Jesus and Divorce

  “Some Pharisees came, and to test (Jesus) they asked him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’” (Mark 10:2)

 Well, first of all, the Pharisees did not need Jesus to instruct them about divorce.  The very first verse of the 24th chapter of Deuteronomy makes it perfectly clear how easy it was for a Jewish male to write a certificate of divorce and put aside his wife. It doesn’t give any instruction about how a woman is to free herself from an abusive relationship or a loveless marriage arranged by her family, but the text is *real* clear about how easy it is for a man to get rid of his wife!

 No, the Pharisees did not need to be instructed by Jesus about divorce laws. They were experts in the Law. There is much more going on in this passage than that!  This is a familiar pattern in the Pharisees’ attacks on Jesus. They confront him publicly with a tough question, such as why he does work on the Sabbath, whether or not one should pay taxes to Caesar, or what he thinks about John the Baptist; and, in doing so, they hope he will make a mistake and give them a legal reason to discredit him, or even worse.

 In this case, the context is clear. The Essene (or Dead Sea Scrolls) community had formulated their opposition to divorce on what the king should do in his own life. They knew that royal marriages and divorces were politically dangerous and so they, like Jesus, appealed to Genesis, to God’s original intention for marriage, to argue against divorce. And John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, who had perhaps spent some time with the Essenes, had been arrested and eventually executed for criticizing the king (Herod Antipas) for divorcing his wife precisely to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias.

 So, behind the Pharisees’ “innocent” question about divorce lurks the mission and ministry of John the Baptist and just what Jesus thought about all that. He would have to answer this question at his own peril!  So Jesus does was he so often does in these verbal battles – he answers the question *with* a question! “What did Moses command you?” They give the correct answer, but Jesus pushes them beyond the legalistic answer back to God’s original intention.

 According to the very first book for the Bible, God intended married people to be permanently joined in marriage so no human tradition can claim authority to override that intention. If indeed married people become “one flesh” as the text says, divorce would be like trying to divide one person into two. And that can’t be God’s desire. But the point is, Jesus comments were not intended to create some kind of new legislation about marriage and divorce!

 Instead, he blasts the Pharisees for cooperating with the hard-hearted, one-sided system of divorce which seems clearly to favor men’s rights over women’s. He could not be accused of breaking the Law because his views coincided with the Essenes, and others, who were stricter in the interpretation than even the Pharisees. On the other hand, he has sided with John the Baptist’s dangerous views of the marriage between King Herod and Herodias!

The point is, Jesus wants to insist that God’s original intentions for human beings take precedence over other provisions in Mosaic Law. He is not intending to create some new legalistic system to deal with the painful realities of marital discord and the fact of divorce.     

Unfortunately, the Church has not always has been as adept as Jesus at avoiding the whole divorce business! Twenty years after this conflict with the Pharisees’ Paul tells the Corinthians that it would be OK for a Christian whose non-Christian spouse had divorced him or her to re-marry. In principle Paul was opposed to divorce, but he was trying to find a pastoral provision, sometimes called “the Pauline privilege!”

 And the Church has been struggling with this ever sense! How to balance the high view of the permanence of marriage taught by Jesus with the painful realities of troubled marriages and the possibility of divorce?  Some churches have created elaborate systems for determining when a marriage may be declared null and void. While some churches today are experimenting with creating rituals for divorce to provide a way for the church to stand with divorcing couples in an attitude of prayer.

 The Episcopal Church has been in a number of places on that continuum, but our canon law today attempts to live in the tension by affirming the life-long intention of marriage, but providing space for a pastoral approach which honors people and allows us to enter into their pain and walk together toward reconciliation when possible, forgiveness and healing when it is not.

 I am absolutely convinced that we are close to the Spirit of Jesus in this approach. That Spirit is so beautifully described in our Second Lesson today from Hebrews: “It was fitting that God…in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. For the one who sanctifies and those who are (being) sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God…Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” (Hebrews 2:11ff)

 So, by treating marriage as grounded in God’s love, Jesus removes it from the realm of law. His original hearers, like so many out there today, viewed marriage as a contract. So, like any contract, it could be voided.  Jesus wanted to challenge that casual attitude about marriage but, unlike the Essenes, he did not think new laws or legalistic systems would create the kind of relationships God intended. Legalism is contrary to the Spirit of Jesus.

 Nonetheless, the challenge he lays down for us and the questions he poses about a hard-hearted treatment of divorce, on the one hand, and a casual attitude about marriage, on the other, are still crucial for our reflection today.  Not because we want tough laws, or canons, against divorce, but because we seek to make Christian families today what God yearns for them to be.

3 Responses to “Jesus and Divorce”

  1. Why Relationships Fail Says:

    Hi, I don’t like commenting on relationships but I did find this helpful on this topic. TY

  2. Carmelia Pead Says:

    Exactly what I have been thinking. Your text was fantastic. To get your lover back is not the hardest of the accomplishments But it for sure can take some effort

  3. Says:

    It’s awesome to go to see this web page and reading the views of all mates regarding this paragraph, while I am also zealous of getting experience.

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