Read the passage here.
I want to acknowledge that this is a difficult passage. It may be a difficult passage because of the way that we’ve heard this passage explained over the years – it’s one of those passages that elicits fairly divergent interpretations or applications. And if we’re being honest, it may be difficult because it hits pretty close to home for some folks.
So let’s talk a little bit about what we know, what we don’t know, and then what seems to be going on in the passage here – and how it does and doesn’t address what we think we know and what we don’t know.
Firstly, what we know is that God intended and intends marriage to be a good. In Genesis 2, we read that:
2:18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”Genesis 2:18
Now it’s not super important for our conversation today, but (for me – and maybe for you) it’s useful to note that God created a “helper,” not a servant, and not a slave. The NIV says “a helper suitable for him.” In other translations, the verse reads:
(NRSV) 2:18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”
(ESV) 2:18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”
I’m not going to go on about it because this is not the time to explore Genesis 2, but my understanding is that “helper” and “suitable for” or “fit for” or “partner,” don’t have the connotation of subservience or hierarchy (i.e. that the one who helps is less than the one who is helped). This is far from a suitable study of the word, but the word “help” here (ezer in Hebrew) is the same word that is used of God, for example:
Ps. 121:1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
Ps. 146:5 Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,Psalm 121:1, Psalm 146:5
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
Now having said all that, I don’t want to dwell on this because it’s not the point of the message today. However, I do think it might be helpful to keep in mind for later. The point I do want to make is that marriage is intended as a good. (Which isn’t to say that to be unmarried is not good. Paul, for example, speaks about this a little in 1 Cor. – especially in relation to ministry.)
However, we also know that divorce happens. Marriages don’t always work, for a variety of reasons, and people break up. What we don’t know (or what we don’t agree on) is how God views divorce. If marriage is good, does that mean that divorce is always necessarily bad?
Now I don’t think, nor do I think you could support the case, that God wants or intends a marriage to break up. This seems counter to the intent of marriage. However, is divorce always the worst case? Are there some cases of divorce which are less bad than others? Does God want (or command) that one stay in a marriage no matter what? These are some of the things we don’t know (or again, things we/Christians don’t agree on).
So at this point, we want to take a look at what’s going on in our passage today, especially because this is one of those passages that is especially looked at in order to answer some of those questions (for better or for worse).
So, returning to our passage today, firstly, what we want to note is that these verses open up the fifth and final major section in the gospel of Matthew – that is, prior to the passion narrative. One of the things that we’ll see in this narrative portion is a further escalation between Jesus and the religious leaders. So far in the gospel, we’ve been exploring this as a conflict between the Kingdom that Jesus was bringing and the kingdom that people were expecting. The reason I point this out is because this episode begins with the Pharisees questioning of Jesus in v.3:
3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”Matthew 19:3
Now again, we want to recognize that this interaction does not happen in a vacuum – there’s a context involved. If I can skip a little bit, what we’re seeing does not seem to be a genuine request for information, a sincere seeking of truth, but rather a challenge and a test. The Pharisees are not asking Jesus in order to clarify their own confusion or doubt, but because they want to see how Jesus will answer in order to test his orthodoxy, or find grounds to disqualify his ministry. (isn’t it odd that we so often do exactly the same thing with questions like these – divorce, drinking, pre/post/a-millenialism, etc.)
In order to further understand background or context of this question we need to recognize a couple of things.
Firstly, we need to recognize that this is a society in which men and women are simply not equal. And I don’t mean that this is a society in which men are supposed to be the leaders and women are supposed to be the followers but that men and women are otherwise considered to be of (more or less) equal value. I mean that this is a society in which women (and wives) are essentially considered as goods or chattel. Women could essentially be taken (often forcibly) and cast aside at the whim and convenience of men. (And it’s for this reason that I wanted to speak (too briefly) to what I believe is going on in Genesis 2).
(At the same time I don’t want to speak as if all society in every place was a homogenous unity – different cultures, for example, might believe or practice this to varying extents. But this was the general reality.)
Secondly, I want to note that ancient Israel was no different in this regard. It was for this reason that the issue is addressed in the OT law. Because, for example, women were not allowed to own property because they were not considered full citizens, they depended upon their husbands for survival. And because the general understanding or expectation was that husbands could cast aside their wives for whatever reason, the covenant law contained restrictions, guidelines, or provisions for women in just such cases. We’ll speak more on this later.
Which brings us to the third thing. As we have seen before, Jewish/Israelite society had evolved to a point where different groups or factions of Jews were very concerned about how to interpret the OT Law. They wanted to make sure they were doing the things they had to do and not doing the things they were not allowed to do. The laws around marriage and divorce were one such concern.
In Deuteronomy 24, we read:
24:1 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, 2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 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, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.Deuteronomy 24:1-4
What’s important for our purposes is verse 1:
24:1 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…Deuteronomy 24:1
In short, the question arose from differing schools of Jewish thought about the correct way to interpret Deuteronomy 24:1 – what is, what does “something indecent” mean? One school of thought interpreted this to mean specifically sexual immorality, while the other school of thought interpreted this to mean, more or less, anything at all (For this, it’s helpful to note that the NRSV of Dt. 24:1 reads: “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her…”)
So, inserting my own bias somewhat, the debate might be characterized as, “what is the criteria under which a man can (essentially) dispose of a woman?” What is the minimum reason a husband has in order to get rid of his wife?
Now this is the context from which the Pharisees question (or test) Jesus. They want to find out which side of the debate He falls on. And, as usual, Jesus refuses to play their game. Rather than answering the question put to him, Jesus points back to the original intent of marriage (as described in Genesis). We read:
4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 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’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”Matthew 19:4-6
The conversation then continues:
7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”Matthew 19:7-9
Again, this refers to Deuteronomy in which Moses, in the Law, allows (or seems to allow) concessions or provides guidelines under which the people of Israel are allowed to divorce.
But, referring to our previous discussion, such concessions were put into place in order to limit the willy-nilly divorcing that was going on. Or, to put it another way, laws were put into place regarding divorce in order to prevent men from treating women like property, acquiring and disposing of them merely out of convenience. Moses, it seems, recognizes that such things happen, and will continue to happen. So laws like this (and there are many other examples) seem like they are intended not to advocate for or create an ideal situation, but rather to limit the damage of a sinful and broken people.
But, as Jesus says in vv.4-6, such a perspective depends on a misunderstanding of God’s original intent for marriage. Treating marriage as a contract, treating marriage as the acquiring of a possession, is a false understanding of what man and wife is supposed to mean.
Now there’s a lot more to say about this that we don’t have time to get into. One such thing, that we’ve looked at before when we went through Deuteronomy, is the notion that the Mosaic laws often assume that we are living in a broken and sinful world. How do we, as the people of God, live as kingdom people, redeemed people, in the midst of that brokenness?
Another consideration is what Jesus means by “except for sexual immorality” (v. 9 NIV). Without getting into it (because again there’s a lot to say), there are some who argue that this means literally only sexual infidelity. But there are also many who argue that this includes a broader marital unfaithfulness (that is, not living up to the marriage covenant). (i.e. NRSV – “Unchastity”; NASB – “immorality”; NLT – “unfaithful”)
So there’s much more to say about this, especially as a theological issue. But I want to note especially the disciples’ response to this whole interaction. Rather than remarking on the nature of the marriage union (which is what Jesus is concerned about), and more than likely being aware of the debate between the Jewish schools, hearing Jesus’ response, the disciples say:
10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”Matthew 19:10
To me, this is a remarkable response by the disciples. I’m again inserting my bias here, but it sounds to me like the disciples are saying, “if this is the situation, it is better not to marry if we can’t divorce as we’ve been told; if the husband can’t cast aside the wife for the reasons that we’ve gotten used to, then maybe it is better not to get married at all.” Or, to put my own heavily biased interpretation here, “if we can’t treat our wives as possessions, is it worth it to get married at all?”
Now obviously that’s a pretty heavy-handed, probably unfair way of looking at it. But I point this out because I think Jesus’ response, as well as this whole interaction, highlight something important. He says:
11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”Matthew 19:11-12
In essence, Jesus says, those who are actually concerned about the purposes of God, the kingdom of God, are able to accept what He is saying (“those to whom it has been given”). By implication, I would assume that Jesus means there are some who are not actually concerned about God’s kingdom. There are some whose concerns come from a very different place. Perhaps there are those who are only concerned about what we have to do and what we cannot do; those who are only concerned about making others wrong so that we can be right; those who are only concerned about pointing the finger at others so that it’s not pointing at me; perhaps people such as these cannot accept the word.
We need to wrap up so I want to make just a couple of closing remarks. Firstly, I want to remind us that this interaction, this passage, happens in the context of an on-going, and rising, conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. As such, what the Pharisees are doing here has less to do about understanding and living in truth, it has less to do with finding God’s will, than it does with testing Jesus’ orthodoxy (probably). Secondly, I want to revisit what we know and what we don’t know.
What we know is that God intends marriage to be a good. It is not good for man to be alone. And therefore, God created woman to be a helper, suitable for him. God created man and woman to be suitable for one another.
And we also know that divorce happens. We know that divorce happens because human beings are sinful and broken, living in a world that is sinful and broken. We know that, in the Old Testament, God made provisions for divorce, not in order to affirm it, but in order to mitigate it. Knowing that human beings are sinful, God made provisions for divorce in order to prevent human beings from being lost in our own sinfulness.
We are still sinful. We are still sinners living in a broken world. Though our future, as followers of Jesus Christ, is assured, at present we still live in the in-between. Therefore, what we don’t know, at least what I can’t say definitively, is that there are no situations under which a person should not or can not get divorced. I’m not saying that this is what God wants, but I do suspect that there are many couples who are not living up to what God wants in marriage. I do wonder if sometimes it can be the lesser of two evils. Or, to put it another way, I don’t know that in every situation, under every circumstance, people must always stay married.
Even though we know that God’s purposes for marriage is for it to be good, I cannot say that every marriage is, and always is a good. (This, of course, is completely different from recognizing that every marriage can often be inconvenient).
But, what we also know (and this without doubt) is that God is a God of grace. We know that we come to God not because of how good we are, or are not, but purely by the grace we find in Jesus Christ.
So once again, I wonder if we often ask the wrong questions. I am fairly confident that the Pharisees are asking the wrong questions here – at least they are asking questions for the wrong reasons. Perhaps the question is not what do I have to do, what can I get away with, or what must I not do? Perhaps the question is not who has to be wrong so I can be right.
Each of us finds ourselves in our own situation. Some are born that way, some are made that way, and some choose it. Perhaps the question is, in whatever situation we find ourselves, how can we be faithful to God, how can we demonstrate the values of the kingdom, how can we live into and out of the grace of God in the midst of a broken world?