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Jesus on Divorce

The following story appeared in a British newspaper,

Heartfelt commiseration to Dorothy Naylor of Plymouth, whose recent daytrip to Bridgewater was spoiled when her husband, Oliver, left her on the forecourt of a garage … and drove 17 miles before noticing his wife was not in the car.

“I couldn’t believe he’d gone without me,” Mrs. Naylor told the Western Morning News. “I usually sit in the back because I can move around more, but normally we talk to one another.”

The couple, both in their 70s, had pulled into a garage to change a tire. Mr. Naylor drove off and didn’t notice his wife’s absence until he had arrived in Bridgewater. After stopping in town, he asked his wife, “Where do you want to get out?” When she didn’t answer, he turned around and discovered that he had left her behind. The paper added that the couple had been married for 40 years.[1]

I thought you might enjoy that little story, just in time for Valentine’s Day! Though some of us may relate to this story, I believe Jesus envisions marriage as something more, something deeper. Let’s see what Jesus has to say in Mark 10:1-12. Listen for God’s word to you….

He left that place and went to the region of Judea and[a] beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,[b] and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Dear Heavenly Father, we pray today the words of your servant Augustine, “make us hungry to learn what your love makes you so ardent to teach.” Amen.

This is the second time in Mark’s Gospel that the Pharisees have “tested” Jesus. The first time was back in chapter 8 when they tested him by asking for a sign from heaven to prove his authority. Jesus refused to give the Pharisees such a sign. The Pharisees will test Jesus a third time, in the last week of his life, when they will ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. Divorce and taxes—two subjects bound to get anyone into trouble.

Dr. Donald A. Carson once said about the Bible, “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” What that means to me is that some people pull Bible verses out of context and use them as clubs to beat other people with. Our passage for today is an example of such a text often ripped out of context.

Therefore, let’s take a look at the context for Jesus’ statement here. I want to talk with you today about: The Trap (not the von Trapps!), The Law, and The Ideal.

First, we have The Trap.

We read that: “Some Pharisees came, and to test him [Jesus] they asked…”

The word translated as “test” is sometimes translated as “tempt”. What the Pharisees were doing was trying to get Jesus in trouble. They were trying to trick him into saying something that would get him in trouble with the local authority.

We must remember where this question was posed. Jesus was, at this time, traveling around Judea and also across the Jordan. Across the Jordan River from Judea was an area called Perea. This was the region ruled by Herod the Tetrarch, also known as Herod Antipas. Back in Mark 3:6 we read, “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him [that is Jesus], how to destroy him.”
The Pharisees wanted to destroy Jesus because they viewed him as committing blasphemy. Jesus was going around doing and saying things that only Yahweh, in the Hebrew Scriptures, got to do and say.
Then, you may remember, that in Mark 6 we read about Herod Antipas arresting John the Baptist on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” You may remember that John the Baptist ended up with his head on a platter because of his teaching about marriage and divorce. The Pharisees were apparently hoping that they could tempt Jesus into saying something on the same subject that would produce a similar result, i.e. Herod putting Jesus’ head on a platter.
When Jesus said, “if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery,” he may have been referring to Herodias because there was no law that allowed a woman to divorce her husband in Jesus’ time.
Thus, we see the trap that was laid for Jesus.

I love what one of the Early Church Fathers, Origen, said about this. “Jesus was not vexed when he was challenged by deceptive questioners who hoped more for a gaffe than an answer.”

Therefore, let’s move from The Trap to The Law.

The Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Since the Pharisees were asking Jesus a question about Jewish law, Jesus very correctly directed them back to the first lawgiver among the Israelites. Thus, Jesus asked a counter question: “What did Moses command you?”

The Pharisees responded: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”

This is a reference to Deuteronomy 24. Therefore, let’s look at that passage together. In that chapter we read:

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.

As you can probably figure out, there is a context to this passage in Deuteronomy as well. We don’t have time to go into all of that, but it is important to note one thing. That one thing is that among the rabbis there was a debate about what the phrase “something objectionable” in Deuteronomy 24 means. The school of Shammai understood “something objectionable” to refer to moral indecency, or in other words: adultery. The school of Hillel interpreted “something objectionable” so broadly that a husband could divorce his wife even for burning the breakfast.

It may be that the Pharisees were wondering which Rabbinic school Jesus would side with in this instance. If they were expecting Jesus to take sides, then they certainly must have been disappointed.

Instead, Jesus reminded the Pharisees of the spiritual context of Moses’ words. Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart he [Moses] wrote this commandment for you.” In other words, Jesus is saying, Moses allowing divorce was a concession to human hard-heartedness. Jesus refused to let a text be wrenched out of its context and be used as a pretext for a proof text.

Instead, Jesus pointed the Pharisees back to Genesis:

But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,[b] and the two shall become one flesh.’

Jesus actually quotes from two different verses in Genesis. First, he quotes from Genesis 1:27,

So God created humankind[a] in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;[b]
    male and female he created them.

And then Jesus quotes from Genesis 2:24,

Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Jesus’ brief commentary on these passages from Genesis should be very familiar to all of us because his words have been enshrined in the English language wedding ceremony for centuries:

So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

What is Jesus doing here? I think what Jesus was doing was that he was expressing The Ideal of marriage.

I think that the church has often tied herself in knots, trying to make Jesus’ words into law. Jesus was not a new lawgiver. He was not a second Moses. Rather, Jesus was responding to a question of the Pharisees about the law. And he basically says, “If you want to know what the law is, go back to Moses.” But if you want to know what God’s ideal is for marriage, look to Genesis.

I find it fascinating that God’s ultimate revelation is not in a law, or in a propositional statement, but in a person, Jesus of Nazareth. And that person, when asked a question about marriage and divorce, points us beyond the law to a story. We often are able to understand more about God, and embrace more of God, through a story, than we can through mere law.

Is there anyone who doubts that God’s ideal for marriage is that two people spend their life together in an enduring relationship of love and faithfulness? I have not run into too many people who question whether this is the ideal or not. Our problem, as human beings, is not the ideal, but living up to the ideal. I do not believe that any of us can live up to the ideal of marriage without God’s help.

Jesus’ disciples must have realized the difficulty involved in living up to the ideal for marriage which Jesus presents. Thus, they asked Jesus about it when they were alone with him in the house.

Rather than lessening the severity of his statement, Jesus strengthens it by saying: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Tom Wright has written,

In today’s church, particularly in the West, anyone who even reads verses 10-12 out loud is likely to be called cruel, unfeeling, unforgiving, exclusive, and a host of other names. So many people are bruised by the whole experience of marriage breakdown that to raise the topic, let alone to take a strong line on it, seems (as they might say) ‘unChristian’.

But we must ask the question that Tom Wright poses a little later:

Which is kinder, more Christian: to say that these things don’t matter, or to take a strong line, like Jesus, on behalf of the truly weak and vulnerable?

In the context of Jesus’ time, I believe he was trying to protect women, who were treated like property, and could be divorced by their husbands at will. And Jesus was trying to protect children who could be severely harmed by divorce. Over the past two Sundays we looked at what Jesus had to say about protecting children. Next week, we will look again at Jesus’ further comments about the place of children in his kingdom. Thus, this text about marriage and divorce is surrounded by Jesus’ concern for children.

I am sure this text leaves us with many questions, not the least of which is: “If divorce is wrong, can there be forgiveness?” I believe that the answer is: “Yes, through Jesus there can be not only forgiveness but also renewal, restoration, and a fresh start.”

I have two brothers who are divorced and remarried and have been in their second marriages now for over twenty years. When one of them divorced his first wife and planned to remarry, I, in my youthful Christian zealousness, took a hard line against divorce. At the time, I asked my father for his opinion. Dad reminded me of the story in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery and how Jesus treated her.

Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees who were ready to execute this woman, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then Jesus bent down and scribbled something in the sand. When the scribes and Pharisees heard Jesus’ ultimatum, they went away, one by one, beginning with the oldest; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

Jesus straightened up and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?” And she responded, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

I now believe that my father’s response to my brother many years ago, perfectly mirrored our heavenly Father’s response. For our heavenly Father always stands with open arms, ready to receive us and forgive us, no matter what we have done or failed to do. And our heavenly Father also empowers us to begin life anew every day. As it says in Lamentations 3:22-23,

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

[1] Rico Tice, “What Shall I Do With Jesus?” Sermon at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London; submitted by Van Morris, Mt. Washington, Kentucky


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