Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Jesus and Divorce 1

Thanks for all the honor my family felt was given to my father this last week. I felt that the funeral yesterday was an appropriate send off. For me the song, "Jesus Led Me All the Way" was the most tender moment in the service. Great song and not as well known today. I'm tempted to post it here sometime.

Trying to get back to writing.  I'm in a chapter on the ethic Jesus taught. I thought the section on Jesus and divorce might get me back in the groove.
The picture of Jesus in this chapter thus far has been consistent.  He allowed his disciples to break the Sabbath rule because they were hungry, and endorsed the priest breaking the rules about sanctified bread to feed David. The Parable of the Good Samaritan implies that helping someone in serious need is more important to God than the purity laws for priests. Everything we have seen so far shows that people took priority for him over Old Testament Law and that he made exceptions to the rules when the two came into significant conflict.

We might be a little puzzled at first, then, to see Jesus seem to take an almost legalistic position on the issue of divorce. Indeed, those who see Christianity primarily as a series of dos and don'ts may pay more attention to the words of Jesus on divorce than to the vast majority of things he said. And churches have sometimes played out divorce as something like an unpardonable sin, in effect ostracizing people from full Christian fellowship if they are divorced--sometimes even when they did not initiate the divorce. 

Matthew 19:9 remembers Jesus' words in this way: "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." In this passage, Jesus' disciples are so amazed at this restriction on divorce that they conclude it's almost better not to marry at all. Their world was one in which the only restriction was that the husband had to make a divorce official. Beyond that, a man could divorce his wife for pretty much any reason.

Apparently, the men of the time took their sense that a man could divorce his wife for any reason from Deuteronomy 24, to which this passage alludes. While Deuteronomy is actually about the remarriage of a divorced wife to her first husband, Jesus' contemporaries debated whether it implicitly gave a man permission to divorce his wife for anything he might find "indecent" in her. The way they put it to Jesus in Matthew 19:7 is that God commanded a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away.

In itself, there is some mercy even in this interpretation. There are places in the world today where a man can put a wife in limbo by leaving her, maybe leaving her in some village far away from where he is, and never officially severing ties from her. Sometimes this sort of thing happens in societies in places of the world where the woman cannot possibly take care of herself.  She might receive no support from her "husband" and yet be unable to find another man to support her because she is still officially married to her husband.

A command to make divorce official for such a woman is an act of mercy. It allows her to marry another man who will support her and her children. Perhaps some at the time of Jesus were interpreting Deuteronomy 24:1 in that way.  If so, then we can at least commend that sort of divorce as an act of mercy.

But surely Jesus' words on divorce, like his other teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, means to get to the root of the issue. A man should not be throwing away his wife in the first place. Although Jesus does not quote Malachi 2, surely it is in the same spirit that Jesus made his statements on divorce. He is thinking primarily of the husband who is unfaithful to the wife of his youth and stops protecting her, instead choosing to divorce her for selfish reasons.

This raises an interesting question of cultural background. It is not clear that a wife actually could officially divorce her husband in Palestine at the time of Jesus...


John Mark said...

As a pastor I wrestle with this issue. As I see it, adultery and desertion are the two main (only?) reasons to justify divorce today. And we are told that because we-the church, esp. evangelicals-- have failed to deal with marriage as we should (we are 'soft' on divorce) we have no real credibility to oppose monogamous homosexual unions.
Do you have any thoughts on this?

Ken Schenck said...

I hope I can express and maybe refine some thoughts as I go through this. I do believe that Jesus was very practical rather than idealistic (which of course I have to watch out for, because that's my personality these days too ;-). In other words, there was the ideal, but if it wasn't to be then there was a first level fall back, but if it wasn't to be, there was a second level fall back, etc...

JohnM said...

Mark 10:12 seems to indicate women of the time could divorce their husbands. Otherwise, I'm not familiar enough with the law of that time and place to know. Hypothetical to teach the principle maybe? Just an observation.

I can see a fall back, "if it's going to be" - maybe. However, Jesus seemed to identify as adultery even where divorce was permitted, with the caveat that for women remarriage was the the lesser of two evils, when starvation was the alternative.

Not only has that circumstance changed but the fall back has become the default choice, even among Christians. That's what concerns me. In our generation the ideal is scarcely honored in the breech. Frankly, nobody intent on divorce really needs our affirmation in this day and age.

Ken Schenck said...

See today's post. ;-)

Robert Brenchley said...

Since Jewish law makes no allowance for a wife to divorce her husband, and this is a problem for Orthodox Jews who are no longer able to bang up recalcitrant husbands till they issue a get, it seems unlikely that Jewsih women could initiate a divorce in the 1st Century.