What Jesus Said About Divorce

Okay, let’s look at just what Jesus meant when he spoke of divorce. After some study, I contend that to summarize Jesus’ words as simply “never divorce” overlooks an important part of the message.

Some Pharisees asked Jesus a question about the proper circumstances for divorce (Matthew 19: 3-10). Were there only certain causes that justified it? Perhaps this was a trick question; no matter how Jesus answered, they may have been prepared to argue differently. They referenced the Mosaic law, which allowed men to divorce their wives.

When we check the reference (Deuteronomy 24: 1?4), we see that Moses did not so much allow divorce as he assumed it would happen, and sought to regulate it. The Mosaic law said that when a man divorced his wife, he should give her a written bill of divorce. This is a legalistic view of marriage. The wife is more or less the property of the husband, who is free to divorce her at any time. He just has to put it into writing, so that there would be no question about who belongs to who. The next man to come along could be assured that he was not inadvertently committing adultery.

The requirement to put it in writing, by the way, seeks to avoid a host of problems that can arise when divorce can be oral, as it is under traditional Islamic law. There was a fascinating case in Pakistan a few years ago. A husband and wife in that country were actors, and they played on a television series, portraying characters who were married to each other. Then an episode came in which the characters divorced. The husband said, “I divorce you” three times, in accordance with Islamic law. A religious court in Pakistan held that this dissolved the real-life marriage as well as the one in the show.

When Jesus answered the question about divorce, however, he did not refer to Moses. He went all the way back to the beginning, to Adam and Eve. Quoting Genesis 2: 24, he said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.” In other words, he cast marriage in relational rather than legalistic terms. In other words, marriage is a relation between two people, and it is so strong a bond that it supersedes even the bond to one’s parents.

And note also that in the version of the story written by Mark (10: 1-12), Jesus uses absolutely symmetrical language for the duties of husbands and wives. This too is very different from the traditional concept of marriage that his questioners probably had in mind.

Afterwards the disciples discussed the matter further with Jesus. They said, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” Right–it’s better not to marry an unsuitable partner whom you would eventually want to leave.

So Jesus did something more than forbid divorce. He told men that their wives were not pieces of property that they could dispose of at will. To put it in positive terms, he wanted husbands and wives to have good relationships.

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