Summary: Is divorce the "Second Unforgivable Sin" that many make it out to be? What did Jesus have to say about Divorce?
Mk 10:1-10 Divorce Morston 05-10-03
The subject of this morning’s Gospel reading – Marriage and Divorce - has been a hot topic in recent years. There has been much debate on whether we should we allow divorcees to marry for a second time in Church?
In September 1999, the House of Bishops issued a new teaching document entitled Marriage - setting out the stance of the Church of England on marriage and permitting, for the first time, the local incumbent to decide - according to his conscience- whether to allow the marriage of divorcees in Church.
But many Christian people have asked the question: What was Jesus’ position on the matter of divorce? Did Jesus allow divorce?
The Old Testament position was clear. We read in the book of Deuteronomy:
1 If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house 2 And if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man 3and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house or if he dies4 the her first husband who divorced her is not allowed to marry her again after she has become defiled. (Dt. 24:1-4)
In this morning’s reading the Pharisees came to ask Jesus to ask that same question. “Is it lawful (under the Old Testament Law) for a man to divorce his wife.”
So clearly, at first blush, this question was - as our American cousins would say - “a no-brainer”. Of course Moses did – look at Dt 24.
But we need to dig beneath the surface, to make more sense of the question. What were the Pharisees really asking?
In Jesus’ day, there were two schools of thought on the subject of divorce:
1. One school of thought - the conservative school of Shammai – defined the term “something indecent” (in Hebrew ervath dabhar) of Dt 24 as only allowing divorce if a sexual misdemeanour could be proved by witnesses.
2. The other school of thought - the liberal school of Hillel – defined the terms for divorce much more broadly and allowed it to cover any cause of complaint. Accordingly a man could divorce his wife for any reason.
As Michael Green has so wonderfully put it, a man, under the Hillel school of thought could divorce his wife simply for “burning the toast at breakfast.”
In other words, under the Hillel school of thought, divorce was allowed for “for any reason”.
Indeed, one of the rabbis of the Hillel school, Rabbi Akiba went so far as to say said that a man may divorce his wife for no other reason than he found another woman more beautiful.
So - in our Gospel reading- the Pharisees came out to see which school of thought Jesus would follow. The conservative Shammai school or the liberal Hillel school.
With that in mind, let us follow the sequence of events again:
1. The Pharisees come up to Jesus and ask him a question:
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
2. Jesus, in good rabbinic form, answers the question with a question:
“What did Moses command you?”
In other words – what do you think?
3. And the answer Jesus got was “Moses permitted a man to write a bill of divorce and send her away”
Hang on a second - that’s not quite what Moses said. Moses only allowed divorce if the man had found a ground of “something indecent” (in Hebrew ervath dabhar).
By making no reference to the ground of ervath dabhar (“something indecent”), the answer Jesus got reflected the Hillel school of thought.
In other words, they were saying: We think Moses allowed divorce for any reason.
So then Jesus replies: If that what you think:
“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery with her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
Looking at this passage in this way deals with any apparent contradiction with what Jesus said in Mt. 19:9 where he says:
9 “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman, except for marital unfaithfulness of his wife, commits adultery.”
In other words, Jesus was following the Shammai school which allowed divorce only if the man had found a ground of “something indecent” (ervath dabhar).
One Bible Commentator has made this clear comment:
"Matthew was correct to add the phrase “except for marital unfaithfulness” to his account because any first century Jewish reader would have mentally done likewise.
The older version which is preserved in Mark …did not contain these phrases because they would have been superfluous.