Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Jesus Blesses Little Children
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
I need to begin this message with more of a disclaimer than a confession. This weekend is one of those weeks when preachers don’t want to deliver a sermon on divorce and the congregation doesn’t want to hear a sermon on divorce. Likely many preachers have looked at our Gospel lesson from Mark this week and said to themselves, “This would be a REALLY good weekend to focus on the Epistle lesson.” And this could all go pretty well.
I will admit that this texts hits very close to home as a person whose biological parents were divorced, and lived through all that drama.
Then as a divorced clergy person in the ELCA. When I got divorced from my first wife I felt like a failure as a man; I felt like I failed my promises to God; I failed as a good example for the Church. Although Clergy have one of the highest divorce rates as a occupation, the calling side of working in the church guilts us into thinking we need to be better and this is somehow more shameful because of that. So that last thing I wanted to do this week was delve into a Genesis passage used at many weddings, and then hear the Pharisees try to trick Jesus with a divorce question.
I realize I am not alone in this divorce category; wrenching stories of parents, spouses, children going through the heartbreak of divorce. So Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in Mark’s Gospel may not be an easy thing for the preacher or the congregation. But people—especially those who are struggling with divorce and genuinely want to know how their faith connects with their lives—deserve to hear what Jesus has to say, even if it is not easy to hear. So here it goes…
In the Word Biblical Commentary’s volume on this passage, Craig Evans argues that it is possible that the Pharisees were intentionally baiting Jesus with this question, hoping that Jesus would say something that would get him in enough hot water to make the government take action. What would the government care about Jesus’ opinions about divorce? Well, remember what eventually led to John the Baptist’s beheading? It had a lot to do with the way he spoke against Herodias and Herod Antipas’ relationship. Now consider verses 11 and 12, where Jesus says that if a man divorces a woman so he can marry another, he is committing adultery; he then adds that if a woman does likewise, she too is committing adultery.
Adding the comment about a woman also being guilty could be Jesus alluding to Herodias and Antipas’ situation, a real life and well-known situation at that time. If this was playing out on twitter today, Jesus would be subtweeting: talking about a lesson we can all learn from a specific situation without actually identifying the people originally involved.
Looking for the loopholes for when it’s okay to forsake one’s spouse, the Pharisees have lost for the forest for the trees. Very similar to the way Reformed theologians talked about one use of the law being a protectant and preserver of human life and dignity (telling us what we should not do to each other), Jesus explains that divorce has been allowed by God because of our sinfulness (i.e., hardness of heart) and possibly even as a protectant and preserver of life.
This is a fundamental shift in viewpoint. Instead of talking about divorce, Jesus is ultimately saying, we should be talking about marriage… Let’s do something before there’s a problem.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is engaged in a debate with some Pharisees over the issue of divorce. They ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Now, there are indications that this wasn’t a sincere question. Mark tells us they asked this question in order “to test” Jesus. Rather than seeking an answer to an honest question, they were trying to set a trap, because in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, the legality of a husband divorcing a wife wasn’t in question. It was permitted. The debate centered around the conditions under which divorce was permitted; the more stringent side saying it was permitted only in cases of serious sexual misconduct and the less stringent side saying it was permitted even if the husband simply no longer found his wife pleasing. Therefore, in asking Jesus whether divorce was legal, they were really trying to catch Jesus contradicting the law. Perhaps they had heard that Jesus taught that divorce was prohibited. If they could get him to say so publicly, they could discredit him or at least disgrace him.
In good Jewish fashion, Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ question with one of his own: “What did Moses command you?” The Pharisees in reply refer to Deuteronomy 24:1: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” Jesus reveals their disingenuousness. They had this bible verse in their back pocket and were waiting to pounce on Jesus for contradicting the scriptures. But Jesus responds in two ways.
- First, he says it was because of your hardness of heart that Moses wrote this commandment for folks like you. Here, Jesus is saying permission for a man to divorce his wife was a regrettable allowance for certain people’s spiritual blindness, with the strong implication being that it was for folks like the Pharisees and their spiritual ancestors.
- Second, Jesus trumps one piece of scripture (Deuteronomy 24:1) with other pieces of scripture (Gen. 1:27; 2:24) saying: “from the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” Jesus goes beyond the passage from Deuteronomy to God’s original intentions for marriage in creation. He sees these passages as more directly applicable to the question at hand, and, in his view, as prohibiting divorce.
Jesus, therefore, concludes his argument by saying, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” The Pharisees, who tried to catch Jesus contradicting scripture, are shown to be hard-hearted, spiritually blind opponents who themselves fail to understand the scriptures. The proof-texting gambit with Jesus doesn’t work out as planned.
Later, when Jesus is alone with his disciples, they again ask about divorce. He tells them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Here, Jesus does two interesting things.
- First, he extends the logic of his prohibition of divorce to say that if someone divorces and remarries, they commit adultery. This follows because if the first marriage remains in effect, then entering into a second marriage is adulterous.
- Second, he speaks of the scenario of a wife divorcing her husband. This really wasn’t an option in the Judaism of Jesus’ day (though there may have been some fringe exceptions). In Judaism, it was really a question only about the legality of a husband divorcing a wife. To divorce or not was the prerogative of Jewish men—not women. In Roman law, wives could divorce their husbands, so perhaps Jesus was offering a nod in the direction of gentiles in his prohibition of divorce.
So still not feeling so good about what Jesus says about divorce? Hang in there with me…
Preachers who try to soften the harshness of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce usually take one of three approaches:
The first approach, let’s call “Jesus protects the wellbeing of women.”
- The idea here is that, in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, wives were dependent on their marriages for their physical, economic, and social wellbeing. Since divorce in Judaism was the sole prerogative of husbands, this placed married women in a very precarious position.
A divorced woman was very vulnerable in first century Israel and if a husband had the right to divorce his wife, in some teachers’ eyes even for trivial matters, a woman’s wellbeing was quite dependent on the steadfastness or whims of her husband. Jesus’ prohibition of divorce can therefore be seen as a way of protecting women.
The second approach is related to the first. Let’s call it “Jesus introduces reciprocity in marriage.”
- The idea here is that Jesus criticized the patriarchal understanding of marriage found in the Judaism of his day and introduced a note of equality and reciprocity in marriage. We have already seen that the question in Judaism at the time of Jesus was about the rights of a husband to divorce his wife. A wife didn’t have a reciprocal right and in fact was pretty much viewed as a husband’s property. That’s why, technically speaking, the Old Testament views adultery as a property violation against a husband, a form of stealing a man’s property by taking his wife.
- By definition, adultery could only be committed against a man because the husband was not regarded in any reciprocal sense as the property of the wife. Therefore, when Jesus says that a man who divorces his wife and remarries commits adultery against his wife, Jesus introduces something new into the understanding of marriage. He is saying that a wife also has an equal and reciprocal right to the sexual fidelity of her husband. Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage introduces a remarkable equality and reciprocity between husband and wife.
The third attempt to soften Jesus’ prohibition of divorce let’s call the “We’re all sinners” approach.
- The idea here is to point out the ways in which we have all failed to live up to Jesus’ teachings. Anybody here ever been angry with another member of the church or insulted them? Anybody holding onto unforgiveness? Divorce must be seen in the context of all the ways people fail to live up to the demands of the Gospel. The good news is that for all our failings God offers forgiveness. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and all of us are dependent on God’s free gift of grace by which we are made right with God. In this sense, divorced persons are no different from anybody else. We’re all sinners.
There is something to be said for each of these approaches. However, I would like to offer an additional way of looking at this text by viewing it in light of other New Testament passages about divorce.
This will enable us, I hope, to see a certain development within the New Testament that can provide us with a scriptural warrant for the permissibility of divorce under certain conditions and for very good pastoral reasons.
There are only a handful of other passages in the New Testament dealing with divorce.
- In Luke, there is only one verse, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18), which basically reiterates the prohibition of divorce and remarriage that we find in Mark’s Gospel.
- In Matthew’s Gospel, however, we find a significant development. In Matthew’s version of Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees, Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9). Here we see what people refer to as Matthew’s “exception clause.” It is repeated in Matthew 5:32: “I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery.” Scholars debate what the exact nature of this “unchastity” may or may not be, but for our purposes, we need not delve into the details. The important point is that in the Gospel of Matthew we find passages which acknowledge an exception to the absolute prohibition of divorce that we find in Mark’s Gospel.
The only other New Testament passage that deals directly with divorce comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
- In this passage, we also find Paul permitting divorce under certain circumstances. However, he does so in a highly significant way. Paul clearly knows of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, he says, “To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband) and that the husband should not divorce his wife.” Paul’s phrase “not I but the Lord,” shows he knows what Jesus taught about divorce and remarriage.
And yet later in the passage Paul goes on to say that it is permissible for a Christian who is married to a non-Christian to separate from their non-believing spouse.
- Significantly, Paul prefaces these remarks by saying, “To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever…” (1 Cor. 7:12). With the phrase “I say—I and not the Lord” Paul acknowledges that he is going beyond what he knows Jesus to have said about divorce and remarriage. Nonetheless, Paul is confronted with a situation in which people who have become Christians are still married to their non-Christian spouses. Paul’s counsel is that Christians with non-believing spouses who consent to remain married ought to remain married. But, if it is not possible for the non-believing spouse to remain married to his or her Christian spouse, Paul says separation is permitted. Paul says, “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you” (1 Cor. 7:15). Under these circumstances, Paul permits a Christian to divorce. Paul is clear that it is he who is saying this, not Jesus. And yet, given the circumstances, Paul believes it is permitted because God calls us to live in peace.
When Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce in Mark is seen in the context of other New Testament passages, it seems as though the New Testament prohibition of divorce is not so absolute. It is clear that the New Testament is consistent in seeing the lifelong commitment between two people as an extremely important aspect of Christian discipleship. Marriage is held up as a lifelong covenant that is to reflect God’s faithfulness and God’s love. And yet in Matthew, we see an exception that permits divorce in cases of serious sexual impropriety and in Paul we see permission to divorce when an unbelieving spouse no longer wishes to remain married to a Christian. In the New Testament itself, therefore, we find a process of moral reflection and pastoral adaptation that allows for divorce under certain circumstances. Taken together, these New Testament passages suggest a scriptural basis for the ongoing moral reflection upon and pastoral adaptation of Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage.
I am not suggesting that the church ought to simply accommodate itself to the prevailing cultural norms and assumptions about marriage and divorce. What I am saying is that the New Testament itself envisions a faithful moral and pastoral engagement with Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in light of the ongoing demands of discipleship. In our day, for example, I think we have to say that in situations of violence and abuse divorce is permissible. Sometimes, tragically and regrettably, ending a marriage will be the right thing to do. We should be clear about the moral and pastoral reason why we think this is so. And we should, like Paul, be clear that it is we—and not Jesus—who make this call. Nonetheless, the whole of the New Testament witness permits us to see this as a faithful response.
So is divorce permissible with people of faith. The easy answer is it depends on where we look in Scripture. As a pastor, my answer is you and God only know what is good for you. Could it be seen as a sin? It can be seen as one, but not an un-forgivable sin.
I personal see God as someone who never likes to see creation in pain and suffering. Sometimes it is better to make the choice to end a marriage because we are sinful people who hurt each other, especially those closest to us, and for far too long people felt guilted into remaining in relationships that we not healthy for one or both of the people.
God created us and the world we live in for good, but our human limitations really put a damper on the goodness God created sometimes. So I guess I’ll end by saying humans were created in the image of God to be to be happy, trustworthy, a good overwatchers of the rest of creation.
We created marriage to show a unity and depth of love for another person so that we could make a positive impact in this world. And sometimes our sinfulness gets in the way and we do not honor that unity and depth of love for some many different reasons.
So whether we married or divorced, straight or gay, citizen or illegal, male or female, older or younger, saint or sinner…we are first and foremost always a child of God. God knows us and what’s in our hearts, so God knows when we are saints and when we are sinners…and loves us no matter what. Regardless of our marital status we are sinful and fall short of the glory of God in so many other ways…and that is why we have God’s grace!