He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them. Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Three things stand out and demand our attention when we are reading this difficult passage.
First, first-century divorce is not at all the same social phenomenon as twenty-first century divorce. The situation described here betrays a remarkable inequality of social power. According to the law, all a man had to do was write a letter, a certificate of dismissal, and his wife would be cast out of his household. Because of the place of women at this time in the culture, this all but ensured that she would be destitute. So let’s be clear, Jesus is not condemning divorce in general or as we know it today. He is condemning a practice that severely disadvantaged women.
Second, that being said, this does not deny the fact that divorce tears apart a relationship God honors. There may be various situations in which divorce is a necessary if painful step to take, yet it still causes injury to those involved and so grieves the heart of God. We need to read this passage both as one that takes marriage seriously while not using it to unfairly discriminate or shame those who have experienced the pain of divorce.
Third, notice that Jesus uses some biblical passages (Gen. 1: 27, 2:24) to interpret — or, really, to re-interpret — others (Dt. 24:1-4). We hear a lot of talk about “biblical morality” today, but the fact of the matter is that Scripture is often not as crystal clear as we would like to imagine. Moses offered instructions at one time to suit the need, circumstances, and understanding of his people. Jesus introduces another principle by looking to a different portion of Scripture. So also, we may at times reconsider various elements of what we thought was clear based on changed needs, circumstances, and understanding of various ethical matters. Law, or more particularly our understanding of the law, may change; what remains constant is our trust in the one who gives law and forgives us when we fall short.
Prayer: Dear God, you give us your law to guide us in our love of neighbor and care of the world. Help us to use it always to seek the welfare of those around us, and when we fail call us back to you for mercy and grace. In Jesus name, Amen.