Haven’t you read the scripture that says that in the beginning the Creator made people male and female? And God said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and unite with his wife, and the two will become one.” So they are no longer two, but one. No human being must separate, then, what God has joined together.
[This is the first of three scriptures that relate to Jesus’ teachings about divorce.]
The Pharisees challenge Jesus by calling attention to his teachings on divorce. The scripture says, “Some Pharisees came to him and tried to trap him by asking, ‘Does our Law allow a man to divorce his wife for whatever reason he wishes?’” (Matthew 19:3)
Jesus responds to the challenge by quoting scripture. The interesting thing is that the scripture he quotes is not from the Law of Moses. It’s from Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The part about a man leaving his parents and becoming one with his wife from the creation story in Genesis 2:24. Then, Jesus adds those next two lines, which have been repeated as part of the liturgy of millions of weddings over the centuries: “So they are no longer two, but one. No human being must separate, then, what God has joined together.”
The Pharisees were certainly aware of Jesus’ unorthodox views on divorce. Were they trying to bait Jesus, or were they just trying to make sure that his followers were aware of his teaching on divorce? Probably they were just throwing him a little rope hoping he would hang himself. Jesus taught about many subjects, but his teachings about divorce were probably among the most controversial for ordinary people. While the Law of Moses did not prohibit men from divorcing their wives without cause, Jesus taught that men must not divorce their wives for any reason except adultery. Here’s what he said in the Sermon on the Mount (Day 29):
It was also said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’ But now I tell you: if a man divorces his wife for any cause other than her unfaithfulness, then he is guilty of making her commit adultery if she marries again; and the man who marries her commits adultery also.
Back in those days a man could divorce his wife at any time without cause as long as he provided her with proper divorce papers so that she could legally remarry another man. Back in those days women were treated like property and if they didn’t behave themselves they were thrown out like yesterday’s trash. As long as the husband provided the proper papers, he could throw out his wife without a dime or even the clothes on her back. For no reason whatsoever. He could either throw out the kids, or keep them. His choice. It’s very hard to imagine the societal situation Jesus was addressing. When people married there were no vows to stay together forever. There was no understanding of marriage as some kind of sacred spiritual union. It was a property arrangement, like buying a horse or something. Divorce was not a sin as long as the proper legal procedures were followed.
So Jesus kind of turns it all upside down. Jesus wants husbands to provide for their wives for the rest of their lives, no excuses allowed. For the women, the idea that men could no longer arbitrarily divorce them was great news. For the men, not so much. It would have been a serious infringement of their rights. Definitely controversial. Shocking, actually. Kind of like gun control today. Inflammatory.
Surely Jesus knew that this was a difficult teaching for the men to accept, but he never whitewashed his beliefs to make others comfortable. He always kept it real. The Pharisees knew that Jesus was a man of conviction and that he would never compromise himself to get the approval of others. It’s no wonder the Pharisees wanted to make sure that Jesus’ views on the subject were out in the open. For many men this one particular teaching would certainly have been a show stopper.
I’m sure you all know the feeling. You are listening to a pastor, speaker, politician, or other public figure and you think you are in agreement when all of a sudden they drop a bomb, something you definitely disagree with. Something racist, or sexist, or materialistic, or homophobic, or mean spirited, or ignorant. Something that gets on your last nerve. Your smile turns upside down and you have to make a decision about whether or not you want to listen to anything else the person has to say. You have to decide whether to keep an open mind or shut it down and walk away. And I’m sure that more than one man who heard that he would no longer have the right to get rid of an unpleasant wife might indeed decide that following Jesus was not such a good idea. It might have led them to believe that Jesus was out of this right mind.
So tomorrow the Pharisees who asked this initial question challenge him about his compliance with the Law of Moses. What will Jesus say next? Only tomorrow will tell.
What does this scripture say to you?