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Life of Jesus Christ in Its Historical Connexion and Historical Developement.
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§ 224. His Decision on the Question of Divorce.—Celibacy. (Matt., xix, 2-12; Mark, x., 3-12.)

AS Jesus could remain no longer at Jerusalem with safety, he re tired for a while into the vicinity of Bethabara, in Peraea,606606   John, x., 40. This brief stay in Peraea is intimated also in Matt., xix., 1; for whatever sense is put upon the words εἰς τὰ ὅρια τῆς Ἰουδαίας, it is expressly said that Christ went πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου. What is said in Mark, x., 1, i. e., that he went through Peraea to Judea, appears to conflict with the original account of the journey, as given in Luke. Comparing Matt., xix., 1, seq., and Mark, x., 1, seq., we infer that what is here related took place partly during Christ’s stay in Peraea, and partly when he had retired from Jerusalem into Judea. where he had first appeared publicly, and where he had always found, in the results of the Baptist’s labours, a point of departure for his own. Many in that neighbourhood were prepared to recognize Jesus as higher than John, because the latter had done no such Divine works as the former daily performed.

In view of his admitted authority, weighty questions in theology—at least some which were much debated in the schools of the time—were proposed to him for solution. These questions were put either to test his wisdom, or because of the confidence men had already acquired in his illumination as a prophet. One of them concerned the interpretation of the Mosaic law of divorce, and was chiefly disputed between the schools of Hillel and of Schammai. Both schools erred in confounding the political and juridical with the moral elements of the question.607607   Cf. Michaelis on the Law of Moses, ii., § 120. The school of Hillel held that the moral law of marriage was satisfied in the Theocratico-political law of Moses; that of Schammai understood the demands of morality better, but erred in interpreting the Mosaic law, and in their idea of the stand-point from which it was given.

When the question was presented to Christ for decision, he separated the two stand-points—the moral and the legal—which had been confounded by the schools; in substance, however, in the notion of marriage itself, he agreed most with the school of Schammai. He declared (as he had before done in the Sermon on the Mount608608   Cf. p. 233.) that marriage is, according to its idea, an indissoluble union, by which man and wife are joined into one whole, constituting but one life [“they twain are one flesh”]. As it was his work every where to lead back all human relations to their original intention, so he decided that the idea of marriage represented in Genesis, as originally the basis of its institution by God, should be realized in life.

This idea of marriage is not an isolated thing, separate from the system of life that emanated from Christ, but belongs to its organism as a whole. As Christ has restored in human nature the image of God in its totality, so the two-fold ground-form for its exhibition, denoted by the opposite sexes, must be reinstated in its rights—its ideal must be realized. It is essential to this that these two ground-forms fulfil their destiny, and become mutually complementary to each other in a higher unity of life, binding two personalities together; and this is marriage. It was by Christ, therefore, that the true import of this relation had to be unfolded.

Having derived from Gen., ii., 24, the higher unity into which two persons of different sexes should be joined by marriage, he drew the following conclusion: “What, therefore, God (by the original institution of marriage, by the inward relation of the two persons to each other, and by the leadings through which he makes them conscious of it) hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Upon this they asked, How, then, does this bear upon the Mosaic law, which admits of divorce?” He replied, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts (your rude and carnal condition), suffered you to put away your wives (as state laws do not aim to realize moral ideas or to create a moral sense, but to bring about outward civilization, the laws being adapted to the stand-point of the nature); but from the beginning it was not so.”

But Christianity, from its very nature, can make no such condescensions. It is her problem every where to realize the ideals of the creation; a task which the new life imparted by God makes possible to her. In fact, Christ’s decision in this particular case illustrates the entire relation of Judaism to Christianity; there, condescension to a rude condition of the natural man, which could not be removed by outward means; here, the restoration of that which was in the beginning. Judaism, in a word, stood midway between the original and the renewal (Gal., iii., 19.)

This high idea of marriage was at that time beyond the reach of the disciples; its indissolubility appeared so hard, and the responsibility (if every separation were adultery) so great, that they said, in alarm, “If the case be so, it is better not to marry at all.”

Now it is not to lie imagined that Christ would reply to this only by praising those who were incapable of realizing the Christian idea of marriage and exalting the superiority (even though a conditional one) of a single life. We should have expected, in accordance with his usual mode of teaching, that he would point out the ground of their alarm in the state of their hearts, and show that what appeared so difficult would be made easy by the power of the Divine life. Moreover, if he intended to answer them only by recommending celibacy, he omitted precisely that which the occasion demanded, viz., the mention of celibacy arising from conscious inability to come up to the moral standard of marriage. This sudden leap, from a lofty definition of the idea of marriage to a laudation of celibacy, appears certainly unaccountable; we must, therefore, suppose that some intermediate part of the conversation has been omitted. The disciples might have inferred, from his placing marriage so high, that it was to be indispensable, under the new covenant, to the manifestation of We kingdom of God. In this respect, however, Christ stood directly opposed to the Jewish standpoint, which absolutely required marriage; he was far from prescribing an unconditional form, binding under all the manifold and diversified circumstances of life; the kingdom of God could be served under various relations and conditions, and all was to bend to this object.

We must presume, therefore, either that (as is often the case in Matthew’s Gospel) the passage has been transferred from some other connexion to this; or, if it really belongs here, that the intermediate portions of the conversation have not been transmitted to us.

Christ’s doctrine on celibacy here is, that, if it aim at the glory of God, it must, like true marriage, be connected with the power of controlling nature. Such celibacy, and such only, does he recognize, as implies the sacrifice of human feelings from love to the kingdom of God, and for the sake of rendering it more efficient service. Only in this sense could he have spoken of celibacy “for the kingdom of Heaven’s sake;” he never used this expression to denote fitting one’s self for the kingdom by a contemplative life, &c., but always to denote a holy activity in its service. He condemns those who bury their talents in order to preserve them. But at a time when the outward spread of the kingdom of God was the chief object of religious effort, celibacy, for its sake especially, might find place.

It is to be carefully noted that Christ by no means says “Blessed are those who abstain from marriage for the sake of the kingdom,” &c., as if this, in itself, was pre-eminently excellent; but simply describes an existing state of facts: “There are some eunuchs,” &c.; distinguishing such as adopt this mode of life for the sake of the kingdom from those that either have no choice in the matter, or are actuated by other motives. His decision, therefore, was opposed not only to the old Hebrew notion that celibacy was per se ignominious, but also to the ascetic doctrine which made it per se a superior condition of life; a doctrine so widely diffused in later times. It involves his great principle, that the heart and disposition must be devoted to the interests of the kingdom of God, and for it must voluntarily modify all the relations of life as necessity may require.


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