Last week, I had lunch with a pastor who wanted to talk about an ongoing tragic situation in his church: a man had become physically, verbally, and sexually abusive to his wife. The pastor had diligently tried to put the principles of Matthew 18:15-17 into practice, but to no avail. Counseling referrals had been made. Biblical directives had been quoted. Prayers had been offered. But the man remained unconvinced and unrepentant, insisting that all he wanted was for his wife to submit to his God-given authority. He was angry with the pastor, angry with his wife–angry with everyone, it seemed, except himself.
At one point in our conversation, the question of divorce came up. No one involved in trying to reconcile the husband and wife could realistically imagine her remaining in the marriage. But they wanted to be obedient to Scripture. Was divorce permissible? Jesus’ teaching on the subject in Mark and Luke would suggest not. But then what about that well-known exception in Matthew–it occurs twice–that divorce is permitted in cases of adultery or infidelity? Could that exception somehow include a situation such as this?
I could feel myself resisting the question. It’s not that I didn’t understand nor empathize with the practical pastoral concern. But the question itself was too limiting, and not in line with what I believe Jesus intended. To put it succinctly, questions like these show how much we, even as Christians, still think too much like Pharisees.
Here’s the passage in question:
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?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that 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.”
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
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.” (Matt 19:3-9, NIV)
The Pharisees, of course, were always asking the kind of questions that would embroil Jesus in controversy whether he answered yes or no. The context seems to be the debate over the opening verses of Deuteronomy 24, which essentially says that when a man divorces his wife for some “indecency” he finds in her, and she remarries another man who also sends her away, then the first man can’t marry her again.
Rabbis disagreed over the nature of the indecency that made divorce permissible in the first place. The conservative interpretation was that adultery was the only legitimate reason (though the punishment for adultery was supposed to be death!), while the more liberal interpretation required nothing more than her burning his supper. The Pharisees seemed to be asking Jesus whether he sided with the liberal interpretation.
You’d think they’d have figured out that Jesus would refuse to be hemmed in by such a black-and-white question about what circumstances would justify divorce. Instead, he pointed them back to creation theology, to God’s original purpose for marriage, implying that they had blinded themselves to the evil of trying to rip asunder something God had joined together.
From within their legalistic frame of mind, it sounded like Jesus was saying that divorce was never permissible, under any circumstance. This wasn’t the response they had anticipated. “Well, then,” they sputtered, “why did Moses command that a man give his wife a bill of divorce and send her away?”
Moses, of course, commanded no such thing. The Deuteronomy passage assumes an ancient patriarchal norm: the man could divorce his wife, but not vice versa. The bill of divorce, apparently a Mosaic innovation, actually helped protect the woman against the husband’s whims by stipulating that she was legally free to remarry. But this falls far short of an actual command to divorce.
So Jesus corrects them. Moses neither commanded divorce nor made it a moral good (as opposed to much pop culture opinion today!); it was a concession to human hard-heartedness. And once again, he points them back to creation. Forget the ethical casuistry, fellas. Stop trying to justify divorce on legal grounds. Get your theology right first.
And it’s in that context that we get Jesus’ pronouncement on divorce, with the famous exception clause. A note on the exception itself: the word is porneia, often translated “fornication,” which usually refers to premarital sex. In this context, we should probably understand it as extra-marital sex.
But the point is this. So often, we come to this text looking for justification, a reason to believe that a particular divorce, in a particular situation, would be at least permissible with God. We come, in other words, thinking like Pharisees. We need to ask ourselves: does it really make sense to interpret what Jesus says here as if he were accepting the Pharisees’ terms of debate? That would reduce the conversation to little more than the Pharisees asking, “In what situation is divorce permissible?” and Jesus responding, “Only in the case of extramarital sex.” Period.
Or take the conversation immediately preceding this one, in which Peter asks Jesus how often he has to forgive the brother who sins against him. Peter suggests that maybe seven times is a reasonable limit; Jesus’ answer bumps the number to 77 times (or possibly 490, depending on the translation!). As I argued in an earlier post (“Peter’s question”), Jesus is not telling Peter that he’s bobbled the math, but that math is irrelevant. Peter is thinking like a Pharisee, and needs instead to have an understanding of the mercy of God that goes bone-deep.
The pastoral question, of course, doesn’t simply vanish. I pointed past Matthew 18:15-17, to verses 18 to 20–could we find here the freedom for members of the local congregation to come together in the name of Jesus, seek God’s will in prayer, and make a “binding/loosing” decision in good conscience?
But I’m left wondering what would happen if we followed Jesus’ lead in his debate with the Pharisees. To what extent do we get sideways theologically because we’re looking for legalistic answers to practical problems? Are we reduced to thinking like Pharisees when marriage fails, because we’ve neglected to properly cultivate and celebrate the physical and spiritual wonder of the union itself?
Where, in other words, does law still obscure our vision of grace?