Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Matthew 19:1–12

Matthew 19:1–12 (ESV): Teaching About Divorce


In this passage Jesus goes to a particular place where he is once again followed by a large crowd, whom he starts healing. The Pharisees then come to test him by asking him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife “for any cause” (verse 3 (ESV)). Jesus’ answer goes to the heart of the matter (if you’ll pardon the pun):

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (verses 4–6 (ESV))
I think the Pharisees believe they now have Jesus trapped. In verse 7 (ESV) they ask him what I assume is a gotcha question: If that’s the case, then why did Moses “command” one to give a certificate of divorce and “send her away”? (You can almost hear them saying “Aha!”) Jesus tells them that Moses “allowed” divorce because of humans’ hardness of heart, but it was not like that “from the beginning.” He then takes it even farther:

“And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (verse 9 (ESV))
The disciples don’t seem to have been expecting this answer from him, for they respond that in this case it would be better not to marry at all. His answer to them is interesting:

But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (verses 11–12 (ESV))
See below for thoughts on this last statement.


It’s interesting that the Pharisees would use this particular point of law with which to test Jesus, since there was disagreement even amongst themselves as to if and when divorce was permissible. The ESV Study Bible has a useful note on this point:

There was a significant debate between Pharisaical parties on the correct interpretation of Moses’ divorce regulations (Deut. 24:1 (ESV)), as noted in this excerpt from the Mishnah, Gittin 9.10: “The school of Shammai says: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her. … And the school of Hillel says: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him. … Rabbi Akiba says, [he may divorce her] even if he found another fairer than she” (see Mishnah, Gittin 9 for an example of a Jewish certificate of divorce and the terms required for remarriage; see also Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 4.253 for the phrase “whatsoever cause”).
So it wouldn’t exactly have been a slam-dunk for them to catch Jesus out in something they disagreed with, since they already disagreed with each other! However, based on the disciples’ shocked reaction to Jesus’ position on divorce, it seems that the prevailing opinion was more toward the idea that a man could divorce his wife very easily, for little cause. When he says that it is not intended that a man should ever divorce his wife, although it is permissible in the case of infidelity, they seem to feel the risk is not worth it—it’s better not to marry at all than to take the chance of being stuck in a lifelong, bad marriage. Perhaps our cultures aren’t so dissimilar in some respects after all; indeed, this seems to be the flip side to the prevailing sentiment in North America in the 21st Century: marriages don’t last anyway, but it’s okay because if your marriage goes sour you can simply get a divorce and get out of it.

When Jesus takes a hard line on divorce, it seems to me (as stated above) that the Pharisees think they have him: Moses allowed divorce, and Jesus is saying people shouldn’t divorce, so therefore Jesus doesn’t understand the Law, and must not be from God. (And there is a definite logic to that: If Jesus didn’t understand the Law they would be right—he wouldn’t be from God!) He shows, however, that not only does he understand the Law, he also understands what’s underneath the Law, and what is really important vs. what is not. This comes out even in the wording of their questions and his answers; they say “why did Moses command one to get a certificate of divorce,” and Jesus says “Moses allowed divorce.” There’s no command to get a divorce, it’s something that God allows in dire circumstances (i.e. infidelity), because He knows how difficult it is for humans to deal with that kind of betrayal. If your spouse commits adultery and you’re not able to deal with it, then you’re permitted to get a divorce. (The implication being that if you can deal with it, it’s better if you can actually stay in the marriage.) The Pharisees and teachers of the Law have twisted this allowance, for dire circumstances, to be a general thing, allowing divorce much more permissibly, and Jesus is pointing out to them that this is not how God views marriage; in God’s eyes, when two people marry, they become one flesh, and should not be separated.

As an aside, I also find it interesting the way Jesus phrases this: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” (verse 8 (ESV), emphasis added). Why is Jesus using the second person here? I don’t think he is referring specifically to the Pharisees, I think he’s talking generally about humanity, because this law was handed down in the time of Moses long before these Pharisees were born. But in this instance he’s not identifying himself with the rest of humanity. I suppose it’s because this really, truly doesn’t apply to Jesus. He can’t say, “because of our hardness of heart,” because Jesus has no sin, so obviously his heart wouldn’t be hard.

The ESV Study Bible notes also point out that this verse about hardness of heart doesn’t indicate that Jesus means only hard-hearted people would ever get a divorce, but rather that it is the hard-hearted rebellion against God that causes the defilement of marriage in the first place. In fact, although it seems clear that it would be better to stay married even in the case of infidelity, I would never take a hard line on that with someone who had been cheated on. If I knew someone who had been cheated on, and they were going to get divorced for that reason, you would not catch me advising that maybe they might want to stay together; I would definitely support them if they wanted to stay together, but I’d understand them not wanting to stay together. Infidelity is so serious that it is the one reason God will permit “one flesh” to be broken apart; He understands how devastating adultery is.

In fact, He understands it very well: considering that marriage is a picture of the relationship between the Church and God, and considering how often He uses adultery as a metaphor when the Old Testament Israelites set Him aside for other gods, it shouldn’t be surprising at all that He understands very well what humans go through when they’ve been cheated on.

When Jesus says “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given,” the ESV Study Bible says that by “this saying” he is probably referring to the disciples’ statement that “it is better not to marry”—in which case his statement makes a lot more sense to me. He is, in fact, correcting them: Only for some particular segments of the population—people who are eunuchs or who have chosen celibacy—is this statement true. Celibacy is a valid alternative to marriage and fidelity, but Jesus indicates that for the majority of people marriage is the right way to go.

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