Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

145. Divorce (Matt. 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12)

The Pharisees, ever eager to use any and every opportunity to discredit Jesus, came at him with a question about the trickiest social problem in all human history. They themselves were divided sharply into two schools of thought. Hillel, putting emphasis on the lower status of women, gave license to Jews to divorce their wives for all kinds of trivial reasons—the wife's failure as a cook, her annoying chatter, or the failing of her physical attractiveness. "Every kind of impropriety, such as going about with loose hair, spinning in the street, familiarly talking to men, ill-treating her husband's parents in his presence, brawling, that is, speaking to her husband loudly so that the neighbours could hear her in the adjoining house" (Edersheim: Jewish Social Life; p.157). Shammai more strictly drew the line at marital unfaithfulness. So whatever pronouncement Jesus made regarding this problem, he was sure to lay himself open to disagreement and criticism.

Indeed, there was probably much more mischievous intent behind this question. John the Baptist's open and courageous denunciation of Herod's marital sins had cost him his life. These Pharisees doubtless hoped to get Jesus entangled in the same sticky situation. Let him commit himself publicly to some opinion unfavourable to the king, and within hours, whilst he was still in Herod's territory (Mt.19 :1), his words would be maliciously repeated in the ear of Herodias.

These Pharisees did not ask, as might perhaps have been expected: "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for any cause?" They knew from the Law of Moses that divorce was permissible in certain circumstances. So their question: "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" must surely mean: "for every cause which is currently allowed."

These men had reason to believe that they could use this issue at the very least to stir up prejudice against Jesus, for had he not already been known to teach a very austere doctrine regarding marriage? (Mt.5 :32; Lk.16 :18).

The answer Christ gave was not the brief enunciation of principle so often characteristic of his teaching. Instead, he spoke at length, reasoning carefully and with emphatic repetition.

Six Reasons

First, there was withering rebuke that the question should have been asked at all. "Go home and read your Bible," he said. "Have ye not read,...?"(cp.Mt.l2:3,5; 21:16,42; 22:31; Lk.10 :26). "What did Moses command?" (Mk.10 :3) neatly anticipated their evasive appeal to Moses. Then he bluntly quoted the plain words of Genesis: "He which created them at the beginning (1 :1) made them male and lemale?" (1 :27). Thus at a stroke he vindicated the divine authority of Genesis and at the same time declared the basic principle of marriage to be settled from Creation.

The words: "male" and "female", are singular. God made one man and one woman. Then was divorce in prospect in Eden? Was it at all part of the original divine intention? The point becomes all the stronger when it is observed that although the lower creatures were also made "male and female," that fact is not mentioned in the Creation narrative. The Old Testament only uses "male and female" with reference to animals, when telling about Noah's ark—"two and two" (Gen.7 :9). Most onimals are promiscuous. But in the ark it was one male and one female.

Jesus went on to quote Genesis again: "And He (God) said, For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain (LXX text) shall become one flesh"(2 :24). Again, the divine inspiration of Genesis and its authority on religious fundamentals was strongly underlined. But the Lord's main purpose—to stress the permanence of human marriage—was emphasized even more. A man is to cleave to his wife (the Greek word means "glued"). The two, made from one flesh, are to become and to continue, one flesh A French commentator has put the pungent question: "For whose sake then may they part if not for father or mother?"

Even now Jesus was not content with such weighty declarations on the sanctity c' marriage. He continued: "Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh."

Could anything else Jesus might say on this difficult topic be more explicit? Indeed, yes! Hi; sixth asseveration on this question was spoker with all the authority he was capable of: "What therefore God hath joined together (Tindale: "cuppled"!), let not man put asunder."

These accumulated statements on marriage and divorce were so downright that the Lord's Pharisee enemies felt that they had him in an indefensible position, for was there not specific legislation in the Law of Moses regarding divorce? So they pressed their point.

The passage they built their opposition on (Dt.24 :l-4) sanctioned divorce when a man, newly married, found "some uncleanness" in his wife. Whatever the precise application of this law, the Hebrew idiom of Deuteronomy 24, correctly interpreted in all the modern versions, does not command that divorce shall follow, but allows that it may. In his reply Jesus pointed to this unusual feature: "Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so." The permanent and true law of marriage was and is that which had been taught, explicitly and by implication, in Eden— no divorce!

Then why the concession under the Mosaic Covenant? Jesus made no bones about it: "faced with the problem of the hardness of your hearts". It is an expression which always signifies lack of spiritual perception or unwillingness to do what is plainly seen to be the will of God (Mk.16 :14; 6 :52; 8 :17; 3 :5; Rom. 2:5; 11 :7,25; Heb.3:8, 13, 15). Here is an unpleasant conclusion which stands as true today as it was when spoken by Jesus: those who choose to solve their marriage problems by divorce and re-marriage (and in about 99 cases out of every 100 divorce is with a view to re-marriage) by that very fact proclaim themselves in this respect spiritually "hard of heart." There are remarkably few divorces which do not spring from self-pity and an assumption that 'life owes me a better deal.'

Jesus now pressed on to the stark unpalatable logical conclusion that "whosoever shall put away his wife . . . and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery." This was said to his disciples "in the house" (Mk.10 :10). These words legislate for disciples. Jesus was not concerned here with the world's, or even with Jewry's, divorce problems. Thus, any second marriage, whilst the former partner is alive, is adultery in the sight of God. "The woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as her husband liveth" (Rom.7:2).

The exceptive clause

To this simple rule the Lord allowed only one exception, mentioned only in Mt. 19 :9 out of the four places where his law of marriage is enunciated: "except it be for fornication." This exceptive clause has often been equated, quite mistakenly, with adultery. In this way it has been made the sole ground for a commonly-held view that adultery breaks the marriage bond and justifies or even requires divorce.

The evidence for this interpretation is quite inadequate. In this passage Jesus used the words "fornication" and "adultery" side by side, thus plainly implying a distinction of meaning between them. The normal meaning of "fornication" is, of course, an illicit sexual union before marriage, whereas adultery is the corresponding sin of a married person. There is no lack of other New Testament passages where these two words are used side by side in a way which positively demands a distinction in meanings: Mt.15 :19 (= Mk.7 :21); Gal.5 :19; 1 Cor. 6:9.

It has been argued that in the LXX Version of the Old Testament this word "fornication" (porneia) is used also of adultery (e.g. Amos 7 :17). This is true. But there has been inadequate recognition that in all such cases, the word has been given a specialised meaning: the ritual fornication by or with a temple "virgin", which was a normal feature of Gentile idolatry. This meaning has spilled over into the Book of Revelation (e.g. 2:14). Such instances are easily recognizable. In all other places, the word porneia carries its normal meaning.

The evidence, then, for the view that Jesus regarded adultery as justification for the severance of the marriage bond is altogether insufficient, Indeed, his word to the woman taken in adultery: "Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more," seems to suggest that the one lapse into this sin should be forthwith forgiven.

It would appear that the exception for which Jesus now legislated is the case where a man learns that before marriage his wife has had illicit intercourse with another man. In harmony with the principle already propounded in Genesis, and by Jesus in this place (that marriage is when man and wife become "one flesh"), such a union has been (from God's point of view) the permanent joining together of man and woman. Ideally neither is free to marry any other.

Even so, the example of Hosea marrying Gomer, "a wife of whoredoms" (Hos.l :2] shows that even in such a case God prefers to see a forgiving spirit rather than an insistence on the very letter of the Law—for the phrase means that Gomer was already promiscuous when Hosea married her. And since these two are declared to be an acted parable of the relations of God with promiscuous Israel, the ideal of a forgiving spirit is emphasized more strongly than ever.

The disciples were palpably shaken by the austerity of the "no divorce" principle insisted on by their Teacher, but out of a spirit of loyalty, rather than appearing to query his decisions in the presence of Pharisees, it was not until they were "in the house" (Mk.) that they voiced misgivings:

"If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry." The strength of their objection shows that they had understood Jesus to forbid divorce altogether, for already they were well acquainted with Shammai's doctrine that adultery is valid ground for divorce.

Permissive clauses

Jesus proceeded to explain that what he had said—and said repeatedly—so far, was an expression of the highest ideal of married life, an ideal so high that in many cases it cannot be insisted on: "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given." Like the concession made by the Law of Moses, this was a realistic acknowledgement of the frailty of human nature and of the intensely powerful forces at work in this side of married life. The words plainly mean that where a man and woman achieve this idealistic standard in marriage, they do so only by the grace of God— because it is "given" to them.

Nor was Jesus content to make this point once only. He went on: "There are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb (that is, through disability of one sort or another offlicting a man from birth he never has prospect of a normal marriage); and there are some eunuchs which were made eunuchs of men." In this category come not only those who have been physically changed in order to be singers or chamberlains, but also those who have life-long disfellowship held over them if they re-marry.

"And there be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake" (these are they who, when their marriage goes to pieces, shoulder the sacrifice of thenceforward accepting a single life, out of loyalty to the law of Christ; and there are others also). Presumably the Lord mentioned this to imply that those suffering from a broken marriage ought not to pity themselves or to expect that life owes them some kind of redress. There are others worse off than themselves. But Jesus did not leave it at that. He added the understanding concession: "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." In this context this can only mean that with some people, in some circumstances, it would be cruelty to insist on the highest possible level of obedience to the ideal of marriage as Christ expounded it.

Two standards

Where else in the teaching of Jesus is there sign of a toleration of this kind of double moral standard? Where else does he say: "This is the ideal. Follow it if you can. But if you cannot, an understanding and compassionate Heavenly Father does not demand more than you are able for"?

After this, it is almost to be expected that the teaching of Paul on the problems of marriage will be found to include the same concessive element. "Art thou loosed from a wife? Seek not a wife. But even if thou marry thou hast not sinned" (1 Cor.7 :27,28).

The Bible has other examples of this kind of double-standard morality. Jesus gathered his doctrine of no-divorce from Moses' first book; but Moses' fifth book explicitly permitted divorce, and this without exclusion from the camp of Israel. The Lord's argument from Genesis also established that from the first God intended that in marriage there shall be one man and only one woman. Yet Abraham, Jacob, David—God's great men—were never rebuked for their plural marriages.

Thus there are available at least four clear-cut examples of two different levels of moral behaviour being tolerated by God. And, remarkably, these all belong to the same domain of human experience—marriage! This can hardly be accident. Is there not here a divine recognition of the fact that in human nature there are no impulses stronger than those associated with sex. Hence: This is the ideal; adhere to it if you can. But if you cannot, then here is the next best alternative.

Yet another example of this is Paul's insistence that spiritually the single life presents higher possibilities than marriage (1 Cor.7:8, 9, 33). But "it is better to marry than to burn." It follows, then, that those who choose marriage are deliberately opting for a lower ideal than the best. Yet, strangely enough, it is always the happily married who are loudest in their stricture against divorcees choosing something less than the highest ideal. Have those who have made no attempt to reach the highest level any right to censure or reject others on a lower level than themselves?

Thus, to sum up: Moses, Jesus and Paul combine to teach the highest ideals regarding married life; but they also recognize that it is not given to all in Christ to maintain such faultlessness.

Today there is often need for ecclesias of Christ to shew a deep sympathetic understanding towards those who, often through no fault of their own, are caught up in the tangles created by modern laxity. But it is equally important to face clearly and honestly the fact that all who seek divorce with a view to re-marriage proclaim their own "hardness of heart" and their own willingness to abandon the idealism of Christ for a more easy-going pattern of life. Such should not add to their offence, graciously tolerated by God, by "bending" the teaching of Christ in an attempt to justify their own course of action.

Notes: Mt. 19:1-12

It is difficult to identify precisely what point in the Lord's ministry this refers to. The details are not the same as in Lk. 17:11. The context bears some resemblance to Lk. 13 :31.

Finished these sayings. This is Mt's mark of the end of a section of his gospel: 7 :28; 11 :1; 13 :53; 26:1

Judah beyond Jordan. Josh. 19:22, 1 Chr.9 :22 suggest that in ancient days there was a pocket of Judahites on the east of Jordan. Perhaps the name stuck. This was the Lord's farewell to Galilee until after his resurrection.
Great multitudes followed him. The Gk. text in Mk. might imply organized pilgrimages to come to Jesus for teaching and healing.
Twain. Not in the Heb. text of Gen. but in LXX and Sam. versions, and also in the text followed by Paul1 1 Cor.6:16;Eph.5:31.
Marrieth her which is put away. Mt. 5 :32 implies that whoever puts a woman into such a situation where she is vulnerable, wide open to temptation, carries grave responsibility if she falls into sin.
Cp. the disciples' surprise at their Lord's extremism in Mt.19 :23-25.
This saying cannot possibly mean the disciples' word: "It is not good to marry." It must refer to the Lord's own teaching.
Eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. Included here there is also the not inconsiderable number of those who have no opportunity of marriage in the Faith and who staunchly refuse all other.

He that is able to receive it In Gal. 5:19, Mt. 15:19. 1 Cor. 6:9-11 adultery is included in lists of sins which are forgivable. Yet not infrequently in modern times it is put in a category of its own, as an unforgivable sin (yet note Mt.12 : 31,3 2). In v. 12 "receive" indicates what is clearly an optional choice—being a eunuch for the kingdom's sake. Then so also in v. 11.

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