COMMENTARY: Real Questions, Real Answers

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

(Tom Ehrich is a writer and computer consultant, managing large-scale database implementations. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C.)

(UNDATED) Riding home from the airport Sunday, my 9-year-old son fired questions at me.

Could we go to a college soccer game tomorrow? Could we watch a movie? Could we go out to breakfast, just the two of us? Would I like to see his drawing? Will I be at his soccer game?

If I had any doubt where these questions originated, he spelled it out for me.

With a sigh, he noted that his brothers have gone to college, and now I travel on business. “I feel like I have lost my two brothers,” he said, “and now I feel like I have lost my father.”

I knew his perception of a family lost was more for effect than from actual Angst. I knew he would be out the door the minute a friend called.

But I needed to hear the question within the questions. Do I still love him? Does he still matter? Is the family being broken up?

I assured him my three weeks in Italy were just business travel, that he is as important to me as ever, and that our family is strong. I gave him that assurance, not so much by giving him a direct answer to a question he was not aware of asking, but by taking his questions seriously and by knowing that the proof would be follow-through.

The next day, we did go to a college soccer game. He left us the minute he saw some friends. But he did so in confidence, not in despair.

People asked many questions of Jesus. A few have been passed on to us in the Gospels. Those asked by common people were usually about the central agonies of life, such as illness, death, identity and sin. Those asked by officialdom were about rules and hierarchies, and often were designed to trap Jesus.

Jesus rarely answered a question with a simple yes or no. He taught in parables, not doctrines. He heard the heart’s cry, not the legalist’s need for definition.

One day, to test him, the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Would Jesus stray from ancient precepts that gave men control over women, that treated women as disposable property? Would Jesus affirm ancient attitudes that we see expressed today in the chador of Islam?

His answer began in ambiguity. Moses gave the ancient divorce laws, he said, because of people’s “hardness of heart.” God’s desire, he said, is the joining of two lives in something new. If God created the union, we should honor it.

But that wasn’t enough for the legalists who took charge of transmitting oral tradition to us in the written Gospels. They wanted a simple yes or no. They went on to quote Jesus as condemning divorce as a prelude to adultery.

Is that the end of it? If you treat Scripture as quotable snippets, each snippet capable of revealing a rule, maybe it is. That certainly is how legalistic believers have seen it, even to this day. Popes, prelates and pastors have done everything possible to throw rules at couples contemplating divorce. King and commoner alike have fallen under this stone of guilt and condemnation.

Did we miss the point? Why would a messiah who answered other questions with parables and ambiguity make an exception with a vexing question like divorce?

I think Jesus knew his questioners. Like rule-makers of all eras, their power came from controlling the setting of rules, not from concern for people. They were hypocrites, whose concern was to trap him and reinforce their control.

What did Jesus actually say about divorce? I doubt that we will ever know. But I know that he tended to hear people’s real questions, to sense their brokenness. I know that most rules meant nothing to him. If Jesus had any heart for condemnation, it was for greed and bigotry, not violation of tribal rules. I know that rules promulgated in Jesus’ name tend to serve the promulgator.

Where does that leave us with divorce? It leaves us on our knees, begging for mercy and discernment. It leaves us listening to difficult heart-questions, not easy yes-or-no questions.


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