Friday, May 18, 2012
Jesus on Divorce
If lust is tantamount to adultery, divorce is likewise problematical, for it destroys a marriage altogether. And so Jesus considers the problem of divorce next.
He begins by saying "Furthermore it has been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce'" (Matt. 5:31; NKJV). This is a direct reference to a passage in the Torah which reads, in part, "When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house . . ." (Dt. 24:1). The passage goes on to say that if she remarries, and then the second marriage ends through either death or divorce, then she may not remarry the first husband.
The rabbis of Jesus' day were not exactly sure what to make of this passage. A whole tractate in the Mishnah ("Gittin" – "Bills of Divorce") is devoted to the subject, most of it with questions of procedure: the formula used, the attestation, the method of delivery, even the materials on which the bill could be written. It is not until the very end of the tractate that we have even a brief mention of the grounds for divorce, and here we see an interesting difference of opinion. The tractate mentions three different schools of thought which differed with each other over which word in the text to emphasize. The school of Shammai put the emphasis on the word "uncleanness" and argued that unchastity was the only grounds for divorce. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, noted that the text is inspecific (it could be rendered "because of any foulness" – cf. Latin Vulgate) and argued that a husband could divorce his wife for something as trivial as ruining a meal. One rabbi put the emphasis on the phrase "she finds no favor in his eyes" and argued that divorce was justified if the husband found someone who was better looking than his wife! (Gitt. 9:10).
Jesus took the side of Shammai. "But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery" (Matt. 5:32).
Jesus elaborated on His position in a later discussion He held with some of the Pharisees, a party of Jewish rabbis noted for their strict interpretation of the Torah. As recorded in Matt. 19:3-12, the Pharisees asked Him directly about the grounds of divorce. Jesus answered by pointing to the account of creation in Genesis, noting that it implies that marriage is a permanent, binding, heterosexual relationship. His conclusion? ". . . what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matt. 19:6). Marriage is for keeps.
The Pharisees then asked the obvious question about the passage in Deuteronomy: "Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" (v. 7). In reply Jesus made a significant observation about the Torah: "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (v. 8). In other words, He made a distinction between the civil and the moral law. To the extent that the Torah functions as a civil law code, it made concessions to human nature. In real life marriages fail. There has to be an orderly way to dissolve them. Therefore, without explicitly sanctioning divorce, the Torah accommodated it by providing for a certificate of divorce. "But from the beginning it was not so." As the passage in Genesis demonstrated, it was never the intention of the Creator that marriages should be dissolved. The sanctity of marriage is a basic moral principle. And so Jesus repeats what He had said earlier: divorce is permissible only in cases of infidelity.
The implications for society are far-reaching. The family is the basic social unit – the place where children are socialized and where their physical needs are met. The stability of the family, in turn, depends on the sanctity of marriage. Divorce rips apart the bond that holds the family together. Divorce is traumatic precisely because the marriage bond is so intimate and exists on so many different levels – physical, emotional, and economic.
Seen in this light no-fault divorce was a catastrophic mistake. It had the effect of fundamentally altering the character of marriage. Instead of being a sacred union between a husband and a wife, marriage became a mere legal technicality, a simple contract between two parties that could be terminated at any time by mutual consent. Few people in America today expect a marriage to be permanent, and if it is not permanent, there is less incentive to make it work. The result is that today one out of every two marriages in the US ends in divorce.
There is no question that marriage can be a difficult and challenging proposition. To make a marriage work requires wisdom, patience, understanding, and self-sacrifice. Our modern "me first" mentality is the reason so many marriages fall apart. But the root cause is sin – our stubborn, self-centered nature. Divorce, then, represents a moral failure.