Questions on Divorce

Opponents question Jesus about divorce to trap him, but he uses the issue to teach the higher ways of the Kingdom of God

In Mark and Matthew, Jesus is confronted by opponents with questions about divorce. However, this is intended to trap him with his own words. They are not soliciting an all-encompassing ruling on divorce from him. In Mark, the incident is another in a series of confrontations between Jesus and the religious establishment linked to the Temple.

In the parallel account in Matthew, the question is, can a husband divorce his wife for any reason? - (Matthew 19:1-12).

Broken Plate - Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash
[Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash]

In the first century, even the most conservative rabbi considered divorce legal. The issue was - What are the acceptable grounds for a legal divorce? After all, the Mosaic law allows husbands to divorce their wives. 

  • (Mark 10:1-12) - “And having approached him, the Pharisees were asking him if it is permitted for a husband to dismiss his wife, putting him to the test. Yet he, having answered, said to them: What did Moses command you? Now, they said: Moses permitted to write a bill of divorce and to dismiss her. But Jesus answered: For the hardness of your heart, he wrote you this commandment. Yet from the beginning of creation, he made them male and female, and because of this a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will be for one flesh; consequently, no longer are they two, but one flesh. What, therefore, God joined together let no man divide. And in the house again the disciples were questioning him concerning this. And he is saying to them: Whoever dismisses his wife and marries another is committing adultery against her. And if she dismisses her husband to marry another, she is committing adultery.”

THE LEGAL GROUNDS


The Mosaic Law, later oral traditions, and case law precedents all permit Jewish men to divorce their wives. More conservative rabbis argue it is only permissible in cases of adultery, while the more “liberal” authorities counter that a husband is permitted to divorce his wife for virtually any cause. As a rule, under Jewish law and tradition, wives are not permitted to initiate divorce proceedings.

Moreover, the Torah regulations are slanted in favor of the husband, and under the relevant statutes in the book of Deuteronomy, men are permitted to divorce their wives.

But legal disputes are inevitable due to an ambiguity in the key verse - “…because he has found some indecency in her.” Exactly what qualifies as “indecency”? - (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

In Christ’s confrontation with the Pharisees, they do not seek a straightforward explanation about the issue. Instead, they hope to lure him into making a statement contrary to the Torah. Any prohibition of divorce by him will be framed as a statement contradicting Moses.

The intent of the Law is to limit divorce. By requiring a written decree, hopefully, it will provide some level of protection for the wife - the decree would allow the woman to remarry legally. In that patriarchal society, all too frequently, unmarried women remained poor, and often marriage was their only way to improve their condition.

Twice the Pharisees ask Jesus about the grounds for divorce. Unlike the Mosaic Law, they are searching for a pretext to justify divorce. But according to Christ, the regulation in the Torah is a concession because of the hardness of husbands’ hearts. But it was not a revelation of God’s intent. He now argues for the original purpose of marriage and does not seek loopholes in the law to get around it.

Jesus does not deny the validity of the Mosaic Law. Instead, he appeals to the earlier precedent and higher authority; namely, the Creation account and the words of Yahweh - (Genesis 1:27, 2:24).

Gender was part of the original creation. From the start, a lifelong marriage commitment was the plan. Implied in Genesis is that the loyalty of a husband and wife is first to one another, and not to their respective parents – (“The two will leave their father and mother”). In first-century Jewish society, women remained at home under the rule of their fathers until they were married.

FOR THE DISCIPLE


In private, Jesus provides more information to his disciples on divorce - what God requires of those who followed him - but his words do not constitute instructions regarding marriage and divorce for society as a whole.

His disciple is summoned to do the will of God whatever the cost, but not to use his call or otherwise seek ways to avoid his obligations to others, especially to his wife.

In this exchange, Jesus is the one who reveals God’s true desire, and he does so on his own authority. And his application of this teaching to both husband and wife would surprise his audience. Typically, wives have no right to divorce, and the marriage is under the control of the husband. But in his kingdom, men and women are free moral agents, and both have responsibilities before God.

Likewise, Jesus adds: “Whoever dismisses his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” In that society, a man who commits adultery offends the husband of the woman with whom he engages in sexual misconduct. The wife is viewed as the property of her husband.

Once again, Jesus elevates the status of women by declaring that the husband who divorces and then remarries commits adultery against his previous wife.

In his pronouncement, he makes clear that adultery occurs when a divorced person remarries. By itself, the act of divorce, while also forbidden, does not constitute adultery. Remarriage, however, does.

CHILDREN BROUGHT TO HIM


  • (Mark 10:13-16) - “And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, but the disciples were rebuking them. Now Jesus, having seen, became indignant and said to them: Allow the little children to come to me and do not be forbidding them, for of such is the kingdom of God! Amen, I am saying to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will certainly not enter it. And having embraced them, he was blessing and placing his hands upon them” - (Parallel - Matthew 19:13-15, Luke 18:15-17).

In first-century Jewish society, children have few if any rights, and no legal standing. They are the most insignificant members of the family unit. To receive the kingdom like a child means to receive it as a gift. And the one who does so receive it has no legal standing in the kingdom.

A child enters the kingdom as one who is weak, small, and without power or possessions. He or she has nothing on which to base a claim to citizenship in God’s realm.

And here, the present and future aspects of the kingdom as presented. One receives it now but enters the kingdom later. It is both a present reality and a future promise. It is received in part by faith in the present, but it will not be consummated until some point in the future.



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