Congregational Church lived about twenty-five years longer, he would probably have been very proud of his son-in-law. Back in 1912, Bishop William Franklin Heil married his daughter, Ella Hazel Heil, to Edward Arthur Hintz, an assistant cashier at the People's Trust and Savings Bank of Chicago, Illinois – in fact, we're eight days from Edward and Ella's 109th anniversary. Fourteen years into the marriage, Edward received a promotion to cashier, and Bishop Heil mused, “I trust that he will measure up to the demands.”1 But it was mainly after the bishop's death in 1930 that Edward's career really took off. He rose through the ranks of the Chicago banking world, to the point that the EC Church itself turned to him for financial advice now and again.2 By May 1956, Edward nearly became chairman of the Illinois Athletic Commission – a role he had to turn down only when he was elected president of the Southmoor Bank and Trust Company. Yes, to see that, Edward's late father-in-law, Bishop Heil, might well have been very proud. But a month or two later, Bishop Heil might have been much less proud. Deeply disappointed, in fact. Before the year was up, Edward Arthur Hintz would be investigated by multiple grand juries, questioned by the FBI, subpoenaed by the United States Senate, and sentenced to federal prison.

As the evidence came forth, the story slowly unfolded. Years earlier, among his many connections, Edward had formed a fine friendship with a man named Orville Enoch Hodge, who in 1952 was elected as Auditor of Public Accounts for the State of Illinois – a position giving Hodge considerable access to public funds. Hodge also did the bulk of his banking at the Southmoor, of which Edward was – for most of Hodge's career – executive vice president. And Hodge asked Edward for a little personal favor. When Hodge drew up state warrants – checks drawn against state funds – Edward needed to make sure they were cashed. But Hodge asked him not to look too hard at the signatures – whether written or typed, whether the name on the check matched the person signing for it, and so on. Not only that, but now and again, Hodge would write out a state check to a vendor for more than the vendor needed to be paid, and what Hodge needed Edward to do was to pay the vendor the real amount, take the excess difference, and just slip it into a secret personal account Hodge had. And then, when Hodge wrote out personal checks from his bank account, Edward would make sure the money came out of that secret brown envelope tucked away in his office, full of state money.3 No problem, right, Edward?

No problem. Edward made sure the scheme ran smoothly. “I did it all through friendship,” Edward said. “I never thought Orv was doing something really wrong.” But Orville Hodge had done something wrong. In that way and others, Hodge used those phony checks and other means to embezzle multiple millions of dollars from public accounts for his private use, which Hodge used to buy a couple jets, thirty cars (including a Rolls-Royce and a few Cadillacs), and properties in several states. And Edward had helped him do some of it. “I guess I was stupid,” Edward lamented to the press. “I knew it was wrong, but I approved them.”4 And no court bought his pleas of ignorance and gullibility. In August 1956, convicted of having misapplied nearly half a million dollars in federally insured funds, Edward was sentenced to three years in federal prison. Now, had our Bishop Heil still been walking the earth, he might have reminded his son-in-law, and Hodge too, of these forgotten words: “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Stealing. That's what Orville Hodge did. That's what Edward Hintz helped him to do, as a co-conspirator. And that's exactly what they should have known God very expressly ruled out: “Thou shalt not steal.” But what is stealing, anyway? It's depriving someone else of their rightful property. Maybe that's to destroy it, maybe to take possession of it, maybe to use it up or to sell it – doesn't matter, stealing is about depriving someone of what's theirs. It's to injure them as an owner; it's to exert authority over property that isn't under your authority at all and isn't fair game to claim; it's to violate the reasonable will of the legitimate property owner.

Now, that definition implies there's such a thing as a right to private property. But thousands of years after God spoke the commandment, a movement would emerge that would deny there was any such right for private parties to be owners of specific property. That movement was called Communism. Karl Marx himself defined his brand of Communism as “the positive supersession of private property as human self-estrangement.”5 And in that original 1848 Communist Manifesto, he and his co-writer Friedrich Engels declared that “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: 'Abolition of private property.'”6 It isn't for nothing that, just twelve years after that Communist Manifesto was published, one preacher objected that Communism was “nothing less than advocating wholesale robbery,” since “God has instituted the right of private property.”7

So who's right? And what is property, anyway? One modern legal scholar defines property as “an institution governing the use of things,” and he says it's made up of three parts: first, an “entitlement” regarding “the use of a particular resource”; second, “rules” about how a “particular property entitlement is exercised”; and third, a legal structure to support those entitlements and those rules.8 Property is made up of entitlements, rules about exercising those entitlements, and a legal structure to defend the entitlements and their rules. And that seems like a decent enough starting point here. So the question is, Did God give private persons any entitlements to particular resources? Did God set down rules for how such entitlements can be exercised? Does God's Law support and defend those entitlements and those rules? And the answer to all three is yes.

As bearers of God's image, we reflect the image of the true Owner of the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10-11). All things are, ultimately, God's, since God created the earth and all its goods. But then he granted a collective entitlement to the human race as his image. As we read, “the heavens are the LORD's heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man” (Psalm 115:16). God has given us, collectively, “dominion over the works of his hands” (Psalm 8:6). In giving them, he wasn't decreeing an absolute right, but entrusting his earthly creations to us as their stewards, responsible before God.

Now, efficient stewardship of most goods – especially goods improved by human labor – requires individuals or families to take particular responsibility for them. I take responsibility as particular steward of this garden, you take responsibility as particular steward of that field. And those responsibilities lead to authority to the use of, and controlled access to, those particular things – private entitlements. From the very second generation of our species, we find specialization, we find people taking particular responsibility – Cain farms his field, Abel raises livestock in his (Genesis 4:2). Each has responsibility for the produce of their labor. Abel can graze his sheep in the pasture but keeps them out of Cain's garden. And when the time comes for a sacrifice, Cain could have (and should have) traded Abel some nice vegetables for a lamb, which – becoming Cain's possession – he could then have offered to God as his own personal gift. Naturally, God's Law will recognize that a given plot of land, or a house, or an ox, or a piece of clothing can belong to someone who has particular responsibility for it and so is its owner (e.g., Exodus 21:32-34). And Israel's prophets dreamed of a day when “none of my people shall be scattered from his property” (Ezekiel 46:18), when each would be secure in his or her private property: “They shall sit, every man, under his vine and his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).

Those private property rights, while real, aren't as absolute as we Americans might dream: “Every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree” (Zechariah 3:10). We are, after all, owners only in the sense of stewards; and ultimately, everything God has made, including the things he makes through our own labors now, is destined to be at the service of all. There's the bit about God's rules for how particular property entitlements are to be utilized – but more on that in a couple weeks. Suffice it to say that, subject to a few conditions, each of us may be the rightful owner of the goods of this world (that's private property), much as a community can still be the rightful owner of worldly goods held and used in common (and that's public property). But if we can be rightful owners, then there can be such a thing as wrongful interference in the relationship between owner and owned. And it's against such criminal interference that this word, “Thou shalt not steal,” guards. And there are a lot of forms of that interference.

First, there's what you might think of first: theft. Sometimes, it's by force, and you call that robbery. When it's by stealth, you might call it larceny. When it involves unauthorized entry into your home, you'd call it burglary. Theft is the mugger in the dark alley with a gun or a knife. It's the pirate ambushing a cargo ship and raiding it for treasure. It's the carjacker hot-wiring your ride and driving it off to the chop shop. “The thief breaks in, and the bandits raid outside” (Hosea 7:1). God cautions his people, “Set no vain hopes on robbery” (Psalm 62:10). “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him” (Leviticus 19:3). It should be obvious why this is stealing. By definition, whether it's secretly by stealth or openly by force, they all involve taking what properly belongs to another person or persons, and appropriating it into your own possession. It's interfering in the proper relationship of owner and owned. So have no part in that: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

But theft doesn't always look so egregious as that. Sometimes it looks minor. It's the kid with his hand slipping furtively into your pocket. It's the customer pocketing something from the shelf. It's the couple eating a meal and running out on their bill. Pick-pocketing, shoplifting, dine-and-dashing – those may not be at the biggest scale, but they're still acts of theft, and each contributes to the harm of the victim. And while most people, I should hope, wouldn't dine-and-dash at a restaurant, tax evasion and tax fraud are a form of the same thing: eating up public goods, and then running out on your portion of the bill when it comes due. No, the Apostle Paul says: “Pay to all what's owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due” (Romans 13:7). So when it comes to robbery, larceny, burglary, pick-pocketing, shoplifting, dine-and-dashing, tax evasion, tax fraud, just have no part in any of that: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Second, there's embezzlement and corruption. That's what Orville Hodge did. That's what Edward Hintz did. It happens all the time. Maybe it's an employee at a private company taking company resources, whether office supplies or dollars. Maybe it's a government official sucking the public funds dry. Maybe it's a politician aiming at ways to fill his pockets by the time he's through. After all, as one ancient Jewish writer complained, there are ambitious people “who perpetrate thefts on a great scale, disguising the real fact of robbery under the grand-sounding names of 'government' and 'leadership.'”9 But each is “deceiving his neighbor” (Leviticus 6:2) and using his or her position to siphon off the resources of a company or a society into his or her private use, away from their proper use. As Paul says, “It is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2). Embezzlement is theft. Corruption is theft. Have no part in them: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Third also falls under corruption, and it's bribery and extortion – making or taking. It's the pay-off to the regulator to look the other way, effecting a double standard. It's the greasing of palms that bends the legislative process to the whims of the rich and powerful. It's the open threat a corporation makes to withdraw from a jurisdiction, taking all those jobs and tax revenues with them, if the local policies aren't to their taste. “Rebels and companions of thieves... love a bribe and run after gifts,” God says (Isaiah 1:23). “You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right” (Exodus 23:8). Again, take no part in bribery or extortion: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Fourth, there's vandalism. You know it, you've seen the footage on the news these past couple years. It's the arsonist torching the house, it's the spray-paint on the wall, it's the statue being toppled and smashed. It's the rioter breaking the store window and carrying off loot, or just throwing rocks. Those acts are stealing, whether or not the rioter or arsonist takes anything away into his or her own possession, because it's still wrongful interference in the relationship between owner and property, whether private property or public property. God's Law declares that “if a fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, he who started the fire shall make restitution” (Exodus 22:6). And while that law has an eye more to accidental damages, it applies to vandalism all the more. “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Fifth, there's defrauding, unfairness in business arrangements and deals. It's the landlord who won't fix what's wrong with the place, or the tenant who won't pay rent. It's the customer who hands the cashier a counterfeit $100 and asks for change. It's the guy on the street corner selling knock-off Rolexes as if they were real. It's the restaurant that uses doctored photos of fake food on their menu to seem more appetizing. It's the mechanic who pressures you into services you don't really need. It's the contractor who cuts corners and still charges the same. It's the manufacturer who builds planned obsolescence into products, making you buy a replacement sooner. It's the salesman who hands you a contract with clever tricks in the fine print, counting on you to neither read nor understand before you sign. It's the corporation that releases false accounts to keep their stock price up. It's even the friend who pressures you to buy into her multi-level marketing business, more often than not a pyramid scheme. But what does God say? “You shall not steal, you shall not deal falsely, you shall not lie to one another” (Leviticus 19:11). “Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the LORD (Proverbs 20:10), and “all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 25:16). Take no part: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Sixth, there's knowingly receiving or buying stolen property. It's the collector buying that antique looted from another country. It's the guy buying a TV in cash off the back of a van. As one ancient Jewish writer said, “Do not accept from thieves a stolen, unlawful deposit. Both are thieves: the one who receives as well as the one who steals.”10 Have no part in it: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Seventh, there's borrowing something and refusing or neglecting to return it. And you could say this is even a form of embezzlement. But the Prophet Ezekiel reminds us – or rather, God reminds us – that it's a wicked man or wicked woman who “does not restore the pledge” (Ezekiel 18:12). When your friend or neighbor asks for it back, find it and turn it over. “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Eighth, there's keeping lost-and-found property without a reasonable good-faith effort to find the owner. Moses said that, when you find something that's been lost, “you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall stay with you until your brother seeks it; then you shall restore it to him” (Deuteronomy 22:2). “With any lost thing of your brother's, which he loses and you find, you may not ignore it” (Deuteronomy 22:3). God says a sinner “has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely” (Leviticus 6:3). If a good-faith effort turns up no owner, that's one thing. But not making the effort where reasonable? Oh, “you shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

There are plenty of other ways to break the commandment, but eight's plenty for one week. So why does it matter? First, it's simply a command. Second, it's meant to be punished in the human court: One who steals “shall surely pay” (Exodus 22:3). But acts of theft also “dishonor God by breaking the law” (Romans 2:23). And so, third, stealing is also punished by God. The Prophet Zechariah sees a flying scroll covered in curses, and hears God say, “I will send it out... and it shall enter the house of the thief... and it shall remain in his house and consume it, both timber and stones” (Zechariah 5:4). Paul reminds us that neither stealthy “thieves” nor forceful “grabbers” of the property of others, public or private, “will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10). In the long run, “treasures gained by wickedness do not profit” (Proverbs 10:2). So “let none of you suffer... as a thief” (1 Peter 4:15)! We're even to stay away, Paul says, from those who claim to be Christians and yet are “grabbers” (1 Corinthians 5:11). No wonder the early church listed thefts as a step on the way of death (Didache 5.1). So “let the thief,” therefore, “no longer steal” (Ephesians 4:28).

The Law of Moses outlined how someone who realized he was a thief, a sinner against the Law, could come to justice and be restored after breaking the commandment. When you've sinned against this commandment and you realize your guilt,” you first “shall restore it in full,” what you've taken. Second, you “shall add a fifth to it, and give it to whom it belongs.” Third, you're to do that “on the day [you] realize [your] guilt,” not lazily later on (Leviticus 6:5). And fourth, you “shall bring to the priest, as [your] compensation to the LORD, a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering; and the priest shall make atonement for [you] before the LORD, and [you] shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and thereby become guilty” (Leviticus 6:6-7). So that's full restitution, added reparation, prompt delivery, and atonement to God. The only trouble here is that under the old covenant, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats” and rams “to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). They could only “sanctify for the purification of the flesh” (Hebrews 9:13), but had no ability to truly take the works of death (like theft) off your conscience (cf. Hebrews 9:14).

So let me turn your attention now to One who can. Existing in God's very own essential form, Jesus Christ did not think that equality with God meant an act of robbery, nor was it something to be grabbed at (Philippians 2:6) – and so he emptied himself, descended to our world of flesh and blood, and gave himself away. His ministry set him in direct opposition to Satan, the Cosmic Thief who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10), and to Satan's many misleading minions who seduced the world before Jesus came: “All who came before me,” he said, “are thieves and robbers” (John 10:8). For it was because of Satan that, in Jesus' day as before the exile, God's own Temple had been turned into “a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17; cf. Jeremiah 7:11).

Jesus preached against stealing. He listed “theft” among things that “defile a person” (Matthew 15:19-20). He said that keeping this commandment, “You shall not steal,” was one of the prerequisites for “entering life” (Matthew 19:17-18). And he called thieves – tax collectors like Matthew, or even the Zacchaeus who declared, “Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold!” (Luke 19:8). Jesus said that such restitution and reparation was the stuff of salvation (Luke 19:9).

Jesus did not resist Judas, though Judas was a thief who routinely embezzled from Jesus and the other apostles (John 12:6). Instead, Jesus waited until Judas' theft grew to Judas' selling Jesus out for silver. Jesus suffered his clothes to be confiscated and divided by Roman soldiers, who gambled to see who'd steal Jesus' seamless tunic (John 19:23-24). And Jesus was crucified in place of the thief Barabbas, between two other robbers (Mark 15:27), one of whom repented in faith, knowing he was in no position to repay anything, hoping only for mercy in Jesus' kingdom (Luke 23:40-42). Jesus' death was a perfect sacrifice of atonement to God, doing everything the rams couldn't. “A death has occurred,” we're told, “that redeems [people even] from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:15). Atonement has been made, enough for every theft.

Then Jesus descended to the realm of the dead, to the 'house' where Death had stolen and hoarded the souls of God's image-bearers – and what did he do there? Jesus conducted a divine police raid to recover what had been stolen! Rising from the dead, Jesus proved himself the rightful Heir and Owner of eternal life – he's entitled to it! And he bade all thieves to exchange their old dead ways for productivity making the world a better, fairer place: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28) – but more on that in the weeks ahead.

We know, even from pagan testimony, that part of early Christian worship each week involved Christians getting together in the morning “to sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit theft, robbery, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a deposit when called upon to do so.”11 Yes, the church first following Jesus took this commandment so seriously that, when they celebrated their sacrament, even outsiders could understand it was an oath to never steal, to never keep what was borrowed when asked to return it, to never be faithless stewards. Can the world tell from our worship that we take this commandment so seriously?

I hope they can. Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, who triumphed over the Cosmic Thief and all thievery, who reclaimed us as his rightful crown jewels back from the House of the Thief, who brought that house down on the devil's head and is consuming him in it; who doles out unearned treasures of grace to the penitent who ask only mercy in the kingdom, who builds us up into a beautiful house with nothing stolen there, and who welcomes us to live his honest life as our own – it's his entitlement, he shares it with whom he pleases. Glory to the God who redeems thieves! Amen.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Inseparable Mystery

John could scarcely believe his eyes. After all the patchwork visions, now appeared the simple image of a Father's canopy, beneath which stood a bride to one side and a groom to the other. John blinked. And then he no longer understood. To one side, a royal horseman aflame, a gold-belted priest, a living tempest more ancient than the stars. Opposite him, the most radiant woman, with a flowing gown of white linen just like her groom's long robe... but she was a city, a church, containing multitudes, gleaming of gold and jewels, wrapped in God's very own glory. The cry began to go up all around. “Hallelujah!” “The Lord God Almighty reigns!” “The marriage of the Lamb!” “His Bride has made herself ready!” (Revelation 19:6-7).

She stepped toward the center of the canopy, descending the stairs out of heaven, “beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun” (Song of Songs 6:10), “lovely as Jerusalem, awesome as an army with banners” (Song 6:4). “All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven in gold; in many-colored robes she is led to the king” (Psalm 45:13-14). Then the groom stepped toward her as well, shining with the same light, “anointed... with the oil of gladness..., [his] robes all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia” (Psalm 45:7-8), “crowned” for “the day of his wedding, the day of the gladness of his heart” (Song 3:11).

And with a piercing voice, the groom shouted, “'Behold, you are beautiful, my love!' (Song 4:1). 'You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride, you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.' (Song 4:9). 'You are altogether beautiful, my love, there is no flaw in you!' (Song 4:7). 'Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone' (Song 2:10-11), 'death shall be no more, neither shall there be... crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away' (Revelation 21:4). 'Look, I'm making all things new' (Revelation 21:5): 'the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come... Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away!' (Song 2:13).”

And the bride – the perfected Church – well, what can she do? She spreads her arms wide, she leaps to him, and she shouts aloud, “'I am my Beloved's, and [at last] my Beloved is mine!' (Song 6:3). 'Kiss me with the kisses of [your] mouth, for your love is better than wine! … Your name is oil poured out' (Song 1:2-3). 'Make haste, my Beloved!' (Song 8:14).” And with that, the two became – infinitely beyond imagination – one.

John saw the end for which all things were made, the destiny the whole sweep of scripture makes clear. History is leading up to an everlasting honeymoon, and in the wedding that will tie up all history, the groom is Jesus Christ, and his lovely bride is the Church, in all her spiritual and corporate reality. And that is what the entire story of the entire universe has been, and is, and always will be, about. From the very dawn of creation, God was announcing nothing less. He foreshadowed it from the instant he opened the side of Adam and brought forth for him an Eve. As Paul says, “This mystery is profound” – the mystery of Adam and Eve, the mystery of marriage itself – “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32).

Over the past couple weeks, we've said repeatedly that the standard for marriage is the life of Eden. Now what becomes equally clear is that the life of Eden was itself a window on the marvels of Eden-to-Come, the mystery of Christ and his Church, the Lamb and his Bride. And that means every marriage is meant to take its cues from Christ and the Church, matchless love and redemptive beauty. Christ and the Church are the very blueprint of marriage since before Eden, the blueprint upon which Adam and Eve were designed, to say nothing of all of us!1

Paul's treatment of the mystery unrolls for us at least seven features of the blueprint for marriage. First of all, marital love is born in self-sacrifice. Marriage is, fundamentally, about the cross. Christ's blood was the bride-price for the Church: he “gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25), “bought” her redemption “with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20). And likewise, husband and wife are summoned to sacrifice in one another's service for the sake of God: to patiently bear suffering for one another, to give themselves to and for one another, to persevere through the most paralyzing trials – that is where marriage reaches its roots.

Second, marriage involves cleansing. The Church became betrothed to Christ when he “cleansed her by the washing of water by the word” (Ephesians 5:26). Like God said to Israel, “I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil” (Ezekiel 16:9). And when that bath is given to the Church, that's baptism, the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5) which “now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). Each of us experiences it at different times from our limited perspective, but they're all part of a single seamless action of Jesus Christ. And on that blueprint, wife and husband are summoned to cleanse each other from the stains of their past, the seasons they've been bloodied and dirtied, to speak healing over one another.

Third, marriage seeks to nourish. One of the next gifts Christ brings to the Church is to “nourish” her, feed her (Ephesians 5:29). As God said to Israel, “I fed you with fine flour and oil and honey..., my bread that I gave you” (Ezekiel 16:19). Here, Paul has in mind the gift of communion, the eucharist, the bread and wine, the body and blood of the Bridegroom, in which Christ feeds the Church with his very own substance, his flesh for her flesh, which is always good for her and never hurtful. On this blueprint, husband and wife should feed each other with every lawful fruit of the garden, should ensure each other nourishment, should sustain one another.

Fourth, marriage seeks to cherish. Another thing Christ does for the Church, Paul says, is to “cherish” her – he literally says, Christ “keeps her warm” (Ephesians 5:29). He clothes the Church. As God said to Israel, “I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather; I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk” (Ezekiel 16:10). Christ clothed the Church with robes of righteousness like clean linen (Revelation 19:18), “clothed [the Church] with Power from on high,” the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49). The fire of the Spirit's love burns deep in the Church's belly. On that blueprint, husband and wife should keep each other warm through the coldest nights of life, nurturing and caring for one another with utmost tenderness.

Fifth, marriage seeks intimacy and closeness. Paul hints that Christ loves the Church as his own flesh and bone, an extension of his very soul and self – an incredible thing to think, when Christ is God! And it is natural, given that Christ and Church are one, for them to passionately seek and desire closeness, for them to lean toward the consummation beyond comprehension. And so, Paul says, “in the same way, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies,” and vice versa (Ephesians 5:28). A body isn't meant to be away from itself. Husband and wife, building from the blueprint, will naturally seek and desire to be close at every level. Emptying themselves to fill themselves with each other, each will say, “Not only I but my spouse lives in me” (cf. Galatians 2:20).

Sixth, marriage seeks to beautify. Christ is working to prepare the Church with a purity she can't muster on her own. He aims to “present the Church to himself in glory, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27). Paul's speaking of the Church's glorification, the splendor of heaven in her. And on that blueprint, husband and wife are summoned to help each other be beautiful, to enrich each other, bring out the best in each other, journey together on the voyage into the heart of glory.

Finally, marriage is meant to be unbroken and unbreakable. Christ already gave everything to the Church (Ephesians 5:25). Having seen the end in advance, we have absolute assurance that Christ is not going to call off the wedding. And it isn't just that he will not. Paul tells us that Christ “remains faithful” to his Church because “he cannot deny himself,” cannot reject the Church who is his own flesh (2 Timothy 2:13). He is Truth, and his vow to marry her is an “unchangeable thing... in which it is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18). By vowing himself to marry the Church, he's made it literally impossible for him to leave the marriage. In that regard, the Church has perfect eternal security as Church, as the predestined Bride of the Lamb.

Now, to look around, it might seem as though there's a risk of the Church getting cold feet and calling it off! After all, individual Christians certainly do, even congregations do. They desert Christ. They fool around with false gods and pestilential powers. They play the harlot on every high hill. They fall away from their first love. They divorce themselves from their God. Individuals may, groups may. But the Church, the Church as a whole, will not call off the marriage. God's word of love did not return to him void (cf. Isaiah 55:11). The vow by which Christ bound himself also binds him to give grace that guarantees the indefectibility of his Church. The Church, anchored in that grace, is prevented by the Holy Spirit from quitting – she cannot strand Christ alone at heaven's altar, cannot finally elope with any of her woeful worldly suitors. As one ancient Christian mused, “The Church has obtained her Bridegroom; she cannot marry another.”2 And that being so, on the blueprint, husband and wife neither will nor can cancel the marriage once it's begun.

But Adam and Eve lit flame to the blueprint. Sin entered the world, and their sons and daughters were too weak to carry the weight of that structure of marriage on their shoulders. They could not manage marriage as it really is. The nations, in their pagan straying, were “alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that's in them due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18). Even “all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart” (Ezekiel 3:7). “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,” Jesus explained (Matthew 19:8). That is, God temporarily refrained from holding them to his true standard. He let them get away with their Jenga towers, he refrained from enforcing the building code in full, until the day he'd bring the grace that would empower them. Then he'd lay out the blueprint again.

And that has now happened. Christ entered the world, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus revoked the Law's concessions to our hardheartedness. “From the beginning, it was not so,” nor is it any longer, for Christ overturned the concession with his “And I say to you...” (Matthew 19:8-9). So make careful note of this: It is entirely possible that the law of the nations will say that some things are marriages when God says that they aren't. It's equally possible that the law of the nations will say that some things aren't marriages when God says that they are. Legality in mortal law and validity in heaven's court are two things.

Jesus Christ taught that Christian marriage now really does receive the grace to make the endless mystery of Christ and his Church visibly present. Each marriage in the Lord is a parable that tells the story of the universe. And since Christ and his Church are unbroken and unbreakable, both forever having renounced the possibility of renouncing the other, every Christian marriage is lifted toward that standard – that's why, at every wedding, a necessary part of the vows made before God is confessing that no force can dissolve the union but death. And so Jesus teaches clearly, emphatically, firmly against divorce.3 “The wife should not separate from her husband... and the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).

In fact, when we take a close look at the Gospels, we find that Jesus was very specific about some of the kinds of wrong that can take place. Jesus said that “everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery” (Luke 16:18a), that “whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (Mark 10:11). “If she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:12). “Everyone who divorces his wife... makes her commit adultery” (Matthew 5:32a). “He who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18b), “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32b). What all this means is that the original marriage bond of first husband and first wife survives the verdict of the earthly court, whether they realize it or not. Therefore, any attempted marriage by either one after the divorce is not a marriage, Jesus says, but an adultery. God joined together the first valid marriage, and “what God has joined together, let no human being separate” (Mark 10:9; Matthew 19:6).

Now, that is absolutely a hard saying! And Jesus' disciples thought so, too. When they heard him teach it, they objected, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it's better not to marry!” (Matthew 19:10). To be united with someone so closely, to give up the power of the escape hatch – the disciples were scared to do that. But Jesus didn't back down. And once he'd poured out the Holy Spirit on them, they faithfully relayed his teaching to others, even as they found grace enough to live it themselves (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:5).

And the early church received the teaching and believed it, too. Listen to their voices: “Anyone married shouldn't seek divorce.”4 “God didn't intend the united body to be divided and split in two.”5 “Of our own free will, we cleave to the bond of single marriage... We're content with one wife or with none.”6 “Those who, by human law, make second marriages are – according to our Teacher – sinners.”7 “We are... concerned... either to stay in the state in which a man was born or to remain satisfied with one marriage, for a second marriage is gilded adultery. … He who detaches himself from his previous wife... is a covert adulterer. He thwarts the hand of God (because, in the beginning, God formed one man and one woman), and he destroys the communion of flesh with flesh in the unity characteristic of the intercourse of the sexes.”8 “If there is somebody who has a wife, or a woman who has a husband, so should they be taught that the man be contented with his wife, and the wife with her husband.”9

So far, all clear. But Matthew expands what Jesus has said. “Everyone who divorces his wife except on the ground of porneia makes her commit adultery” (Matthew 5:32). “Whoever divorces his wife except for porneia and marries another commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). What did Jesus mean there? Are there valid divorces?

I've been studying for months and years, and I've come across seven real options for what's going on here in Matthew and what it means. Here's Option #1: When Jesus says 'except,' that's Matthew's way of having Jesus refuse to get in the middle of a fight among Pharisees. Jesus' teaching is so radical that he's making their debate pointless. It's as if Jesus is saying here, “I'm not even going to open up the door to talking about exceptions based on your debates over that word.” On this view, a valid marriage would be indissoluble – period. Can't be broken. No need to raise an argument. Any divorce is ruled out, 100%.10 That's Option 1.

Got that? Well, here's Option #2: When Jesus says 'porneia,' he's referring to impediments to marriage that render the initial marriage as having been unlawful in the first place – the things Leviticus objects to, like (for example) if the marriage was between an uncle and his niece. Invalidity of the original marriage would then be the only basis for divorce (which is then annulment). But a valid marriage is indissoluble. No valid marriage can be divorced in God's court, even if there are grounds for physical or legal separation on earth.11

Does that work for you? Here's Option #3: When Jesus says 'porneia,' he's referring to sexual misconduct in the betrothal period, what we'd today call engagement. But in Jewish law, betrothal was a legally binding contract. You needed a divorce to get out of it. Given Jewish law and the story of Joseph, Matthew has to qualify Jesus' words to say that a betrothal can end in divorce for that reason. But once betrothal becomes a valid marriage, it can't be broken: it binds both parties for life.12

How about Option #4? In this one, when Jesus makes an exception, he's highlighting cases of divorce that took place before the person converted and joined the church. In that case, when a divorce took place in a person's pre-Christian past, that prior marriage and divorce can be disregarded when it comes to the convert's freedom to marry a fellow believer. But valid marriages between two Christians can't be dissolved: they bind for life.13

Things change when we get to Option #5. In this view, when Jesus says 'porneia,' he's talking about adultery, talking about unfaithfulness in the marriage. On this ground, the offended spouse who's been cheated on is permitted to divorce the offender. However, this doesn't dissolve the marriage in God's eyes. Therefore, neither party is free to remarry as long as the other one is living. All second marriages contracted while the first spouse is alive will therefore be invalid.14 Divorce, sometimes; remarriage, never.

And when we get to Option #6, things change even further. Again, in this view, Jesus is making an exception to his ban on divorce in the case of adultery, unfaithfulness in the marriage. Again, on this ground, the offended spouse is permitted to divorce the offender. But in this view, a divorce on the grounds of adultery really does dissolve the marriage. The offended party is therefore free to remarry even while the other former spouse is still alive. However, that is the only lawful basis for divorce followed by remarriage.15

Finally, there's Option #7, which is a lot like #6. But in this view, Jesus has really changed nothing from the Old Testament. Divorce is valid in case any of the biblical marriage vows are violated, such as vows of food, clothing, and intimacy (or, today we'd say, material support and emotional support). Therefore, on any of those grounds, the offended spouse is permitted to divorce the offender. This really does dissolve the marriage, on this view, and either party is then free to remarry even while the other former spouse is alive. However, only this group of lawful reasons for divorce exists, and divorces for other reasons are still invalid.16

Those are the seven interpretations I've seen put forward. The first four rule out divorce altogether. The first five rule out remarriage. The sixth and seventh just restrict divorce and remarriage, either to cases of adultery alone (#6) or to tangible violations of any of the marriage vows (#7). But which one is right? What did Jesus actually mean? Which is the right rule? I'd love to be able to tell you. But I don't know. And I'm not going to stand up here and pretend I do. When I preached on this topic five years ago, I was a man totally convicted of Seven, the most permissive possibility. But that's an outlier. Six has more modern support. Two is defended by some respectable scholars. Three and Four can't be counted out. And Five has been the majority view for almost the entire history of Christianity, and that's so hard to argue with, I personally trust it as a safe bet.

We could debate the possibilities for days. And they do matter, especially between 5 and 6 and 7. But our real problem is that neither country nor church believes in any of them. Over the past few years, we've been prone to complain greatly about how our culture has decided to redefine marriage. And that's true! America is guilty of redefining marriage, which isn't hers to create in the first place. But same-sex marriage wasn't the start of that trend. No-fault divorce laws were as big a turning point, starting when California's were signed into law in 1969 by Gov. Reagan (yes, that Reagan). Everything else in American marriage law and marriage culture today is downstream from that signature. But even that was not the beginning. Stretching back centuries, people have have thrown away marriages and tried to start new ones, with scarcely a moment's thought to what Jesus said.

So where does that put us? Some of us have kept up the law of Christ in this. Maybe you're content without a spouse – either because you never married or because the bonds of marriage were dissolved by death, and so you're free, if you wish, to live the angelic life for heaven's kingdom. Or maybe you're content with your one spouse, the only one who walks this earth, one living wife or husband in Christ, and in that way, the two of you live a parable of the Great Mystery. And that is holy.

But for all of us, it hasn't been so. Some of us have, tragically, been divorced under the laws of man. Your wife or your husband vowed to be with you until death parted you, but he or she walked away from that commitment and broke that vow or behave in ways that made it impossibly dangerous, to you or your children, to share room and board any longer. So mortal law divorced you, decreed you separated. But maybe that mortal law didn't have power to dissolve that bond. Maybe you know God's court in heaven didn't ratify that divorce. And you know the words of Paul, that if you've had to separate, it falls to husband and wife alike “to remain unmarried or else be reconciled” to one another (1 Corinthians 7:11). You obey that word. And you please the Lord.

Yet some of us may realize we haven't obeyed that word. Maybe you didn't know the word was there. Maybe you weren't thinking with the mind of Christ at the time. You've been divorced by mortal law and have even attempted another marriage, even though you still had a living husband or wife in the eyes of God, and maybe still do. And now you realize that Jesus, gently but firmly, speaks from the Gospel page that this is adultery.

What can you do? What does repentance look like, if you entered an invalid union while your first bond is still valid and undissolved? Some might say that repentance involves legally severing ties – a divorce of the invalid union. Others might say that repentance doesn't need that, just a physical separation of household – moving out.17 Still others might say that neither legal divorce nor separation of household is necessary, but that it's enough to live together in continence, to end the sexual dimension of the relationship, and so to recognize one another as not husband and wife in God's eyes.18 But others think that only the initial act of remarriage was an act of adultery, not the later relationship. So some think that it's enough to have sorrow and contrition over the act of adultery and to undergo a season of penance, but then the couple can live as husband and wife.19 And others think that the season of penance isn't necessary – that repentance can be quick and easy, and let them get on with their life together, regardless of what other spouse may be out there.20 For my part, I hope it's the easier option – that wouldn't be too painful, wouldn't put too many demands on your lives. It sure would be nice if repentance were always easy to complete. But then Jesus comes and starts talking about denying ourselves and carrying a cross and following him (Mark 8:34). It's easy for us to tell that to others – to people with same-sex attraction, or to people who desire a spouse but struggle to find one. We find it easy to lecture them on the way of the cross. But perhaps Jesus was talking to us, too. Maybe he's getting more personal than we find bearable.

Whatever the details of what Jesus said, and however he invites us to fully repent of having broken them, what we can all agree on is this: that we Christians should, as a rule, be known as a people who live out the mystery of marriage – a people who treat our bonds as no more breakable than Christ's love for the Church, who treat our spouses as our very own flesh to be respected and nourished and cherished, who spur one another on to deeper holiness and health, and who live to make the good news a little bit more believable in the world (and that includes by how we marry and how we value our marriages).

But whether you're married or not, it ultimately doesn't matter. Whatever your state in life, you have the same call: to live toward that Great Mystery. Live toward the mystery of a Christ whose love can never let the Church go, nor can leave any opening for the Church's final love to ever let go of him. Our marriages are meant to be training grounds for, scale models of, and pathways to that Great Mystery. So above all else, let us be just “sick with love” for our Jesus (Song 2:5; 5:8)! And may the world know it by how we live, in marriage or in singleness, toward the Great Mystery – by the blueprint. Amen.