As I was wrestling with the passage from the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus teaching on divorce I was very appreciative of two pieces of wisdom. The first from RVG Tasker… That ‘this passage about divorce is so difficult, and there have been so many diverse interpretations given by individual scholars and different sections of the Christian church, that a commentator may well feel reluctant to express an opinion at all about it, lest they should be guilty of adding to the confusion”… but then with all humility Tasker courageously putting forth some reflections knowing that it won’t be acceptable to everyone. The second is the pastoral compassion of NT Wright acknowledging friends colleges and family who wrestle with this passage concluding that ‘this is clearly a painful and pressing issue for many people and effects many churches round the world.” What does Jesus mean? How does his teaching apply in our world? How do we live as salt and light… How do follows of Jesus live differently, how do we value marriage in a throwaway society, Where even relationships seem to be disposable.
Here Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and we see that Jesus has moved from the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments to dealing with a permission in the mosaic law. Deuteronomy 4 deals with a specific situation, of one man divorcing his wife for sexual misconduct, the law made it clear that he simply couldn’t abandon her, but rather had to do things right, so that she was legally able to marry another, Which is what happens in Deuteronomy 24, the second marriage goes sour as well, the law finishes by stating that the first man cannot then remarry his ex-wife?
It’s a piece of case law, the Deuteronomy passage is dealing with is the sad situation where such relationship don’t last. It was obvious that there was divorce and remarriage happening. In Jesus day the passage was being used as the basis for a discussion over what constituted grounds for divorce. There were two main groupings in Jewish rabbinical teaching. The school of Hillel had a very liberal interpretation of what the passage meant by something shameful, they said that it covered any offence that a women may commit. It became almost open slather. In the memoirs of the Jewish historian Josephus we get a taste of what it was like where he writes in a way we are used to in our twenty first century western world “ At this time I sent away my wife, being displeased with her behaviour… then I took as wife a women from Crete”. The other school following rabbi shammai maintained a strict interpretation of this law, that it was only for sexual misconduct, adultery or sexual misconduct before the marriage. In fact it was seen as being a given that you would divorce your wife for that. Joseph’s conundrum when he discovered Mary was pregnant was not weather to divorce her , but to do it privately or publicly, remembering that such offences were punishable by death. As a righteous and merciful man his problem is solved by the appearance of an angel who explains that this is the LORD at work.
The book of Hosea in the Old Testament also has some bearing on how God considers divorce. Hosea marries a prostitute and while she continues to be unfaithful to him, God calls Hosea to continue loving her and being reconciled to her... even redeeming her out of slavery. This shows God's commitment to his own covenant relationship with unfaithful Israel.
Jesus then responds to that
“But I tell you anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries divorced women commits adultery”.
Firstly, Jesus is clearly saying he is against the liberal application of the Deuteronomy clause. We are fortunate that we have a longer section of Jesus teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:1-12. Jesus was asked to comment on what the Deuteronomy 24 clause meant , he was invited to take sides in the debate of the his age over divorce, and once again Jesus isn’t drawn into taking sides but rather correctly interprets the scripture. He does two things… he says the key passage from the Law when it comes to marriage is not the passage in Deuteronomy but rather the passage from Genesis where God’s purpose for human sexuality and marriage is that and women will leave their family’s and cleave to one another, that the two will become one flesh. God’s intention is for life long loving mutual faithful relationships between man and wife. Jesus finishes this with words that we are used to from traditional wedding language ‘therefore what God has joined together let no one separate’.
Secondly In that passage Jesus says that the divorce clauses are in the Mosaic Law because of the hardness of man’s hearts. It was only the male prerogative to divorce a wife. In the modern context it would be just as apt to say the hardness of the human heart. Sadly the focus of the rabbi’s was fixed on this legislation not the purpose of marriage. Jesus says yes adultery is grounds for such a divorce, but again these relationships are not to be thrown away cheaply.
It’s interesting that in response to Jesus affirmation of the seriousness of marriage, that his disciples ask if it’s better not to get married? In our society, that may be taken as asking if it’s better to simply cohabitate. Jesus response is that marriage is not for everyone, there are those for whom staying single is an option from inclination or as a commitment to the kingdom of God. The teaching is for those who can accept it. And I don't like the teaching of some churches that denegrates singles by saying...'don't worry God has a partner for you" that's not the scriptural understanding of singleness and marraige. We need to rediscover and value singleness and learn how to make a community where singles are catered for... not by just providing a dating service either.
Coming back to the passage in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is clear that in divorcing women simply for any reason, even when you go through the right process, when you do all the legal stuff, which does allow for remarriage, you are victimising them, they are open to the accusation of being an adulterer, and in such cases, says Jesus it throws any marriage after that into doubt as well.
NB Stonehouse’s paraphrase I think sums this up well
“you’ve heard of the appeal of Jewish teachers to Deuteronomy 24 in the interest of substantiating a policy which permits husbands freely at their own pleasure to divorce their wives-simply providing them with a duly attested document of the transaction… But I say to You, Jesus continued, that such irresponsible behaviour on the part of a husband will lead him and his wife and the second partners into unions which are not marriage but adultery.”
How does that connect with where we are at in our world today?
Firstly, we do have some more equitable divorce laws in our society. The sad reality is that we live in a broken world, and marriages are going to sadly end. There is a better treatment of women, I think you can see Jesus concern for women come out of the way in which his Objection to the more liberal laws about divorce are couched in the way it mistreats women. While in other gospel parallels to this passage Jesus does not give any grounds for divorce here there is the possibility and we do work through those issues in our world today. However we need to realise that divorce goes contra to Jesus teaching on the Kingdom of God where we are to be people who are about reconciliation and love. We should always view divorce with sadness.
Secondly, in the past Jesus teaching has been almost the basis of a new legalism. A stigmatisation of divorced people and those who have remarried, which is not healthy nor does it reflect the graciousness of the gospel. We only have to look back to the beatitudes to Jesus invitation to the broken, the spiritually poor to see that all are welcomed to the Kingdom. We need to sadly acknowledge that some time marriages will end and be gracious, loving and supportive of people through the process and in subsequent remarriages. Again let me point out that divorce actually does imply the possibility of remarriage.
But it also says that divorce is not the norm in the Kingdom of God, We are called to live in a different way. The bible reading we had from Ephesians, (Ephesians 5:21-33)which has often been misused, shows this, it takes the roman household code, of husbands keeping their households in line and turns it on its head to show marriage and relationships in the family are about mutual love, reflecting God’s love and grace in Christ, they are about mutual submission...not power. The same principle is even more applicable in our western understanding of marriage as an equal partnership. In fact this is a greater understanding of the Ephesians passage than those who would try and propagate the husband as head of the household that is the roman household code, a social context, not what the Bible teaches.
NT Wright says that the placement of Jesus teaching between his teaching on adultery and vows is significant. He says “it may be stating the obvious to point out that if people knew how to control their bodily lusts on the one hand and were committed to complete integrity and truth telling on the other, there would be fewer divorces. Such things as lust and lies can “grow up and choke the fragile and beautiful plant of marriage.”
Finally, Jesus teaching calls us to value marriage in a throwaway society. Sadly the divorce statistics for Christians is almost as high as the rest of society. We are flawed and broken people. It's easy to say we value marriage...but it calls for some very practical outworking’s.
We need to be active before people get married. I always take couples through pre marriage concealing before I will take their wedding. One man told Kris on the phone when he rang up to get me to do a wedding and when Kris advised him that I took couples through some counselling, said he didn’t think he needed that because this was going to be his third marriage and he thought he had it sorted by now. To which Kris replied that she thought that was a good reason to get as much counselling as possible to make sure it worked this time. Marriage is a serious thing, it’s not to be entered into lightly.
A good marriage needs to be cultivated. I tell couples when they come to see me, and it’s in my wedding sermon as well, that the best metaphor I’ve ever heard for marriage is that it is work, and the only better metaphor that I’ve herd is that it is hard work. It may not be very romantic but it is apt and I heard it from one of the top Christian marriage councillors in New Zealand. We need to work on marriages to make them work… To help that Later this year I want to run the Alpha marriage course here at St Peter’s. It a six week course where you take time to sit and talk, not in a group session, but with your spouse, and work at your marriage. It’s not an admission that there are problems; rather it’s designed to make good marriages better. Kris and I did it after we’d married for twenty years, and it was very practical and helped. We even have regular dates together again now....and I tell people who want me to do something on that date and time... "I'm sorry I can't do it...I've got a hot date".
When there is trouble, and lets face it no one is perfect, we need to ask for help. I went and listened to New Testament scholar Darrell Bock last week, and found one of his comments very useful. He said one of the sad things was that in many cases people will not come looking for help in marriages until it’s too late. The relationship is in such a mess that divorce seems the only option. Pride, embarrassment, denial, don’t let them stop you from dealing with stuff before it gets out of hand. My main conflict resolution style is avoidance. I’m good at it, but as I have to remind myself, if we keep sweeping things under the carpet, the only thing that will happen is that eventually you’ll trip over the lump. We don't end up being that big lump.
Weddings and fairy tales are synonymous in our society. The dress, the quaint church or panorama of the beach or garden, the ride off into the sunset, the couple entwined in a tender and passion kiss, and those words…’and they lived happily ever after’…then it’s the end of the story, we close the book, the credits roll and the lights come up in the cinema, or there is the intrusive blare of commercials. We need to realise that the romance and the work does not all go into the day, but into the everyday life together. That’s often the best part, dealing with troubles together, living with each other’s expectations, faults, dealing with issues of having and raising kids or not having a family, financial issues, life changing and seeing our love for one another grow deeper and stronger than at the start.
On my facebook recently was this cartoon that said ‘pixar managed to do a more romantic love story in a 8 minute montage with no dialogue than the whole four books and four movies of the twilight saga. So let me finish today with this wonderful celebration of love and marriage from the Disney Pixar movie up. I know its Disney, but it is a great example of a lifelong romance and love story. It appears at the beginning of the movie not the end because ‘Up is about the fact that there is life after such a good marriage ends in death.