PassageIn this passage Jesus and his disciples go to another location and as usual Jesus starts teaching the people. The Pharisees decide to take this opportunity to test him, so they come and ask him if it’s lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus answers their question with a different question: “What did Moses command you?” (I almost wonder if Jesus is laughing to himself as he asks this; the commandments in the Scriptures would be exactly what the Pharisees have been studying all this time, but they still haven’t been able to figure this out. But more on this question below.) The Pharisees reply that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and send his wife away. And it’s probably with good reason that they phrased it this way—a “man” to write a certificate of divorce to send his “wife” away, rather than a gender-neutral way of phrasing it—because I’m sure that’s how it worked out in practice: men divorced women, women didn’t divorce men.
Jesus, however, doesn’t think this answers the question, and brings them back even further than Moses:
And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and 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 5–9 (ESV))This is a pretty famous passage, and most Christians are probably familiar with it, so it doesn’t seem all that shocking to us. To the disciples, however, this seems to have been pretty surprising, since later on, when they are alone with Jesus, they ask him about it again. If anything, Jesus is even more blunt with them than he was with the Pharisees:
And 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.” (verses 11–12 (ESV))There’s no background explanation of the desires of God for marriage, or nuance, just a straightforward statement: if you divorce someone and marry someone else, you’re committing adultery against the person you’d first married.
ThoughtsI wonder if Jesus asks the Pharisees about Moses’ “commandment” to point out their focus on the letter of the law rather than its intent. Whether that was Jesus’ reasoning or not, it is clear in how they respond: He asks them what Moses “commanded” about divorce, knowing that Moses didn’t give any commands permitting or denying adultery. So they can’t go there, they can only say that Moses “allowed” it. In fact, the passage in question would be Deuteronomy 24:1–4 (ESV), which isn’t specifically about the topic of whether divorce should be allowed, it’s about some matters on the aftermath of divorce. In other words, the Law doesn’t say “you’re allowed to divorce,” or “you’re not allowed to divorce,” or “you’re allowed to divorce under these circumstances,” but in this Deuteronomy 24 passage it says “if you do divorce, here are some rules on how to handle it.”
As Jesus says, because of the hardness of our hearts God knows that our marriages aren’t going to be perfect, many are not even going to be good, and therefore divorce will happen. Even Jesus gives “permission” to divorce in cases of infidelity. But just because God recognizes that divorce is going to happen it doesn’t mean He’s endorsing or approving it.
I’ve read some commentaries on the situation in Jesus’ day, and apparently there was a debate amongst the Pharisees as to whether divorce was allowed or commanded or forbidden or what. There were some who took a hard line saying that divorce is not permitted at all, and others who took a position far to the other extreme saying that a man could divorce his wife for matters as trivial as burning his toast. I’m guessing that these particular Pharisees simply wanted to draw Jesus into the debate; whichever side he took he’d be in trouble with the other side. In a sense we could consider Jesus to be taking a side here, saying that people shouldn’t divorce, but I think he’s going deeper than just the letter of the law: they’re asking him what is lawful, and He’s talking about what God desires. This is something we should always consider when digging into such matters; instead of asking “What does God allow me to do in this situation?” we should be asking, “What does God want me to do in this situation?”
As mentioned, this is a pretty famous passage so we know that God doesn’t want us to divorce, and in another place Jesus gives a bit of an exception and tells us that divorce is permitted in the case of infidelity (which should underscore to us how important fidelity is!). So any Christian who has even a casual knowledge of the New Testament knows that divorce is not a good thing, and that only under extreme circumstances is it “allowed.” However, even with this explicit passage in front of us, we’ve somehow lost the view that marrying after divorce is adultery. We get that it’s best for people not to divorce, and God’s plan is for a marriage to be for life, but we’ve come to believe that when we do divorce it’s final and we’re then free to remarry, whereas Jesus teaches pretty explicitly here that even if divorce happens there is still an attachment to that person. If you get a divorce and then remarry you’re committing adultery against your first spouse. (I think it’s pretty safe to extend this and say that if you get a divorce and then have sex with someone else you’re also committing adultery against your first spouse.) In this day and age it sounds old fashioned to even be saying that, and yet it seems to be a pretty clear teaching in this passage.