READ : Matthew 5:31-32
Marriage and divorce are issues of great concern these days. What did Jesus think about them?
One of my favorite New Testament characters is a bit player with a very small role. He appears in just one paragraph in the Gospel of Matthew, and we don’t even know his name – he is identified simply as a Roman centurion. He came up to Jesus one day to ask for his help for a servant who lay ill. Jesus immediately offered to go with the man. “Oh, no, Lord,” the centurion said hurriedly, “I’m not worthy for you to come under my roof. Just say the word and I know my servant will be healed. That’s all you have to do, for I myself am a man under authority, and I know how it works.”
I like that Roman centurion because he speaks for me. I too am a man under authority. All biblical Christians are. We live under the personal authority of Jesus Christ and the general authority of God’s Word, the Bible. We’re not free to decide for ourselves what to believe or how to live, nor are we free to pick and choose what we like out of Scripture, selecting the parts we agree with and rejecting the parts we don’t. People who are under authority have to learn how to take orders.
This is particularly relevant when we listen to what Jesus has to say on the subject of marriage and divorce. One of the “drawbacks” to a systematic Bible study such as this series of messages on the Sermon on the Mount is that you can’t skip over the difficult or unpalatable passages! “This is a hard saying, who can accept it?” some of Jesus’ disciples remarked after hearing him teach on another occasion (John 6:60). They could just as well have been talking about his teaching on marriage and divorce. This is a hard saying indeed, but it is his. Jesus said these things; I didn’t. You and I may struggle with them, but we, if we’re Christians in any meaningful sense of the Word, are people under authority, which means our job is to try to understand his teaching and obey it.
YES TO MARRIAGE
The first point Jesus makes with great emphasis is that God is in favor of marriage. Marriage is not some kind of arbitrary social convention or the anachronistic relic of an outmoded tradition. It is God’s design, God’s plan, God’s gift. It is something he built into creation itself. From the very beginning of the human race marriage has been the way – the only way – God intended men and women to experience sexual intimacy and establish families.
When Jesus was asked for his opinion about divorce, he replied by talking first about the meaning and purpose of marriage. He took his questioners all the way back to the second chapter of Genesis and its account of human creation. God created humans as male and female, complementary partners made for each other and intended by their Creator to experience their sexual fulfillment within the covenant of marriage. The traditional liturgy is right when it says that marriage was “instituted by God when he said that a man should leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and the two shall be one flesh.” Marriage involves a divine arithmetic whereby one plus one equals one: one man and one woman together in a lifelong union. Marriage was defined this way by God himself, and worked by him into our very natures as creatures – not only the shape of our bodies but our psyches as well.
Just in case we missed this in Genesis, Jesus makes it clear by saying it all again here in Matthew. So for believing Christians, there’s really no debate about issues of sex and marriage. “There’s no getting away from it,” wrote C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. “The Old Christian rule is either marriage with complete faithfulness to your partner or else total abstinence.” And according to Jesus, the Christian rule for marriage is also very straightforward: one man and one woman for life. The nature of marriage is defined by the creation of humans as male and female.
This does not mean one has to get married in order to be fully human. On the contrary, the call to a single life of celibacy is a high path of discipleship, according to both Jesus and the apostle Paul. But for Christians, as people under authority, the only lawful alternative to celibacy is the institution of marriage as God has designed it.
So this is the first point. Jesus is very much pro-marriage. It sounds terribly old fashioned and out of step with contemporary society. In the United States, supposedly the world’s most Christianized country, half of all marriages currently end in divorce. Almost a third of all children are born out of wedlock. The consensus view of popular culture, a view conveyed by an endless stream of television programs, movies, and magazines, and reinforced relentlessly by advertising, is that sex is a casual, recreational pastime without very much more meaning than eating a dish of ice cream or taking a hot shower or any other pleasant sensory experience. But the God who created us says otherwise. The Bible’s warning is as clear as it can be. Sex is part of our nature and was created good by God, but it must be expressed only within the boundaries of marriage as God intended, that is, in a covenantal, lifelong, faithful, loving, heterosexual relationship. Anything other than this is a perversion, a turning away from God’s will for our lives, and it can only lead to incalculable damage both to us and others.
NO TO DIVORCE
This brings us to Jesus’ second major point. Because he says “Yes” so resoundingly to marriage, he must speak an equally resounding “No” to divorce. Three things need to be emphasized in what he says about it here. The first is that Jesus took such a hard line on divorce in response to a moral climate very similar to our own. We live in a day, especially here in America, of easy divorce. Many places have so-called “no fault” divorce laws, which means that anyone can pretty much have a divorce just for the asking, without even giving a reason.
The Pharisees who came to Jesus with their question about divorce were themselves divided on the issue. One school of thought was very permissive. They interpreted the law to mean that a man could divorce his wife for any fault that he found in her, even something as trivial as burning his dinner. One influential rabbi went so far as to say that finding another more attractive woman was grounds enough! (He would have been a big hit today.) Opposed to these liberal views was the school of thought that said divorce was permitted only for the most serious offense, namely, sexual immorality or adultery. Jesus clearly comes down on this side of the divorce debate of his day. He did not believe in easy or casual divorce.
The second thing to observe is that in taking this attitude toward divorce, Jesus was actually moving to defend women in his culture. In Jesus’ day, divorce was a man’s game. The popular view was that adultery could only be committed by a wife against her husband; whatever the husband did didn’t matter (as long as he didn’t do it with another man’s wife.) Jesus cuts through all this. His strong stand against divorce, which sounds so harsh to our modern ears, was actually a way of protecting women from being casually dumped by their husbands.
Thirdly, while Jesus clearly hates divorce, he also recognizes that there are some circumstances in which it must be permitted. Divorce is a concession to our sinfulness, to the hardness of our hearts, says Jesus. It’s never good, but sometimes, when sin of the gravest kind has broken the marriage bond, then divorce may be the lesser of two evils. It can be the right choice that we are forced to make.
YES TO SINNERS
It’s one thing to listen to Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce. It’s quite another to apply it to the lives of frail, struggling, imperfect sinners like us. I agree with commentator Dale Bruner who said that teaching Jesus’ divorce sayings is unpleasant work because it often hurts and puts down people who have been hurt and put down enough.
We can recognize that marriage is good and divorce is bad, but how does that help people who have already experienced it? They know it’s bad! At Words of Hope we receive letters from all over asking for counsel about marriage and divorce, “I need to know if it is a sin that I have committed,” writes an Irish woman. A man from Nigeria mentions the alarming divorce rate in his country among Christians and says, “Please help. I had hoped it was the responsibility of preachers to have solutions.” A South African Christian asks desperately whether she must remain in bondage in an unloving marriage. Another woman from Northern Ireland who feels guilty because she has remarried after a divorce asks, “Is my present husband really my husband in the sight of God?” Who can fail to be moved by the pain of these people, most of whom are Christians? What can we say to them?
We can at least start by saying this: the Lord who hates divorce still loves divorced people. The same Jesus who says no to sin also says yes to sinners, including those who have committed sins involving adultery or divorce. One day when Jesus was teaching, a group of people brought to him a woman who had been taken in the act of adultery. They wanted to know whether he would condemn her to death in accordance with the law. Jesus didn’t even look at them but stooped to the ground and wrote something in the dirt. “Let whoever is without sin among you cast the first stone at her,” he said. When he looked up a few moments later, the crowd had melted away and only the woman was left. “Where are your accusers?” he asked her. “They’ve all gone,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”
Whoever you are, whatever you may have done, I want to tell you that Jesus will speak the same way to you if you will turn to him. In Christ there is forgiveness for sinners of all kinds, big or small, male or female, married or divorced. The only way to miss it is to claim that you don’t need it.