March 21, 2012: The Twenty-Fifth Day of Lent
March 21, 2012 § Leave a comment
“And it was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce;’ but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” ~ Matthew 5.31, 32 ~
Jesus again uses a variation of his teaching phrase: “It was said to you, ______; but I say to you, _____.” Using this phrase, Jesus will often demonstrate the difference between what the Hebrew Law intended and what it turned out to be in practice.
Within different Jewish traditions, rabbis and scholars held different views regarding divorce. We must remember that this culture firmly held to a patriarchal society structure; men held most, if not all, of the power. The social position of a divorced woman would have been extremely awkward, as Christ alludes to. More liberal schools of rabbinic thought, such as that of Rabbi Hillel, allowed men to get a divorce for just about anything, such as one’s wife burning a meal. (LitSNTC, pg. 160) More conservative schools, demonstrated by Rabbi Shammai, said that only sexual unfaithfulness would warrant divorce. Jesus clearly holds to the more conservative school in his teaching here.
However, as he has done before, Christ raises the bar even higher. In this culture, women had little power. They would have had no say as to being divorced, and very little say as to their own marriage. In the eyes of Christ, a divorce forced the woman into a lose-lose situation. If she never remarried, she had even less social standing and security. If she did remarry, she would be an adulteress in the eyes of the Law. On top of that, the man who married the divorced woman, even if he had not been previously married, would still have been an adulterer. Christ says, in keeping with the more conservative thought on the issue, that divorce only becomes a legitimate option in the event of sexual infidelity. If the marriage relationship has been broken to that degree, a de facto state of divorce exists already; they’re just waiting on the paperwork. So it was in the eyes of the Law.
It’s an ugly situation. Just as we’ve recognized the cultural context of Christ’s time, we do well to recognize our own. Women enjoy a much higher social position in our time, standing on equal legal footing with men. In our time, divorce has become far more common; nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Just as Christ recognized legitimate grounds for divorce, we do the same; yet, in light of our cultural gap, the matter of “proper divorce” remains difficult to resolve in our time. Surely allowance must be made for unfaithfulness, as well as abusive spouses.
Yet, Christ never intended for the state of things to slip so far as to bring the matter of divorce into actual consideration. Shelton says: “Jesus held to the precedent of natural law when he instructed the people tat the Creator intended husband and wife to be one flesh and never to be separated (Matt. 19:4-11). In the present passage, Jesus says that any man divorcing his wife for any reason except marital unfaithfulness and then marrying another commits adultery. God’s will is the permanence of marriage on this earth. Thus Malachi writes that God says that couples are one flesh and that he “hate[s] divorce,” especially because of its effect on children (Mal. 2:14-16).” (LinSNTC, pg. 160)
As we have seen many times before in this passage, the true heart of the matter deals with living in proper, healthy relationships; with spouses, in this case. Christ has no interest in the possible loopholes of the Law. He desires our broken, faulty relationships with God and with others to be repaired. Divorce may be necessary at times, but it never was the intention of Heaven. The first option for those married should always be reconciliation; only when all avenues for peace have been exhausted should divorce enter the picture.
However, we rejoice that God’s action and grace in our lives does not cease. Regardless of our past, God brings us his mercies that are new every morning. The Kingdom of Heaven does what the ancient Law could not: wipe the slate clean. Blessed are those who mourn, who are gentle, who crave healthy relationships, who are merciful, and who make peace. The Kingdom of Heaven waits for you.
Lord Christ, thank you for your grace and your forgiveness. Thank you for the power and redemption you have brought about in my life; please continue to mend the broken places and make all things new. Amen.