So the conversation is in three parts. The Pharisees want to test Jesus and ask him about divorce. His initial response is simply to quote what’s in the law. They are not content with that and then ask him why Moses allowed people to divorce. ‘Because of your hardness of heart’, Jesus replies. And in a third moment the disciples get in on the conversation, and decide that Jesus’ answer is too difficult
In some ways this passage, from Matthew 19, harks back to many things Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, where he reads passages from the law and then gives a more radical interpretation of how they are now to be lived out, in the kingdom of heaven, in the ethics of the kingdom. ‘You have heard that it was said … but I say to you’. And in this passage too he says that: ‘I say to you’.
It was not so from the beginning, he says. This is not how God intended it to be. The original plan for marriage did not envisage divorce. But now, the Pharisees say to him, this is what Moses decided should be allowed. We might hear people saying or imagine people saying this is how the real world is, not all marriages work out. What’s the problem? Hardness of heart, Jesus says, sklerocardia, the hardness of your heart, a sclerosis of the heart, hearts becoming stone, sometimes through sin, sometimes through disappointment, rejection, betrayal – there are many reasons why human hearts become stony, begin to close down, find it all too much to bear.
And nor is it to be so in the future. This is what the disciples’ question enables Jesus to say: it is not to be like this in the future. If his initial answer looks back to the past, to original innocence – from the beginning it was not to be like this – his third answer, to the disciples, looks forward to the future, to the kingdom of heaven, to a place where this will not be an issue again.
The hardness of heart … who will take out of our bodies these hearts of stone and give us heart of flesh instead? Well, not ourselves. We don’t have the ability, it seems, to remove these hearts of stone, to give ourselves hearts of flesh. It is the gift of the Spirit as we read in the prophet Ezekiel who removes from our bodies hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh instead. We need to learn to receive. This is what Jesus says at the end. It is a matter of grace, not of something we can achieve ourselves, but of something we receive, the gift of the spirit, the gift of God’s grace. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it, he says. Whoever accepts the invitation to live towards the kingdom of God will, by the power of God’s grace, find themselves able to live according to the ethics of the kingdom. They will find their hearts of stone being turned into hearts of flesh.
Not that that’s going to be an easy process for any of us. Jesus himself leads the way and shows us, through his suffering and death on the cross, how the kingdom of heaven has been established.
You can listen to this homily being preached at theWord