I’m going to upset some people today, but sometimes there’s no way to it but to go right through it.
I’m going back to the sermon on the mount, we have a long way to go with this. But the subject we’ve come to now is a sticky subject: Jesus’ teaching about divorce. But, we’ve already seen what Jesus has to say about anger, contempt, and lust. In Jesus day, as in our day, just how many divorces would we see if not for anger, contempt, or lust? Far fewer that the 50+% we have now, I would guess.
“”It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Matthew 5:31-32 ESV. One thing we “moderns” need to understand about divorce in Jesus’ day is this – it was always brutal for the woman involved. Today, we have much more favorable laws, divorce court, support groups. During the times Jesus lived, a divorced woman’s life was basically ruined. If she was lucky, she might find a relative to care for her, but probably even then as more of a servant that a loved sister. She might find another husband, but even then she would always be considered “damaged goods”. This may be what Jesus specifically meant when he says that when a man divorces his wife except on the ground of sexual immorality, [he] makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. No matter what, the woman had no chance of being fully restored in society. Even if she found a new husband, she would always be damaged goods and seen as degraded.
It was important for men then, as really for both men and women now, to be able to get rid of an unwanted spouse quickly and easily. A man was seen as doing right if he bothered to give the woman a certificate of divorce, something really meant to carry around almost like identification to prove that she was, indeed, divorced. Then, at least, she could defend herself when someone accused her of adultery, which could result in being stoned to death (see John chapter 8!). If lucky, she would find another husband who would accept her even with her “degraded” position and not be left to grow old childless and alone. If not, at least she could make a living as a prostitute (“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”) John 3:3 ESV.
This is not the only place we see Jesus teaching about marriage. We see more in the subject in Matthew 19. “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”” Matthew 19:6-9 ESV. These are hard teachings from Jesus. We really, really do our best to ignore them today. We want to be able to dump an unwanted spouse whenever we choose and chase whatever our heart desires today. But know this – your wife, your husband, is not disposable. They are not garbage to be discarded because they are holding us back from the pursuit of our own happiness. You are the two halves of humanity, one half male, the other female, brought together before God and in the image of God. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. But even His own disciples here (we’re talking John, Peter, Matthew, Andrew here) decided if they couldn’t simply discard a wife as they saw fit, then maybe it was better not to marry at all. “The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”” Matthew 19:10 ESV.
Jesus does not outright forbid divorce. In fact, he tells us specifically that in the instance of “sexual immorality”, it is expressly allowable (but – even in this instance – never required). But, Jesus does tell us it was never meant to be. We were never meant for divorce. We are still not meant for divorce. “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”
Jesus allows divorce because He knows the heart of man (and woman). We have hearts that can be just plain mean. To this day, women (and sometimes men ) live in abusive relationships. There are times when it is better to let the marriage die than live a life of misery. But even in these cases, we are to do it as an act of love. We should look to be sure that the one we are leaving is in the best position possible. Divorce as was done during Jesus’ time, as well as is usually done in our own time, is not the right way to do it.
Remember the two commandments of Jesus? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-39 ESV. Of course, we want to know “…”And who is my neighbor?”” Luke 10:29 ESV. Know this much – your wife or husband is your first neighbor. My wife is my first neighbor. We are to love our neighbor, right? Why, then, do we think we can love all those other neighbors but not the one we are supposed to be sharing life with?? Listen to what the apostle John has to say here – “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” 1 John 4:20 ESV. John is pretty brutal on this in his first epistle, look at what he says in the preceding chapter – “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” 1 John 3:10 ESV. Get past the use of the term “brother”. If we claim love our Christian brothers and sisters, we claim to love God who we have not seen, but we don’t love our closest neighbor whom we see everyday, then we can not really love God whom we can not see.
Does this mean that divorce is the unforgivable sin? Of course not!! But as we go through life and claim to love God, we better be are loving our neighbors. Including our first neighbor. Because we have hard hearts, you and your neighbor, divorce happens. But as Paul says – “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12:18 ESV. Sometimes there is nothing we can do. But as far as it depends on us, we should be fighting for our marriages. Even when divorce does happen…remember that people are not disposable. Even one who did that to you.
“”It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Matthew 5:31-32 ESV