During his ministry Jesus was often questioned by his critics. Several of those questions are still relevant today, and for some the one about divorce is especially challenging. I have had some significant discussions about divorce the last couple of months and thought a review of the back and forth between Jesus and his critics might be helpful.
Both Matthew (19:1-12) and Mark (10:1-12) record the incident, but the reports are not exactly the same. Nor is this exchange with the Pharisees the only time Jesus discussed marriage and divorce. There is a brief teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:21 and 22 and another in Luke 16:18, neither of which was prompted by a question.
The questioning about divorce took place as Jesus and his disciples traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem. Matthew indicates “Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there” (19:2) while Mark notes “crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them” (10:1). It was typical of Jesus’ ministry that he both healed and taught, and he did so as he made his way to Jerusalem for the last time. What was also typical in the midst of His teaching and healing was that some Pharisees would test Him.
Both Matthew and Mark tell us the Pharisees came to test Jesus, but Matthew’s account of their first question has an additional phrase Mark’s does not have. Mark reports they asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (verse 2). Matthew, however, reports they asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (verse 3). While the questions are not exactly the same, both do reflect the culture of the time with regard to men and women: divorce was an option only for men. A wife did not have that option.
The additional phrase in Matthew’s record of the question not included by Mark (“for any and every reason”) reflects Old Testament teaching and rabbinic interpretation that is not immediately obvious to us when we read it today. And we need keep in mind the initial question in Matthew was intended to “trap” Jesus concerning the acceptability of divorce “for any and every reason.” The question reflected controversy at the time of the interpretation of the teaching about divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1. The New International Version renders Deuteronomy 24:1, “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and writes her a certificate of divorce . . . .”
The question that was debated was the meaning of “something indecent about her.” The two main schools of interpretation were from two rabbis (Shammai and Hillel) who represented a strict position and a lenient position. The lenient position was represented by the phrase in the question “for any and every reason.” (The example often cited for this position is that if the wife was a bad cook she could be divorced!) The strict position limited permissible divorce to some kind of sexual infidelity by the wife. The Pharisees were drawing Jesus into the dispute about the interpretation of the phrase with the hope he would give an answer that contradicted the Mosaic Law.
In Matthew’s report Jesus did not directly answer their question, but went all the way back to the Genesis account of the creation of male and female and the establishment of marriage. Jesus reminded his questioners that Genesis teaches “at the beginning the Creator made them male and female.” And in marriage a man “is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Jesus then adds his own observation that because of that, “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:6). With his first response Jesus seems to be suggesting there is no lawful reason for a man to divorce his wife.
The Pharisees, however, responded to Jesus’ answer by asking Him about a key provision in the Law about divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. They paraphrased, “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matthew 19:7). There was indeed teaching in the Old Testament about divorce, but the Pharisees cited only the first part of it in order to press Jesus.
Jesus, of course, knew what Deuteronomy 24 said and was not surprised by their follow up question to his first response. He replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (verse 8). Note how Jesus changed their word “command” from Moses to “permitted” and again pointed them back to what he had already stated from Genesis. The “certificate of divorce” was a legal document indicating the dissolution of the marriage that allowed the woman to remarry. It was for her protection.
After Jesus’ response regarding the “certificate of divorce” he returned to their original question and in verse 9 answered it: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Jesus took the strict position only allowing divorce in the case of sexual unfaithfulness. While there is no unanimity among scholars concerning the exact meaning of the Greek word translated “sexual immorality,” I agree with John Stott and others who suggest it points to behavior that in itself destroys the “one flesh” covenant reality of marriage.
Something still needs to be said about the parallel account and why Mark does not have “the exception clause” included in Matthew. I confess I don’t have an answer; nor do I find any of a variety of proposals that have been put forth totally satisfying. If pressed on the matter I think the observation made by some, that everyone at the time agreed sexual unfaithfulness was just cause for divorce, Mark took it for granted his readers knew that.
In talking about and dealing with divorce today I think Christians should follow the example Jesus set in his responses to the Pharisees. Before divorce is discussed we should first make sure we give attention to the meaning and purpose of marriage. Jesus did that by going back to the creation account of the institution of marriage. In contrast to so much thinking today, marriage is not a contract, but a covenant. After the marriage ceremony “they are no longer two, but one flesh.” Therefore, God’s original intent for marriage was and still is that it be life-long.
In addition to the divine ideal, however, there is also the reality of human failure. God’s ideal is not always carried out. And that is what is at the root of the Deuteronomy 24 passage, however it is interpreted. Jesus was clear that God permitted divorce because their “hearts were hard.” Because of the reality of human failure marriages fail and divorces take place. The dissolution of a marriage may be the lesser of two evils, but the divine concession does not cancel the divine intention for marriage.
Permission for divorce was granted because “sexual unfaithfulness” violated the “one flesh” unity and foundation of marriage. But just because divorce was permissible under such circumstances, it is not mandatory. In fact, most readers probably know couples who have experienced unfaithfulness in their marriage, but worked through it and have rebuilt a stronger “one flesh” partnership than they had prior to the breach.
I cannot answer all the questions Christians ask about divorce and remarriage. Entire books have been written about the issue, and all Christian leaders and teachers are not in total agreement. I have tried to emphasize what Jesus emphasized in his response to the Pharisees’ attempt to trap him. We have to understand that according to Jesus, in God’s eyes marriage is a permanent covenant commitment. And we need to hold high God’s divine ideal.
But I think we also have to realize human beings do not always carry out God’s ideals–we sometimes fail. That is the reason for the teaching of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Because of human hardheartedness, and going beyond sexual unfaithfulness, some marriages end in divorce. Thankfully, neither adultery nor divorce are unforgiveable. In the same way that we hold God’s divine ideal for marriage high, we also need to hold high the grace, love, and forgiveness of God. In terms of marriage and divorce my best suggestion is to begin with people where they are and go from there.
(This post is adapted from chapter 9 of my book Questioning Jesus: Considering His Responses. Feel free to leave a reply below and/or share this post on Facebook or other social media.)