A friend who served as a pastor in several congregations in New Jersey told me this story. He said, “Once I saw that the lectionary reading for Sunday included a text about divorce in Matthew’s Gospel. I didn’t want to deal with it. It was just too challenging. So on Sunday we read the text. I chose to ignore the Matthew text and preach instead on a reading from one of the letters of Paul. After worship that morning a woman came up to me and she was furious. ‘How dare you read that text and not say something about it. How dare you! Do you know how many people in this congregation have been touched by divorce? We need to hear something about that text. You avoided it altogether. How dare you!’” My friend felt chastened by God. “I’ll never do that again”, he told me. He confessed that he had taken the coward’s way out but God had called his hand.
I have often thought about that when I mounted the pulpit to preach in my little congregation. One woman, Shirley, alerted me, “Kim, do you know how many people in this congregation have been divorced?” I thought about it. I could count about a dozen, in a small church of about 80 persons on a good Sunday. Most everyone there had been touched and affected by divorce. My son Justin, while attending a Christian university in Southern California told Stephanie, “Mom, I am about the only one I know whose parents are still married.”
When I was a child the divorce rate was low. Not many divorced persons were part of the church of my childhood. The one or two persons who were divorced lived under a dark cloud. Divorce placed a deep stain that made me as a child suspicious of them. “You know Brother Smith was divorced.” Awful attitudes get spread by Christians who judge others harshly. The tongue is full of venom. Sometimes the church is the last place to find grace and healing. People lived under that dark shadow and that was perpetuated by church members. James warned us about the power of the tongue to wound others.
Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. James 3:5-7
Jesus and the question of divorce
Today we will look at a text from Matthew about divorce. In order to understand a Bible text we must keep two things in mind:
The Background of Matthew 19
Pharisees, the strict law-keepers and serious Bible students of Jesus day, asked Jesus a question. Matthew tells us that this question was only to test him. They wanted to draw Jesus into a debate about the Law and divorce. So our text must be understood in its own historical context and according to the kind of speech Jesus uses.
In Matthew 19 the Pharisees pose a question that was being debated in Jesus’ day. Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?
In Jesus’ day men who wanted to abandon their wives and take a new one (younger, more attractive perhaps) looked for a way to do so and yet remain “lawful”. Notice the question: “Is it lawful…”
The background for this debate is a text in Deuteronomy 24:1-4
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
This text is ambiguous. What was meant by the sentence: (she) becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her…? What is meant by the “something indecent” (or uncleanness KJV)?
This was debated among the Rabbis of Jesus’ day. There were two dominant schools of thought on the matter: The school of Rabbi Hillel and the school of Rabbi Shammai. School of Hillel took the more liberal position. They held that a man may divorce his wife for most any reason. If she spoils his dinner; if he finds her unattractive and prefers a more beautiful woman. The phrase something indecent meant almost any and every reason. The opposing school of Rabbi Shammai held that the only reason for a divorce was if the woman committed some sexual indiscretion. Men who wished to abandon their wives claimed Deuteronomy 24. What was that “unclean thing”? According to Rabbi Hillel, most anything could be a just cause for divorce while Rabbi Shammai held that the only case for which divorce is allowable is a severe occasion of sexual infidelity, like if the man found that his wife was not a virgin upon their marriage or if she had an extra-marital affair.
Now the Pharisees looked for legal loopholes. How might a man divorce his wife and marry another and still keep his hands clean. How could he say that he had technically kept the law to the letter, but still was able to get rid of his wife for another?
Now there is something else to know about the practices in Jesus’ day. From the Old Testament faith men could divorce their wives but wives could not divorce their husbands. They could ask for a divorce but it was up to the man to grant them one. Another point: The world of the Old Testament assumed a patriarchal society. Men ruled. A married woman was considered property of her husband. Have you ever read the 10th commandment carefully? It reads: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Exodus 20:17
It is obvious that the neighbor meant the males who owned properties. These properties are listed as house, wife, male and female slaves, oxen and donkeys. These things belong to the neighbor. Wife came in second in the order of things in the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments. She is moved to number 1 in the Deuteronomy version (Deuteronomy 5).
This was a male dominated society which practices a double standard. A man did not commit adultery against his wife. If he had an extra-marital affair, it was not considered adultery. If someone had an affair with a married woman both he and the woman had committed adultery against her husband. Men insisted on marrying virgin women and proof of virginity was supposed to be obtained on the wedding night. However, it was not considered important that men also be virgins. Men could have more than one wife, but women must have only one husband or she is considered an adulteress. Adultery brought the sentence of death. Whether we like the double standard or not, it was there and institutionalized in the law. That is why Paul could argue that the law made nothing perfect. It rather accommodated to the prevailing practices.
Well they asked Jesus this question. They wanted him to take a side. Where would Jesus weigh in on this topic? On the side of Hillel or Shammai?
Jesus, as he often did, sidestepped the issue as they had presented it. He quoted a portion of the Hebrew scripture from Genesis 1 to state that God had made human beings equally in his image as male and female in the beginning. Jesus then linked Genesis 1 with Genesis 2, the classic verse about marriage. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. Genesis 2:24.
What is Jesus doing? He focused, not on the legal loophole for getting out of marriage. Rather he directed their attention to God’s intention. For all their desire to be legal and have their hands clean, Jesus reminds them that God’s will was for a single, monogamous, life-long commitment of love and loyalty which he described as being “one flesh”. One flesh meant that two people joined as partners in body (through sexual intercourse), mind and heart so that there is a community of love and mutual honor. No amount of legal finagling can separate such a bond. That was God’s intention. Jesus looked to the center, God’s intention, not to the boundaries, “how can I dismiss my wife and get a new one and still keep the law.”
Of course the Pharisees protested. “But Jesus, Moses commanded us to dismiss a wife and give her a certificate of divorce?”
Jesus did a beautiful thing here. Jesus did not deny that little law, but he interpreted it in the light of God’s intention in creating us male and female. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus interpreted the Genesis passage against the one found in Deuteronomy. He pointed out that this was no command; rather it was a concession due to the hardness of people’s hearts. The Law had built into it the recognition that people are sinful, selfish, weak, addicted to self interest. The law of Deuteronomy 24 was not to give the man more power and an easy way out of an inconvenient marriage. The law was to protect women. It was a concession to force the man to at least give the unloved woman the honor that she could show a certificate of divorce so she could become another man’s wife and no one could accuse her of unfaithfulness to her first husband. The man must do the minimal decent thing and release her to another. Women were quite dependent upon their men in a patriarchal society.
The one major stipulation was this: He cannot change his mind and recall her. Once he has set her free she was a free indeed and must not return to him. This was ancient tribal law enacted to protect the dignity of the woman. However, as Jesus pointed out, this concession in no way fulfilled God’s intention for marriage. No amount of legal loop-holing made the divorce any more than a concession to human weakness and sin. Or, as Jesus aptly put it, it was because of “the hardness of your hearts”. We live in an imperfect world and people are sinners. Moses didn’t give the law of divorce because it fulfilled God’s perfect will. Rather, it was a concession to human sin and selfishness.
Jesus did not offer a harsher legislation. The hardness of the human heart is still very real. Just because Jesus came does not mean the evil and selfish human heart is somehow abolished. Jesus upholds the sanctity of marriage. He points us to God’s intention for marriage? God made human beings male and female (Genesis 1) and intended a single, monogamous, and deeply loving relationship where the two are so united that they become one in a unity of active cooperation. “The two become one flesh”. Where this occurs there is no possibility of divorce.
Where does that leave us? As followers of Jesus we will see our marriages as the context for our discipleship. That unique relationship furnishes us the occasion for living out our faith in community with another person. We have the opportunity to love our nearest neighbor (our spouse) and perhaps other closest neighbors (our children and extended family). Christ who rules in our heart would make that possible.
Does this mean that no divorce is ever allowed or permitted to the Christian? There are many sincere Christians who have wondered about this. The Church has treated many as second class citizens because they have suffered through a failed marriage. There are others who have suffered grotesque abuse and staid in destructive relationships for years because they perceived that all divorce was denied them. As one young woman who had married unadvisedly and now endured emotional abuse told me, “I feel stuck. I am trapped. I can’t get out of this. Sometimes I feel like blowing my freakin’ brains out.” She was desperate because she felt legally trapped in a relationship that was destroying her. Let me say this:
Just staying in a relationship legally (“we’re married”) is not fulfilling the will of God either. A home where there is abuse, domination, neglect, control and destruction does not fulfill the will of God to be one flesh. It misunderstands Jesus’ words as calling for a rigorous legalism instead of his trying to direct us to the intention of God. There are persons in abusive relationships that should leave. Jesus is against abandoning a marriage partner because someone else is more attractive or more interesting. That would violate the covenant with the wife of one’s youth. One should not enter marriage hastily, unadvisedly, but reverently, discreetly and in the fear of God. At the same time, a mere legal togetherness where hate and destruction reign supreme can hardly be thought of as fulfilling the will of God.
If we understand Jesus rightly we must conclude that marriage is to be held in high honor. It is a serious matter. Both women and men are to be honored and protected. Divorce always involves human sin. It either means that two persons lacked the will and capacity to try to work it out and bend our wills to God’s will, or these two finally acknowledge that the circumstances under which they married were not God’s will in the first place. Two teenagers who wrongfully engaged in sexual intercourse and found themselves Parent’s to be with a problem pregnancy so they married hastily and maybe even lovelessly, doesn’t mean that God put these two together.
Jesus stated, in Matthew’s Gospel, that divorce of a spouse for causes other than porneia (immorality or fornication) is wrong. But in those days, according to Dr. James M. Efird, (professor of biblical languages at Duke Divinity School, the word porneia had a wide range of meanings. “It could refer to incestuous relationships, illicit marriages, cultic prostitution (in a more general sense) inordinate love of money, pride, wrong worship practices, injustice, or simply doing evil to someone else. To limit the word to strictly sexual immorality of some sort may be far too rigid and interpretation and may well limit the original meaning of the saying. James M. Efird, Marriage and Divorce: What the Bible Says pps. 57-58
Impact of divorce
I have not really met too many people who recommend divorce. Most folks I know live with many regrets. Some have been thankful for getting away from an abusive relationship that was slowly killing them body, soul, and spirit. But not only adults who have been through divorce, but the little ones also suffer. Children suffer when parents are fighting and get pulled apart. The other night I watched the movie, “In Pursuit of Happyness”. It is the story of a family that fell into difficult days financially. The marriage felt tension and stress. It finally snapped under the pressure. The wife left. The man, played by Will Smith, and his 5 year old son, Played by his own son, descended into a state of poverty and homelessness over a few months of bad luck. But at one point the little boy looked at his father and asked, “Daddy, am I the reason Mommy left?” Lots of children feel this way and bear that guilt. I want one of our own members, Ilse Van Wyk to tell you her experience.
I experienced a divorce as a child of 13 and my sister, Karin was 17 at the time. The one topic our parents still discussed, but mostly argued over, was K___ and I. When the divorce hit us, I jumped to the logical conclusion that I must have been the cause of the divorce. Later I realized that guilt is a common phenomenon among children in divorces. It was only as an adult that I came to grips with the fact that they would have argued anyway, we were just the topic, not the cause.
When the divorce was over, at least the arguments between my parents stopped, but new problems arose. My mom was still shell-shocked and it was difficult for her to care for us emotionally like she did before the divorce.
Financially my mom had a tougher time to make ends meet, so we had to change our lifestyle to some degree. I was expected to understand and rationalize issues at a more mature level than where I was at 13. All of this forced me to mature quicker in some areas of my life, but in others I lagged behind my peers. I felt more and more like an outsider and withdrew socially from my classmates.
I missed my dad terribly, especially because I couldn’t go to our farm with him every weekend like I used to do. My dad and I are the only two classical music lovers in our family; his absence deprived me of another one of my loves. I missed him and I missed the things we used to do together, and nothing my mom did could compensate for that.
A friend of mine once said that the greatest gift parents can give their children is to love each other madly because children mostly derive their sense of security from the stability of their parents’ relationship. Robbed of that security, I felt emotionally exposed and vulnerable. My parents’ divorce did not only affect me as a teenager, but it continued to affect my life into adulthood.
My sister and I dealt with the divorce in very different ways, she married young and is raising a family but she has told me that she has difficulty in dealing with conflict in her marriage. She once said to me, “Mom and Dad showed me how not to do it, but I have no idea how to do it right.” My reaction on the other hand was to run away from romantic relationships. I never dated as a teenager and young adult. In my first relationship, in my twenties, I pushed my partner to see how committed he was; always suspecting that he would run out on me. He got tired of having to prove himself all the time and did what I expected and pushed him to do. I can’t blame the poor guy. Relationships continue to be a part of my life where I can still feel the aftershocks of my parents’ divorce.
The question of trust or rather lack of trust in authority figures has quite a negative effect on me spiritually. I still feel some discomfort with God the Father. Sometimes I suspect that God does not have my best interests at heart. Sometimes it feels as though He is not keeping His promises. I still project my image of my dad leaving home on God and at a deep level I fear that He might desert me too. I believe that people make decisions about divorce too lightly. It solves some problems but it is emotionally as expensive as staying in a bad marriage. I wish my parents could have shown the maturity and a genuine belief in God’s healing power, to stay together and work it out. It would have been hard, but the reward would have been infinitely greater, for them as well as for Karin and me.
We live under grace
Jesus did not come as a legalist. He was no moral rigorist. He came to bring both God’s intention into clear light and to reveal God’s grace toward sinners. Those hurt by divorce, those who have been brutalized by a marriage that turned sour, need God’s grace and all the love and understanding the church has to offer. We stand under the shower of God’s abundant grace. That is where God takes our past upon himself: God begins to pour in the grace of forgiveness and healing. Part of that comes when we know that our past is forgiven. God takes our past and gives us his future! We can learn to forgive a spouse who put us through the wringer. We can forgive ourselves for any failure in our past. We can begin the work of forgiving parents who failed us. We can begin asking for forgiveness from children who blamed themselves and suffered from we brought to them. That past that haunts us in lost in the sea of God’s forgetfulness who promised that he would not remember our sins against us. Christianity is a journey of learning to live depending upon God’s grace, God’s undeserved favor.
And as married people we can begin afresh to rely on God grace to help sweeten our relationships and strengthen the ties we have with our spouses and children. As God’s church let us ever be a haven of peace and agents of grace to spread God’s love and forgiveness so that all may come to love the one who first loved us and who will never leave us or forsake us. Amen