Day 166: Matthew 19:8-9

Moses gave you permission to divorce your wives because you are so hard to teach. But it was not like that at the time of creation. I tell you, then, that any man who divorces his wife for any cause other than her unfaithfulness, commits adultery if he marries some other woman.

[This is the second of three scriptures that relate to Jesus’ teachings about divorce.]

Yesterday the Pharisees challenged Jesus about his interpretation of the Law regarding divorce.  Jesus replied by stating his radical views. The accepted social practice of his time was that a man could throw out his wife at any time for any reason as long as he gave her a paper stating that she was a free woman.  Jesus, however, taught that adultery was the only acceptable reason for a man to divorce a woman.  This was a radical idea, a serious infringement of masculine freedom, and a seismic power shift in the marital relationships.  Yesterday (Day 166) Jesus said these famous words, “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 was not the traditional religious view of marriage so of course the Pharisees, who believed that strict adherence to the Law of Moses was imperative, challenged him with this question: “The Pharisees asked him, “Why, then, did Moses give the law for a man to hand his wife a divorce notice and send her away?”

Actually the Law of Moses doesn’t specifically say much about divorce.  The is the main statement from the Book of Deuteronomy, and it really addresses the issue of re-marriage by a divorced couple:

“Suppose a man marries a woman and later decides that he doesn’t want her, because he finds something about her that he doesn’t like. So he writes out divorce papers, gives them to her, and sends her away from his home.  Then suppose she marries another man, and he also decides that he doesn’t want her, so he also writes out divorce papers, gives them to her, and sends her away from his home. Or suppose her second husband dies.  In either case, her first husband is not to marry her again; he is to consider her defiled. If he married her again, it would be offensive to the Lord. You are not to commit such a terrible sin in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

The implication is that it’s OK to divorce a woman for no reason, but it actually just outlines this common practice before launching into the real topic – a prohibition of couples remarrying in each other after they are divorced.  Jesus defends his teaching on divorce with today’s scripture:  “Moses gave you permission to divorce your wives because you are so hard to teach. But it was not like that at the time of creation. I tell you, then, that any man who divorces his wife for any cause other than her unfaithfulness, commits adultery if he marries some other woman.”

All of what Jesus says is a restatement of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (See Day 29).  No surprise here relative to what he has to say about divorce.  It’s what he has been saying from the beginning.

What is a surprise to me is that there is something here that I never noticed before.  The Pharisees say, “Why did Moses give the law…”   And then Jesus says, “Moses gave you permission because you are so hard to teach. ”  This is very, very interesting.  He doesn’t say “God gave you permission….”  Both Jesus and the Pharisees seem to be saying that God spoke to Moses, and then Moses did the best he could to interpret what God said and turn it into tangible, specific laws.  Jesus implies that Moses knew more than he revealed to the people because, in his judgment, the people couldn’t handle it.  It implies that Moses edited God’s law. It implies that you should read everything in the Torah and preface it with “Moses says…” rather than “God says… 

Moses laid down the Law.

Many people both then and now wouldn’t like this implication.  They like to believe that the Laws handed down in the Bible came directly from God and that they are therefore inerrant.  If you believe this, then God’s approval is guaranteed by your adherence to a set of rules.  Actually, the Bible it says the only written laws handed down to Moses from God were the stone tablets upon which the 10 commandments were engraved.  The Bible tells us that all of the rest of the laws were the result of discussions that took place between God and Moses either on the mountain or in the tent of God’s presence.  Moses then memorized them, passed them on orally, and they were eventually written down around hundreds of years later around the 8th century BC.

This is super important because Jesus’ words imply that the Law of Moses expressed in the Bible is not the full law.  It’s only partial.  It’s edited.  It includes expediencies because people can’t handle the FULL truth.  This is pretty important.  I’m surprised I’ve never heard anyone preach on this.  Oh wait, I guess I’m not surprised.  It makes things so much more complicated than mindless belief in Biblical inerrancy.  So much easier than having a relationship with God.  Holy shades of gray.

Well, my personal view is that the Law of Moses expressed in the Old Testament is not eternal truth.  The Law was given to help start us on the path to the truth.  The Law points to the truth, but it is not the full embodiment of the truth.

Personally I believe that God’s laws are always true, like the laws of physics.  The laws of God are like the law of gravity. If you throw something up, gravity causes it to fall back to earth.  In this case, the Law of Moses states that a man can throw out his wife as long as he gives her papers that allow her to find a new man and remarry, but Jesus says that God’s truth is that any break in any relationship, including marital relationship, causes pain and brokenness and suffering for everyone involved.

What divorce looked like in Jesus’s time.

Jesus says that when a man throws out his wife for no reason, leaving her homeless and penniless and alone, then it’s a sin.  It is contrary to the way God wants us to behave.  It inevitably causes pain and suffering and disruption.  Jesus says that God doesn’t want couples to divorce.  Divorce hurts people – the husband, the wife, the children, the parents and other family, friends, neighbors, and everyone.  And when we hurt others we hurt ourselves and find ourselves separated from God. Jesus says that once people make a promise to be faithful they are joined together forever and can never truly be separated.  It was true then, and it’s true now.  Divorce hurts everyone involved.

Jesus affirms that we are all connected, so we should care for one another and honor our responsibilities.  So the “Law of Jesus” is apparently far more expansive than the “Law of Moses.”  And we all intuitively know that divorce is bad and Jesus is right, so this puts both the Law of Moses and the Old Testament in perspective.  You can follow the letter of Law of Moses but it won’t result in a life that fully conforms to the will of God.  You have to internalize the Law until you understand its transcendent truth, and then discover each day how to apply it to each unique situation.

All people are different, all situations are different, and God’s truth is too complex to be encapsulated in a set of laws.  God’s will for a particular situation must be determined through prayer and contemplation.  In the case of divorce I think the truth is that we are all happier when we work out our differences amicably.  I think that if we can no longer live with an incompatible spouse, it is always God’s will that we should remain friends and continue to support each other to the extent that it’s possible to do so.  In my humble opinion, anyway.  You many indeed have another opinion.  Because we are all different, and our experiences are different.

How do the people in this story respond to Jesus’ revelation of God’s truth relative to divorce?  We’ll look at that tomorrow.

What does this scripture say to you?


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