On many occasions during Jesus’ ministry years the religious leaders asked him questions to test, trap and trip Him up. They failed every time of course! One such instance was written down by Jesus’ disciple Matthew (Matt 19:1-15 NIV) when they asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
This question is basically asking Jesus which one of the two rabbinical schools of the day He personally agreed with: The school of Shammai taught divorce was only allowed if one’s spouse was unfaithful, and the school of Hillel inferred a man could divorce his wife if she burnt the toast or as another Rabbi added, “if you find someone more attractive.” Even though people publicly supported the Shammai school of thought, the Hillel school was closer to what was general practice in society – much as it is today!
Jesus answered by appealing to God’s original purpose in marriage:
“At the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt 19:4-6 NIV).
The religious leaders responded by quoting Scripture back at Jesus:
“Why then … did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matt 19:7 NIV)
They were quoting from Deuteronomy 24:1-4, “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled …” (NIV).
We read this sort of thing in the Bible today and are horrified by the implications, but three thousand plus years ago women were considered little more than goods and chattels. Society was extremely patriarchal (as it still is in some countries and cultures today). This poor woman, written about in Deuteronomy 24, is simply dismissed by her husband with a certificate of divorce and expelled from the family home. If she has no other family to live with, she’d be homeless. There were no social security benefits and many of these women would be forced into prostitution or begging in order to survive. If she got lucky and another man took her for his wife then she’d be looked after, but if “her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled …” – that could only have been written by a bloke!
It’s this patriarchal boys club that Jesus challenges head-on in Matthew 19:8, ‘Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”’
Notice how Jesus’ statements are directed at the men and are aimed at protecting the rights of women. When Moses wrote Deuteronomy he was writing in context of his culture, but Jesus contests that culture and in so doing he advances and protects the rights of women.
Author Ken Wilson writes about Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 this way: “It’s God’s original intention, in general, for people who marry to stay married for life. But that doesn’t mean that people who are trapped in deeply harmful marriages must either remain married, or remain single after divorce. I’ve determined, by my pastoral practice, that it is legitimate to regard the text as descriptive, as generally normative, not prescriptive – that is, not prescribing what must happen in every case.”
It should also be noted that Jesus is probably using hyperbole here; that is, exaggerating a point in order to get across a powerful truth. In this case, the truth is that neither marriage nor divorce should ever be entered into lightly or unadvisedly, but prayerfully and with the counsel of wise people.
That being said, since the Second World War the divorce rate has increased dramatically. The church has wrestled with the issues of separation, divorce, single-again and remarriage for decades – and has not always dealt with them well. Many people have been hurt and excluded by the church when it has upheld a wrong understanding of Scripture, grace, forgiveness and second chances. I’m glad that, by and large, we have reconciled these issues and more importantly, we no longer exclude those who for whatever reason, find themselves separated, divorced and/or remarried. As for Bayside Church, if this describes you I want you to know that you are more than welcome in our community. Jesus loves and accepts you and so do we.
Rob Buckingham is the senior minister of Bayside Church, Melbourne Australia