Jesus is, of course, basing his response off of the activity of God. As I've lamented many, many times already, too many people think of God in the Old Testament as a god who loves dealing out punishment. They treat him like a pagan god, moody, fickle, and ready to smite anyone who doesn't offer the correct goat on Wednesday. In my religious tribe, this same mentality carries over into concern about how many times we meet for worship each week or what type of songs we sing or what type of clothes we wear for church. Don't make the pagan gods angry! They'll punish you. This is a tragic misunderstanding of God. This is a tragic misunderstanding of the narrative of the Bible. Does God discipline? Absolutely, but he is nothing like the pagan gods and goddesses that surrounded the Israelites or the first Christians. He is not an angry God out for our blood.
Some might find this odd, but it was reading Ezra that got me thinking about this. Ezra is a book about the first returning exiles. It is a very human book full of human concerns and points of view. It often times reads like a section of an archive or journal. You can tell it's written much closer to the actual events then I or II Chronicles, the books that proceed it. It's about the predicament the returning Jews find themselves in once they return to a ruined city and a ruined country. For the most part, it is an encouraging book. It's not a cookies and cream book, by any means. Not everything goes well for the returned exiles. They face significant political resistance from the people around them, but as they do, God sees them through and provides for them. It has a very strange ending, however.
Toward the end of the book, Ezra, a priest, scribe, and expert in Mosaic Law, comes to Jerusalem with another wave of returning exiles. What he finds disturbs him deeply. The Jews of the first return had been intermarrying with the people already there. Ezra is outraged. He calls the leaders of the Jews together, and after deliberation, convinces them that the only solution is to have the Jews divorce their spouses. This can be misconstrued as racism, but that is not the issue. The Bible is full of non-Jews marrying into Jewish families, and that being considered a good thing. Take Rahab and Ruth for example. The problem Ezra discovers when he returns to Jerusalem is not marriage, but the fact that the Jews are already returning to pre-exile behavior, the type of behavior that led to exile.
Here is the second half of Ezra's prayer we can read in chapter nine.
"And Now, our God,what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, 'The land that you are entering to possess is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations. They have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, so that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.' After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you destroyed us without remnant or survivor? O LORD, God of Israel, you are just, but we have escaped as a remnant, as is now the case. Here we are before you in our guilt, though no one can face you because of this." (Italics added.)
The issue is not that Jewish men have brought foreign women into their midst. The issue is that they have willingly brought foreign gods into their midst, what Ezra calls abominations and uncleanness. That is what has Ezra so upset, and that is completely understandable for a post-exilic priest. Think about how many times the Israelites had fallen into this trap. God leads them out of exile, but as soon as they get to Mount Sinai, they convince Aaron to make a golden calf. A cow was the embodiment of the Egyptian god Apis. Balaam of Peor gets the Israelites to worship other gods and goddesses by getting them to intermarry with Moabite women. Once the Israelites take possession of Canaan, they begin to intermarry with other Canaanites, leading them to worship Baal and Asherah, which were like the gateway drug of ancient pagan religions. By the time the Jews are taken into exile, they worship all sorts of gods and goddesses from all sorts of nations, burning their own children as sacrifices.
Was Ezra overreacting? Not if the Jews' past behavior had anything to say about it. Even the Exile couldn't purge the Jews of entertaining false worship to false deities because of their spouses. In spite of all they had been through, in spite of all God had done for them past and present, here they were worshiping false gods again, all in the name of love.
Now before we get to riled over the behavior of Jews who lived 2500 years ago, let's all admit something. We haven't changed any. It seems as if humanity's foolishness, betrayal, and stupidity know no end. Those attributes have gone on endlessly for millennia, but the flip side of this is also true. God's wisdom, faithfulness, and compassion also know no end. They, too, have gone on endlessly, and it is a good thing. In ancient Israel, God helped the Jews rebuild their homes in spite of their repeated betrayal. He brought them men like Ezra who helped bring them back on track. Whether the Israelites listened or not, God never stopped reaching out to his children with a hand of rescue. Sometimes rescue meant discipline, but the hand that could save was always within reach. That is no less true for us. If God stopped forgiving us at seventy times seven, we'd be hopeless. So, with God in mind, Jesus meant what he said, and as Christians we should take it seriously. We have been called to reflect God into the world around us, and the nature of God is to forgive seventy times seventy times seventy, ad infinitum.
On a tangent, are we afraid to obey Jesus in this because we don't really believe God does this for us? Is it that we don't like what he says, or is it too painful? Or, is it that as broken humans in a fallen world this is truly beyond us. Is the striving to live out this standard, but failing to do so, one more example of something that points us to God as the only solution to our problem?
Stopping point: Ezra 10