Scripture: Matthew 19:3-12
I’ve never preached on Jesus’ teaching on divorce before. I don’t think that’s been intentional – I’ve never actively steered away from it – but I’ve never felt especially compelled to wade into this territory, either. This feels like tricky ground. There are those of you here – probably more than I even know – for whom this passage is not just a theoretical debate about a matter of God’s law. It’s about your own lives and your own choices or the situations you’ve found yourselves in that you never chose at all.
I have not had the experience of getting or being divorced, but I have friends and teachers and mentors who have. Many of them are my colleagues in ministry. My mom was married and divorced before she ever met my dad, and I presumably wouldn’t be here if not for that severing of one relationship which allowed a new one to begin. I preach with all of these realities in mind.
This topic may seem like a strange choice for a series on politics – divorce really isn’t a focus of our political discourse today, for the most part, outside of the policy positions of some hardcore family values groups or perhaps the chance to comment on the character of some of our leading politicians. But the conversation Jesus has about it in today’s passage is a political one, if only because this is once again a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees over a matter of interpretation of Jewish law. And as such, it’s a chance to learn something about the values Jesus thinks should govern life together, which after all, is a lot of what politics is.
Once again, it begins as a test. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, teaching and healing in in the region of Judea across the Jordan River, and our Pharisee friends – remember them? – once again show up with a question. “Does the Law allow a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” they ask. I do have to wonder what made them pick this question, in particular. Maybe, as one commentary I read suggested, it’s because at this point in the story John the Baptist has recently been beheaded precisely for opposing King Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law. It’s a topic in the news. Or maybe, it’s just a common enough feature of life in 1st century Judea that they think they’re sure to get some traction with the question.
Jesus answers this question more directly than usual. “Haven’t you read Scripture?” he asks – knowing they have. “Doesn’t it say that God made male and female and that a man leaves his family to become one with his wife?” What God has joined together, let no one separate. (We still say that at weddings.)
Our Pharisees seem to have figured that he would answer along these lines, and they are ready with their response: “Then why did Moses say all we needed was a certificate of divorce?”
“Moses said that,” says Jesus, “because of the reality of your hard-heartedness, but that’s not the way it was meant to be. I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife – except on grounds of adultery – and marries another commits adultery himself.”
There is, of course, lots of complicated and tricky stuff to unpack here. There is the fact that Jesus refers to marriage as between a man and a woman – and yes, he does assume that, though it doesn’t quite seem like the point of what he’s saying here to me. There is the fact that while the church today is all too happy to wax eloquent on the ethics of same-sex marriage, it is largely silent – at least on a political level – about the ethics of divorce, which is what Jesus is actually addressing here. There are accusations of hard-heartedness for those who have needed the possibility of a legal divorce and adultery for those who have chosen to remarry. A hard word to swallow, no doubt, for people who have tried their best to make it work, people who have spent hours on a couch in couples therapy, people for whom happily ever after didn’t unfold as planned.
A friend of mine got married right out of college and divorced her husband a few years later. “No one gets married thinking they’re going to get divorced,” she said once. “You get married because you think it’s going to be forever.”
One of my mentors in ministry said going through divorce was the worst pain he’d ever felt, worse even than sobering up. Is that hard-heartedness? Both of those friends are remarried now. Does God not honor those new commitments they’ve made, and the families that have come through that?
Jesus is supposed to be about grace, not judgment, right? Doesn’t this hard, unforgiving stance on the Law seem ironically more like a Pharisee kind of thing than a Jesus one?
Well, I don’t know. Jesus often raises the bar on the Law rather than abolishing it altogether. Maybe you remember this from the Sermon on the Mount. You’ve heard it said that you should repay someone only an eye for an eye, but I tell you if someone takes your shirt, give them your coat as well. You’ve heard it said that you should love your neighbor, but I tell you also to love your enemy. You’ve heard it said that if you get divorced you should give your wife a certificate of divorce, but I tell you whoever gets divorced and remarries commits adultery.
Jesus is not a legalist, but far from abolishing the Law, he wants us to hear the kind of life that the Law is supposed to point us to. Not that that makes it easier, here, to swallow his teaching on divorce.
Does God care about the promises we make to each other before God in marriage? I believe that God does. Even through hard times? Yes, of course. Is it a sign of the general brokenness of our world that we are not always able to follow through on those promises? I imagine most of you who have been divorced would agree there is brokenness involved. Does God also care about abundant life for people who are no longer able to find that in the marriage they are in? I have to believe that, too. And, honestly, I wonder if this had been a genuine question asked of Jesus by someone in pain, rather than another test from the Pharisees, if his response might not have been different.
And I also wonder what else we might be able to hear in this exchange in Matthew 19 if we listen to it again. First of all, who is the subject of the Pharisees’ question? Does the Law allow a man to divorce his wife? This is no amicable, mutually negotiated separation in question. As usual, when we’re talking politics, there are power dynamics involved here.
What happens to a woman, in Jesus’ day, who is divorced by her husband? While businesswomen are not unheard of at the time, for the most part, women are economically dependent on men – first their fathers, then their husbands. Where does that leave a divorced woman? Potentially nowhere.
So maybe what Jesus means is that it shouldn’t be as easy as that, to just fill out a form and be done with someone. Maybe we owe each other more than that, not just as spouses, but as people. Maybe our obligations to love and care for someone who has been entrusted to us go beyond just what’s formally required.
Maybe Jesus’ interpretation of the Law comes down, once again, to protecting people who are vulnerable. Maybe we’re too good sometimes at finding loopholes in our obligations to each other.
I do have to laugh a little at the disciples’ reaction when Jesus says whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery. “If that’s the case,” they say, “then it’s better not to get married at all!” Really, y’all? Jesus, however, seems to say, yeah. In some cases, at least, it’s better not to get married at all. For there are eunuchs, he says, who were born that way, and those who have been made that way, and those who have chosen that status because of the Kingdom of Heaven. “Eunuch” isn’t really a societal role we have these days, but they were people who weren’t able, either physically or culturally, to be in an intimate relationship. Jesus says it’s possible to choose this. Neither marriage nor divorce is the end-all, be-all here: there is another possibility, of choosing another primary commitment, and that is also good.
In the end, that’s the primary commitment he asks of all of us, regardless of our relationship status: commitment to God, commitment to love and care for one another and especially those who are vulnerable, commitment to the Kingdom of God.
But those things aren’t political, right? Well, again, if they inform the choices we make about living real life with other people in community, then they are.
The Law that Jesus comes not to abolish, but to fulfill, is a law that points us time and again to our inescapable obligation to each other – all of us, in all the different ways we might live into that. And there are no loopholes. But it is the only way, I believe, to find our happily ever after.