For me, one of the greatest disappointments regarding divorce is the apparent frivolity surrounding it. So often we hear that the cited reason for divorce is “irreconcilable differences”, and we joke that that could mean almost anything. The sad thing is that, due to the obscenely high divorce rate, many people go into marriage expecting, or at least preparing for divorce. And I would dare say that some people get married because they know they can always just get a divorce if things don’t turn out how they envisioned (side note from a realist: things never turn out exactly how you envision).
Typically, I lament this denigration of the sanctity of marriage as the result of our current way of thinking. After all, in looking at history, it doesn’t seem like people used to get divorced with nearly as much frequency. And there were more marriages per capita. And the Bible draws a hard line against divorce in nearly every case. But as I was reading my Bible today, I was surprised by a familiar passage.
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Mt. 19:3)
Why was this a test question? The Old Testament is pretty clear about divorce, and Pharisees were known for their strict adherence to the law (Deut. 24). Obviously, the answer they expected was, “No,” wasn’t it? Or was it?
This wasn’t the only time that the Pharisees had tried to test (i.e., trick) Jesus. And key characteristic of these tests is that whatever Jesus said, they had an argument for why that was wrong. So the question is, what could make “no” the wrong answer?
Now, to be clear, I’m speculating a bit here. But I don’t feel like this line of thought is that much of a stretch. I think that the reason why Jesus could plausibly have responded that, yes, divorce was always lawful, was the cultural view of divorce. That is, divorce was viewed as a normal and valid response to a struggling marriage. Sound familiar? I think the passage has more support for this view, but first, Jesus’s response.
He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mt. 19:4-6)
Jesus goes for the jugular. No, divorce is not lawful in any case. In fact, we should understand that marriage, figuratively, is two deaths and a rebirth. Two individual, separate persons, a man and a woman, cease to exist and a new, unified person results.
It’s clear that the Pharisees were expecting this response (after all, a teacher should know the answers from the beginning of the book he’s teaching from), because their response was quick: “But Moses said…” (cf. Deut. 24).
Once again, Jesus shuts them down. Hard. Paraphrased, Jesus responds: Moses said you could divorce because you were stubborn and rebellious and wouldn’t hear anything but permission. But that’s not how it’s supposed to be. The only instance where divorce is lawful is infidelity. End of discussion.
At this point, the discussion shifts, and Jesus’ disciples balk at the standard he set:
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Mt 19:10)
This response is amazing to me. I wonder what went through Peter’s mind, being a married man (her know this because Mt. 8:14-15 mentions his mother-in-law). The disciples understood how high a standard Jesus set (although he only set this standard by reiterating the original design). And, for at least one of them, not marrying was the only response that made sense.
What does this tell us about the common view of divorce? Again, remember, I’m speculating, but it seems like divorce was pretty common, existing as a fallback option in case the marriage didn’t work out. It seems very possible that a number of the disciples had seen marriages fall apart, with a desirable life only restored by divorce. When we pause to consider that many of the disciples were likely young men, I feel like even the suggestion to forgo marriage rather than risk disobedience to God by having a divorce is commendable.
Finally, Jesus responds to his disciples a bit cryptically. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t take this opportunity to affirm the sanctity and beauty of marriage. He doesn’t talk about the prophets, through whose marriages (or lack thereof) God revealed his love for his people. Instead, he talks about eunuchs.
Although, it may seem like an odd subject to talk about, Jesus is continuing the conversation by speaking in parable. Eunuchs didn’t marry because they were incapable of reproducing. I don’t want to get into the discussion about the three types of eunuchs that Jesus mentions (partially because, if this is truly a parable, I don’t really know what each type of eunuch represents), but I think his point is clear: marriage isn’t for everyone. Some will give up marriage to pursue the kingdom (the apostle Paul comes to mind). But some will marry, and it is good for them to do so.
There may have been a cultural acceptance of divorce in Bible times, to which Jesus firmly stands in opposition. Instead, Jesus underscores the intended permanence of marriage, and acknowledges that not everyone will or should get married.