MONDAY, 9/19
Read Matthew 5:31-32.
As we move through Matthew 5, we find Jesus bring Kingdom clarity to the conditions of divorce.  In the first century, the reasons why a husband could divorce his wife were hotly debated.  Deuteronomy 24 provided something of a framework for divorce, but the reasons were a little murky.  As a result, rabbis would discuss these issues in the public square and in the synagogues.  Different pharisaical schools arrived at very different conclusions.  One school determined that adultery was the only appropriate reason for divorce.  Another said that if a man’s wife so much as burned a meal, that was reason for divorce.  
Jesus enters the conversation here.  He names adultery as the viable reason for divorce.  He goes on to say that divorcing for any other reason makes the wife a “victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”  What is Jesus saying here? 
This is where Jesus’ teaching begins to separate from even the conservative Pharisees in His day.  Jesus places the burden of adultery on a husband who abuses divorce.  He can make his wife a victim of adultery.  The husband also commits adultery when he marries a divorced woman. Why does Jesus take such a strong line here?  We’ll get into that a little more tomorrow, but there is something else at work here that I want us to see.  
These verses could very well be connected to the teachings above it on adultery.  In each of these, Jesus addresses the men.  Why is that?  There are a couple of answers to that.  It’s likely because men were most likely to use their sexual desire for harm against women.  In marriage, men had all the power in the relationship.  That power could easily be abused, so Jesus tightens the reins for Kingdom men to provide protection that women simply didn’t have in the ancient world.  There is a message from Jesus here that in His Kingdom, women must be protected– never abused, or taken advantage of.  That is another example of how Jesus called these people to a much different life than what they saw practiced around them.  
Paul reinforces this idea in Ephesians.  In describing how it is the husband’s job to love his wife, he calls the husband to love and protect her like he does his own body.  The human body demands that we care for it.  If you’re like me, you can’t go more than 4-5 hours without your body reminding you that a meal is needed in the very near future.  Our bodies have trained us so well that we don’t even think about caring for its needs.  It’s just a part of life.  Paul says a husband selflessly caring for his wife should become just as natural.  It should not be seen as an intrusion or inconvenience.  We must protect, love, and care for her as a way to point toward Jesus’ powerful love.  This is the very idea Jesus is promoting here in Matthew 5:31-32.   
I want to take a pastoral moment here.  Visiting Jesus’ teachings around divorce can stir up a lot of sensitive feelings for those having experienced divorce.  Divorce is extremely painful and causes some deep wounds that take a lot of intentional time to heal.  Jesus is not picking at those wounds, nor are we by looking at these teachings.  As His disciples, it’s important for us to wrestle with all of Jesus’ words–the ones we like and the ones we would change it we could.  We trust Jesus and that His desire is to lead us to a life of fullness with Him.  We are also confident that His grace covers us and that we can enjoy His forgiveness and experience true restoration from our sin and pain.  So if this is a sensitive subject, may you experience the beauty and grace behind Jesus’ words this week.   
Praying Together:
“Lord, You are so very good.  I am thankful that You love us.  You know us–even the parts of us that we do not understand, You do.  We cannot hide our brokenness from You, and You don’t ask us to.  You call us to come to You as we are to find mercy and grace.  May we enjoy a fresh helping of Your grace this day.  Open our eyes and hearts to Your life-giving teachings for You want to lead us to the truest life that is found in You and Your Kingdom.  Amen.”
Read Matthew 19:1-6.
Here in Matthew 19, Jesus is tested by the Pharisees with the question regarding reasons for divorce.  Jesus, however, doesn’t refer to the Law but rather to the first marriage covenant in Genesis 2.  Jesus is making a point here by drawing them back to God’s intent for marriage.  They were stuck in the letter of the Law.  Jesus points them to God’s heart and desire for marriage.  
In Genesis 2, Adam and Eve are joined together in a covenant relationship.  They are both like and unlike the other, and yet they come together to form a shared life through the covenant of marriage.  This is a beautiful and sacred bond.  This oneness is experienced on every level of our personhood.  It is emotional, spiritual, and physical in nature.  
To think about it another way, the Greeks identified four kinds of love.  Phileo was the love of friends.  Storge was the protective love like that a parent feels for a child.  Eros was romantic love.  And finally, there was agape, which is a perfect, selfless love.  Marriage is the only relationship in which you exercise all four loves for the other.  In marriage as God intends, we will experience deep friendship, sexual passion, and a protective, selfless love for the other.  When we live this out, it has the power to form deep bonds with our covenant partner.  
Of course, this is simply the things we practice that build a stronger bond in marriage.  Jesus acknowledges here the mysterious work of God in marriage to bind a couple under the marriage covenant.  “Mystery” is the best word I can find to sum up how the scriptures flesh this idea out.  What we do know is that it is to be taken seriously because separating from that bond is not God’s idea for it.   
We have to remember that Jesus values our relationships.  It is His desire that we experience blessing and wholeness from our relationships, especially the marriage relationship.  The marriage relationship, more than any other relationship, has the power to bless or harm.  If you look at the Bible’s teachings regarding marriage, you will see that the intent is to protect and fortify that relationship.  It is for each to experience spiritual wholeness, joy, and selfless love.  
Now, we will fall short of providing such things for our covenant partner.  We are broken ourselves.  Given that the bar for marriage is to match Jesus’ love for His church and respect for His Father, it is inevitable that we will fall short of such a high vision.  That is why forgiveness and grace must be pillars of any covenant relationship.  Without them, the relationship will be doomed.  Covenant partners must grow in their capacity to extend these gifts to the other.  Marriage stretches us and challenges us to grow as people.  That’s the beauty and the challenge of marriage.   
Praying Together:
“Jesus, I celebrate Your lovingkindness.  You have shown us the power of what covenant love can do when You poured out Your life for us.  This is the love to which we are called to practice.  To begin to reach for such heights, we need Your grace to rework our broken, often self-centered hearts.  We want to love like You love.  Help us grow in this way that we might bring You glory in every relationship and in our marriages.  Amen.”  
Read Matthew 19:7-9.
Jesus often catches people by surprise with His answers.  He has a way of making us think and of opening our eyes to new realities that had previously gone unseen.  He does so here.  
The Pharisees are confused.  If the marriage bond was meant to do just that—bind in a way that was not intended to be broken—why did Moses allow divorce?  Jesus replies, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.  But it was not this way from the beginning.”  Let’s unpack what Jesus is saying here.  
In Matthew 19:1-6, Jesus takes the Pharisees back to the first marriage covenant.  By looking back to Genesis 2, we are able to see God’s intent for marriage.  It is for Adam and Eve to experience well-being and wholeness in their shared life together.  They are held together by a deep bond first gifted to them by God and built upon as they practice love for the other.  In this relationship, people will know abundant blessing.
Divorce was not a part of God’s intent for the marriage covenant.  It came into the picture only because of our sinful nature.  While we have spent time on Monday and Tuesday’s teachings building the vision of what marriage is to be with selfless love for the other, we know that it isn’t always the case.  At times, our pride prevents us from extending forgiveness.  We choose to harbor bitterness against the other.  We hide and withhold.  We do harm rather than bless.  All the while, cracks and fissures begin to form in the bond.  Jesus says the culprit is hardness in our hearts.  
Everyone experiences this in marriage, whether the marriage holds or not.  Some marriages grow so toxic that those in it are no longer able or willing to keep it together.  It happens.  While there are certainly times the harmful actions of the other are to blame, often each has a share to claim.  We are broken people.  All of us, period.  The bond of marriage is so intimate that there is no hiding our brokenness.  Our covenant partner will get an up-close view of it.  It isn’t easy to see that in another, but it might even be more difficult to let someone else see that in us.   
At the first marriage covenant, sin had not yet entered the picture.  For a time, Adam and Eve lived in perfect love for the other.  Genesis says that they were naked and knew no shame.  They were completely open to the other.  Their first actions once sin arrived on the scene were to hide from God and each other.  Adam blamed Eve and Eve passed the blame to the serpent.  In just a handful of statements after the fall, we see this perfect union give way to mistrust.  This was not God’s intent for marriage, but it is the reality with which we must contend. 
I believe what Jesus wants for the Christ-centered marriage is for us to be aware of the brokenness that we bring to the relationship–for us to take ownership of such sin and refuse to pass the blame to the other.  He is calling us to grow in love, knowing that our deficiencies in that category will be exposed.  He implores us to practice grace and forgiveness with the other.  He is even willing to supply us with the grace needed to do so.  The first marriage covenant is the vision we strive for with God’s help.  To reach for such heights, we need to become new people in Christ.  That is the gift of marriage for us.   
Praying Together:
“Father, You give grace upon grace and mercy upon mercy.  You know the hardness in our hearts and how our sin complicates so many of our relationships.  We want You to do a new work in us.  We submit to You.  We ask You to change our hard hearts.  Give us hearts of flesh that can be molded to Your will and Your ways.  We need You to do this work.  We are too stubborn and insufficient to do this on our own.  Do something new and amazing in us.  Amen.”  
Read Matthew 5:33-35
In both the Gentile and the Jewish worlds, an oath invoked the deity (i.e., God) to guarantee the truth of what was said, or to punish the one taking the oath if what was affirmed was not true. Vows were made directly to God and were to guarantee that the action taken would be done.  Oaths are still used in the court system in the United States before we testify. We swear an oath that we will “tell the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” Both oaths and vows are an attempt to ensure that the person speaking is telling the truth, and, if not, will face legal consequences, including imprisonment.
Jesus talks about the Old Testament teaching concerning oaths (Leviticus 19:12), then declares oaths as unnecessary.  Oaths assume that by “swearing on our relationship with God” we are more likely to do the right thing.  If we are true to our faith, then we will tell the truth, regardless of any oath.  It’s not a matter of following the rules. Being truthful starts with the human heart. If the heart has been changed by the promises, the words, and the actions of Jesus Christ, then we will strive to be truthful in all that we do and say. An oath is not needed.
Jesus does not condemn oaths in court or vows in a wedding ceremony.  Seeking justice and the establishment of marriage in a vow serve a purpose for the community.  Both acknowledge boundaries that must be defined for the betterment of the community at large.  I wonder if you have ever made an oath or vow in Jesus’ name to motivate yourself to change your circumstances.  In what ways are oaths or vows used in today’s culture?
Praying together:
“Dearest God of All Things, You trust that I will speak and act in a way that strengthens my faith and my relationship with You.  You are patient with me when I begin to bargain with You about the right way of doing things. Help me to catch the times when I begin to make an oath to do something in Your Name before I do it. Remind me that loving You allows me to love others in all that I do. Strengthen me so that I may live into the life You made for me without the need to swear an oath.  May Your will be done over my own. Amen.”
FRIDAY, 9/23
Read Matthew 5:36-37.
One of the reasons that Jesus came to us over two thousand years ago was to teach us a way to love God and others in ways that we had never experienced. That love was so pure and unassuming that, at times, we might have a hard time accepting it. We live in a world where we are quick to judge.  We often find it difficult to accept what others say at face value. We may pause when we hear someone say something they believe in because we need the time to ascertain if what they are saying is true. 
We, as Christians, would like to assume that people are heavily invested in their faith and would always tell the truth, but the influence of sin  and the need to shape the truth to our liking are so great that we need a way to prove that what someone else says is true. Swearing on the Bible and making an oath in the name of our Lord are supposed to set consequences for our actions and words if we are not truthful.  The oath also assumes that any Christian will be extra motivated because God’s name is attached, and if they don’t tell the truth, they will know up front what will happen. The consequences are also an added motivator to being truthful, regardless of your religious affiliation.
Another concern of Jesus is the usage of language in oaths to disguise dishonest intentions. Jesus emphasized in His teaching that honest men do not need to resort to oaths. Why do we find it necessary to introduce our promises by some truth in this formula? The only reason is that we know our simple word is not likely to be tested so we try to induce people to believe us by adding a solemn oath. The more we resort to oaths, the more we devalue human language and human promises. Christians should say what they mean and mean what they say. It is best that we say a simple “yes” or “no”; anything beyond this can be deceitful.           
I wonder if answering a question with a single word–yes or no–would be considered a credible, truthful answer in today’s society. What can we do to build trust into our language to prevent having to swear to something for it to be considered trustworthy?
Praying together:
“Almighty God, my world needs You.  Teach me how to love others with my actions and my words.  Show me how to create a language of love that elevates and prioritizes You.  Teach me how to trust others and see them through the eyes of faith. I want to be able to serve others as  Jesus did. Strengthen me so that I may be the true example of Christ.  Embolden me to be His hands and feet.  It is in Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.”
Read Numbers 30:2.
Vows are a type of promise made to God that requires action.  There are several assumptions made about our relationship to God as the vow is carried forward.  First, making a vow with God assumes the active presence of God in the lives of individuals and the community. Examples of vows include Hannah’s request for a son (1 Samuel 1), and Israel’s request for divine help in war (Numbers 21:2). Both requests illustrate typical situations in which vows were made.
It is assumed that vows were not interpreted metaphorically in ancient Israel.  Vows imply that God is a concrete active force in human affairs. The ancient Israelites expected God to be faithful to a contract, and they held one another accountable to do what was promised in the vow.  Failing to fulfill the contract made within a vow would threaten the sanctity of the words and impact the health of the entire community. 
It assumes that vows hold God and the person making the vow accountable. Vows are public contracts whose fulfillment strengthens a community’s faith. Numbers 30 reminds us that both God and we have legal obligations when we make vows.   We must do all we can when sharing a vow with God to remember its details. Examples of vows include ordination of clergy, marriage, baptism, and tithing.
I wonder how the vows have changed since the Old Testament times. Looking at the vows made today, which vows are the most difficult to keep? How has accountability for these vows changed over time?
Praying together:
“Magnificent God, You know all and see all and yet you continue to offer me grace and peace.  I celebrate second chances, especially if I have the chance to learn from broken vows. Hold me accountable, Lord.  Show me the best way to support others in their vows. What can I do to help others as they struggle with their vows? What must I do to ensure that I keep my vows? Walk with me, Lord. I ask this in Your Name, Amen.”
SUNDAY, 9/25
Read Deuteronomy 23:21-23.
Little is known about the economic development of the ancient Israelite economy, but it would seem that laws at the time were shaped by land ownership, those who stood to inherit, and the hope of prosperity.  The book of Deuteronomy can be described as one of general economic stability.  Israel, as it is portrayed within the laws, is a community of opportunity and social and commercial sophistication. Guidelines were established to balance out things like misappropriation of property on the one hand, and the requirement to uphold the traditional compassion of the extended family on the other.  These guidelines were established to protect the weaker and more vulnerable members of the community.
There seems to be a connection between what business does and how vows to God work.  According to Dr. Dozeman, “It is the belief that a vow might serve as a form of inducement to God so that the enterprise would be blessed. Any delay in paying what would have been vowed is here prohibited out of the theological conviction that words spoken to God, even in secret, were binding promises in which the integrity and good faith of the giver were at stake.”
 We find that throughout Biblical history, vows were also a sign of the trustworthiness and good faith of a religious worshiper. Gifts to God were proof of faith and of God’s governance in the world. I wonder if the brief description of Biblical economy above holds some similarities to our current economy.  If so, how?
Praying together:
“I need Thee every hour, God. I know that vows are serious commitments to You from me.  Remind me how careful I must be when making vows.  Continue to invest in me even when I struggle with the vows I’ve made.  I know You are ever-present and active in this world.  Guide me through the darker places into the light.  In the name of Jesus. Amen.”