Divorce was a hot topic for debate in Jesus’ time: one party taught that the only lawful cause for divorce was adultery, another taught that you could divorce your wife if you found something ‘displeasing’ in her – which could be as trivial as burning a meal. (Only men could initiate divorce in Jewish society in those days.) The Pharisees asked Jesus what he thought. He replied by asking what the Bible taught, and they pointed to Deuteronomy 24:1 – which, although it mentions writing a certificate of divorce, does so only in passing; its main intent is to make clear that when a marriage has been ended it is well and truly finished. So Jesus takes them further back to God’s intention for marriage: the union of a man and a woman for life.
Several points emerge.
1) God is realistic. Humans behave badly, and some of God’s laws regulate that bad behaviour. That does not mean God approves of it.
2) God wants marriages to be characterised by unity and permanence.
3) Divorce ends a marriage. Although God intends marriage to be permanent, people can go against God’s intentions.
4) God hates it when marriages end in divorce – when promises are broken, and there is so much hurt.
5) God loves divorcees as much as everyone else.
6) Jesus mentions a special case in vs 11-12: if you divorce one partner in order to marry another, though what you do is perfectly legal, you are just as bad as an adulterer. This was, in fact, what King Herod and his new wife Herodias had done – and John the Baptist had lost his head when he condemned them. (No wonder Jesus said this in private!) I think that when he said that marrying a divorced person was a form of adultery (Luke 16:18), he had in mind people wanting to marry someone else’s spouse and pushing them to get divorced. He is not forbidding divorcees to remarry; in his day most had to remarry to survive.
7) Jesus came to save the world, to put an end to hard-heartedness and bring in love, unity and faithfulness. This is work in progress; meanwhile, there is overflowing forgiveness and grace to cover our many failures.
1) What should the church be teaching in today’s situation?
2) What do we learn about Jesus from this?