Is divorce wrong?
Of course it’s wrong.
Not in a moralistic, “I’m good and you’re bad” kind of way. Definitely not in a fault finding, you should be ashamed way.
It’s wrong because no one gets married hoping it ends up in divorce. It’s wrong because it’s painful.
To say divorce isn’t wrong is to deny the pain and hurt of those who have to go through it.
To say divorce isn’t wrong minimizes the heartache and grief of two people who have to start over.
So yes, divorce is wrong, in the same way anything that breaks us and turns our lives upside down is wrong.
Jesus said, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Matthew 19:9
You’ve probably read that before, or heard it before. It can be a hard thing to hear. And if it stings you personally, or makes you feel guilty, please don’t let it. Stick with me, because we’re going to put Jesus’ teaching in context this morning.
So what’s the context here?
1. Jesus was Jewish.
This is a conversation within Judaism, and between Rabbis. Jesus and the Pharisees were debating about everything Moses taught about divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-2.
Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Deuteronomy 24:1-2
And then it goes on to talk about how the first man can’t take her back if the second man divorces her, which is one of the many ways that the Mosaic Law gets oddly specific and also offensive. It’s this reference here to a certificate of divorce that is the subject of Jesus’ teaching.
Rabbinic Interpretations (read more here)
Judaism has an official source of commentary on the Jewish Scriptures, which we usually call the Old Testament, but really should just call the Jewish scriptures. It’s called the Talmud. Jesus would have known the Talmud as well as the Torah. And there are three options for interpreting Deut. 24, in the Talmud.
“The Talmud cites three opinions:
The School of Shammai rules: A man should not divorce his wife unless he discovers in her an immoral matter…
The School of Hillel holds: [He may divorce her] even if she burnt his meal.
Rabbi Akiva says: Even if he found another more beautiful than she.
The halachah (final legal ruling) follows the opinion of the sages of Hillel. But pious behavior (midat chassidut), which holds itself to a standard “beyond the letter of the law,” is to accept the stricter criteria put forth by the disciples of Shammai.
In other words, the official ruling of ancient Judaism was a like a patriarchal version of no fault divorce.
So when Jesus teaches on divorce in the sermon on the mount, he places himself in the school of thought of those who believe you should go beyond the letter of the law.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Matthew 5:31-32
This is the ancient context for Jesus’ teaching. The first thing I notice about it is that women have no power at all in any of these options. In two of them, wives are basically disposable. Their husbands can divorce them for any reason at all. And in a world where women also had very little economic power, this is an especially scary situation for women.
So if you wonder why Jesus is so harsh about divorce, that’s a big reason for it. I believe it was to protect women. We’re really quick to forget that women having choices and power is a very recent progression for humanity. And there are plenty of people who would like to see that reversed, even today.
But 2000 years ago, Jesus chose the Jewish school of thought that offered the most to women. He included that teaching in his primary lesson to the world, and then, he even went beyond it.
Later in Jesus ministry, the Pharisees come and question him about his teaching on divorce. And in response to them, Jesus shows what’s behind his teaching and what he believes about marriage.
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
We’ve seen the Pharisees do this before, haven’t we? They ask Jesus a question that they think has a yes or no answer, so that they can get the upper hand on him, but he never answers the way that they want.
Here they’re asking, Is it lawful? Because we’ve already seen that according to the official interpretation of Deut. 24:1, Yes it is lawful. But Jesus doesn’t answer the question, “Is it lawful?”
4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?
This is more than Jesus said before. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus didn’t refer to God’s intention for marriage. But he does here when he’s pressed about it.
6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
I’m going to come back to this verse in a minute, but first I want to finish the passage.
7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
The Pharisees aren’t being honest about two things here. First, they know that Moses did not command any man who divorce his wife whenever he wanted to. They knew that scripture word for word. If you look at Deut. 24:1, that’s just not the sense of the verse. Moses is clearly trying to manage something that is already happening in the community.
Second that Pharisees aren’t being honest about what they really believe. They go above and beyond every other law in the Hebrew Bible. But it sure seems like they don’t on this one. That doesn’t compute for me.
Except that it holds true to my experience of modern day Pharisees. There are a certain breed of religious people who are in it for the power, but not for the responsibility. Perhaps you’ve met them, too. They act like faith is something you preach but don’t practice.
They live this out not just with outsiders, but with their own families, too. And Jesus isn’t having that.
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Last point about context. Why does Jesus tell people that divorce and remarriage is adultery? One possibility is that he just believed that, and he was giving a new law. But when you look at the situation he was looking at, I think it has more to do with trying to stop the practice of men divorcing their wives and leaving them destitute.
According to the law of Moses, there were zero consequences to the man for divorcing his wife so long as he had any cause at all. But do you know what the penalty was for adultery?
I don’t think Jesus was trying to get people stoned.
He was setting the bar higher for men. He was saying, If you have all the power, you also have all the responsibility. You can’t use your power just for yourself, or God might just drop a big rock on you.
So what would Jesus say to us today?
We live in a world shaped by this teaching, at least as far as it concerns divorce law. I’m not certain that if Jesus were asked the same question today, that he would make the same connection to adultery. I don’t think he would.
But there’s one thing I think he would say again:
What God has joined together, let no one separate. Matthew 19:6
God wants to be at the center of your marriage because God invented marriage. As Christians, we believe that God is the one who joins us together in marriage. So Jesus says, let no one separate that.
Don’t let the kids come between you.
Don’t let money come between you.
Don’t let other people come between you.
Let no one or no thing separate you.
Cling to each other.
Make time for each other.
Pray with and for each other.
Let no one separate you.
Separation feels like two people who are pulled apart, but who can come back together. Separation feels temporary. But there are some things that do more than separate. These are the things that can break a marriage.
Adultery is the biggest one, and you can read more about it here.
Abandonment breaks people. Sometimes one spouse just leaves, and that is a valid reason for divorce.
Abuse breaks people. Abuse is worse than abandonment, and also is abandonment. It’s abandonment of the vows of marriage, abandonment of the duties of marriage. We say this everytime, and we’ll say it again. If you are in a relationship where you are being abused, the Bible does not teach that you should stay. Abuse is a valid reason for divorce too.
Adultery. Abuse. Abandonment. These are the kinds of things that can break a marriage beyond repair.
If you are someone who has been through a divorce, and you only hear one thing, hear this: God’s grace is enough.
I believe, and our church believes, that God’s grace is enough. That it covers those whose marriage has broken and who have to start over, that God’s grace covers divorce, and extends past divorce and into a second marriage.
God loves you. Jesus died for you. And the Holy Spirit will fill your heart with grace and peace.
About the Author
David Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find him on Twitter @davidrcollins