Listening to Jesus About Marriage and Divorce

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 10:6-9

“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, and the two shall become one.’ So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

Mark 10:6-9 rsv

Listen now to these words of Jesus about marriage, divorce, and re-marriage. I’m reading from Mark 10:2:

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him 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 divorce, and to put her away.” But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 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, and the two shall become one.’ So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

I might entitle this message, “A Christian View of Divorce and Remarriage.” Note: not the Christian view. That would be presumptuous and dishonest. Presumptuous because I obviously don’t have the last word and dishonest because in fact there are sincere differences of opinion on these issues among equally committed Christian people.

But I do call it a Christian view because I’m trying to make it just that, an outlook based on the way in which Jesus spoke about these issues and the way in which He treated the people who were involved in them. I’m trying to reflect the mind of Christ as clearly and fully as we may know His mind from the Scriptures.

One thing I have become convinced of is that a Christian view of this subject challenges other widely held views. When I look at the question, for example, “What is Christ’s attitude toward divorce?” I find that the answer differs radically from the attitude of secular culture, here in America and in many other countries as well. When I ask the further question, “What is Christ’s attitude toward persons who have been involved in divorce?” I find Him very much at odds with the religious culture of today, with strongly held ideas in a community like mine. And when I ask further, “What is Christ’s attitude toward remarriage?” I encounter a challenge that cuts both ways, that comes home powerfully to all of us.


Think with me now about those three questions, or rather, let’s try together to look with Christ at them. First, what is the Lord’s attitude toward divorce?

In two of the key passages in the gospel where Jesus speaks about divorce, the occasion is an encounter with the Pharisees. They ask Him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife – for just any cause. They have reference to a passage in Deuteronomy from the Old Testament upon which they want Jesus to comment. The passage goes like this. It’s from Deuteronomy 24: “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter husband dislikes her and writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled . . . . “

There were two schools of thought among the rabbis as to how this passage should be interpreted. One felt that it opened the door for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds at all; the other felt that the only permissible ground should be adultery. What did Jesus think? They were out to test Him on this.

Jesus’ answer took them by surprise. He refused to buy into either of those interpretations. Neither one, He said, was really in line with God’s original purpose. Moses’ command had been given, Jesus says, “because of your hardness of heart,” that is, to deal with the realities of life in a sinful world. God’s original purpose, however, did not envision divorce at all. Jesus quotes Genesis, “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, and the two shall become one.”

Jesus, in other words, takes the highest possible view of marriage. He sees it as ordained by God from the beginning, out of loving concern for human beings. “It is not good that the man should be alone . . . .” Marriage involves a public, legal event in which all of society has a definite interest. It involves also a commitment of love, affection, and fidelity. It means a total union of two persons, creating a new reality. Marriage is a God-established bond, according to Jesus, which is meant for life, sacred and enduring. Divorce, from this standpoint, is a tragic deviation from God’s original good design.

What a contrast to the view held commonly today! There are those who contend now for trial marriages. “Give it a try for a couple of years with the option to renew at the end of that period!” I read some time ago of a coed from a college in Kentucky who won a scholarship but in the meantime decided to get married. She asked the college authorities whether if her marriage didn’t work out, she could still come back to school and retain the scholarship. A survey in England asked more than 2,000 married people if they had considered the possibility before marriage that they could always get a divorce if things didn’t work out. For those willing to admit the thought, the people who had married in the late 1950s were more than twice as likely to say they had considered it as those married in the 1920s.

Countless books explore the various reasons for this. What I am thinking about especially now is the fact: multitudes in our time see marriage as a temporary, open-ended expedient without abiding significance. Divorce to them is simply a practical, legal exit from a situation which people no longer find satisfying.

But Jesus Christ is set against divorce, precisely because He is for us. The Creator who fashioned us knows us better than we know ourselves. He wills what is for our good always. He intended marriage for our happiness, knowing that normally the highest human joy and fulfillment is to be found in that relationship. It’s His purpose that people should know the grand human dignity of a lasting commitment to each other. And He makes that commitment the clearest human expression of an even deeper bond: the tie between Christ and His people, between the Lord and His church.

He knows too what a devastating trauma it is for people to pass through divorce, what a blow to their self-esteem. What a crushing sense of defeat, what loneliness, what inner anguish divorce can bring! The Lord knows what cruelty it can inflict, how it can tear apart the hearts of children who struggle helplessly to hold mom and dad together. From the viewpoint of Jesus, knowing what marriage is meant to be and can be, divorce must always be an utterly heartbreaking thing.

It seems to me that a Christian seeking the mind of the Lord must always view divorce as the impossible possibility, the last resort. And those who work with married couples ought to be, it seems to me, as eager to preserve marriages as a medical doctor is to preserve human lives. Yes, and even when they seem to be dead ought to call upon the God of resurrection to revive them!


Now for the second question. What is Christ’s attitude toward persons who have been involved in divorce? Here we don’t have a great deal of direct evidence in the gospels but what we do have is tremendously instructive. See Jesus conversing, for example, with the woman by the well in Samaria. She has had five husbands and the man with whom she is now living is not her husband at all. How does Jesus deal with her? He initiates a conversation with her, asks her a favor, offers her living water, reveals Himself to her as Messiah. We note that He isn’t ashamed in the slightest to be seen conversing with her.

Then there’s the woman who comes into the home of the Pharisee Simon, while Jesus is there to dine. Her marital status, if any, was highly questionable. She stands behind Jesus at His feet, weeping. She wets His feet with her tears and wipes them with the hairs of her head. She kisses His feet and anoints them with ointment. Jesus accepts her offering. In fact, He says, “I tell you, her sins which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.”

Here’s one more scene. A woman has been caught in the act of adultery. The authorities tell Jesus about this. They point out that the Mosaic law commands people to stone such offenders. What does Jesus say about this? Remember how He bent down and wrote with His finger on the ground, then stood up and said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her!” Soon all her accusers had slipped away. Only the woman was left standing before Him. He looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you, go and do not sin again.”

Now here are three instances where people have been through divorce or have committed offenses considered to warrant divorce. In each, Jesus is aware of what has happened. In each, He is socially accepting. In each, He seems totally non-condemning.

What a contrast here to a smug, judgmental religious culture! To most of Jesus’ contemporaries in Israel, such people were to be avoided as lepers and held in contempt as evil doers. Yet here is Christ with a higher standard about marriage and divorce than Moses and the prophets. Yet when it comes to people caught in the act of adultery, Moses says, “Let them be stoned,” while Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”

Haven’t we seen something of the same contrast? There may be people in your community struggling with all the pain and grief of divorce, whom church people have made doubly miserable. They’ve made these sufferers feel like social pariahs, looking down on them as somehow contemptible.

Isn’t it strange that where Christ is ready to forgive we are all too often ready to throw stones? We demonstrate the mind of Christ only when people whose marriages have been broken can feel as welcome among us as they did when they came to Him.


Well, what about our last question. What is Christ’s attitude toward remarriage? Here’s where His words seem especially hard to understand. Listen again: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Here the Lord seems to put all remarriage under an ugly shadow. But we need to remember, I believe, the setting in which these words were spoken. Pharisees are testing Jesus. People are looking for an easy way out of the marriage covenant.

The Lord is dealing here with what is in a person’s heart as he or she contemplates divorce. If the aim is to get out of one marriage in order to get into another, to drop one partner in favor of another, then the word adultery without a doubt best describes it.

But with many, many people, I’m persuaded, the circumstances are much different. There has been a real struggle to make the marriage work. Years of pain and frustrated efforts, hopes strangled again and again. Sometimes divorce is seen as the only way out of a relationship that has become destructive for all the persons concerned. Here, I think, is a very different situation.

Perhaps some of you have read the little book by Walter Trobisch entitled, I Married You. It tells of a Christian marriage counselor who spent four days in an African city helping people in their views of sex and marriage. At one point someone asked him, “Would you remarry divorcees without hesitation?” His answer was, “Not without hesitation, with much hesitation, but in some circumstances I would.”

That’s a significant question. “Would you remarry?” The answer of our secular cultures would often be “yes, of course.” The answer of our religious culture might be no, not unless it was the innocent party in the divorce proceedings. But Trobisch’s answer was quite different. “In any case,” he said, “I would remarry only the guilty parties.”

What can that mean? It means this: If anyone claims he is entirely innocent, the fault totally his partner’s, then it’s certain that any subsequent marriage is doomed to failure too. So in any squabble between people. But where people recognize their own failure, their need for forgiveness, where they turn to Christ for grace and strength, there is forgiveness. There is a new beginning, and the future is open, bright with hope. What’s the mind of Christ about marriage, divorce and remarriage? Let me put it this way: Honor marriage and do all you can to hallow and preserve it. Take to your hearts with genuine love and acceptance those who have met with pain and brokenness. And believe, friends, that in Jesus Christ, all things can be made new.”