Summary: How does the church deal with divorce?
The Divorce Plague
In many respects, Jesus’ teaching on divorce in these verses is closely linked to the topic of adultery which he has just commented upon. One leads to the other in many other cases. It is also related to hate and murder, the first topic Jesus addresses. What does Jesus say about divorce?
To be able to explain this, we need to go back to the Jewish world of the first century. This is a world which was partially Jewish. But 300+ years of Greek Hellenistic influence had also affected Jewish culture, even in the sect of the Pharisees. This led to a clash of values concerning adultery and divorce. In this world, divorce was seen as something a man could do to his wife, and adultery was something only a woman could be punished for. In other words, a double standard existed.
The Pharisees were not exempted from this duplicity. If anything, they were the definition of hypocrites in this area. There had been a great debate between the more conservative Pharisees which only allowed divorce in the case of unchastity on the part of the wife. If the man on his wedding night did not find the woman to be a virgin as her hymen had been ruptured, he could divorce her. No other cause of divorce was valid. But there were also a lot of “progressive” Pharisees who interpreted Moses to mean that a man could divorce his wife for any reason. Only in the Pharisees was this even an issue, as men in the Hellenistic world and mainline Jewish sects had already surrendered to the ideas of cohabitation outside marriage, adultery within marriage so long as it was the man and the woman was not another man’s wife, and sexual license for men.
Jesus in his views on adultery seems to side with the most conservative of the Pharisees here. He mentions what Moses had said concerning divorce which was the pretext of the progressive Pharisees for divorce. It is indeed in the Scripture. But what did God mean by allowing this?
As we have been examining this section of the Sermon on the Mount, we had noticed Jesus command that our righteousness had to exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees if one was to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We saw that the problem with the Pharisees went deeper than hypocrisy. The Pharisees were indeed guilty of not practicing what they preached, they also perverted the teaching of Scripture as well. We did not see this so much in the sections on murder and adultery. The problem there seemed to be that they Pharisees did not go far enough and only held to outward appearances and actions. But here, we see what is essentially a perversion of doctrine.
At another time when Jesus was directly confronted with the divorce issue (Matthew 19:8), Jesus gave a comment which is helpful to our understanding of what Jesus is saying here. Divorce was allowed by God as the lesser of two evils. Men’s hearts were so hard and cold to God that they would divorce their wives regardless of what God thought and said about it. To divorce a wife without a bill of divorcement was to leave a woman in that society without means. As what was considered to be used merchandise, she would be unable to marry another man or even make a living outside of prostitution. . On the positive side of marriage, Jesus reminded them that God’s purpose for marriage is clearly expressed in Genesis which is that one man and one woman should be united in love and marriage for life. The Scripture also says in Malachi that God hates divorce. So taking a verse in the Law out of context was essentially a great perversion from God’s will on the matter.
Jesus here clearly states with an authority equal to Scripture itself that any man that divorces his wife for any reason other than on the wedding night that he found that she was not a virgin and marries another is guilty of adultery if he were to remarry. The second half of the verse is a little more complicated to interpret. On a literal level, it seems that Jesus is calling the woman who has been divorced and marries also commits adultery. As she was the one dismissed, it would seem unfair to restrict her from remarrying, considering what her other options were. Some feel that what is being said is that the man who marries a divorced woman is the adulterer, but this does not make this interpretation any easier.
The interpretation starts to make more sense if we restrict the idea of divorce to premarital unchastity. In other words, when she lost her virginity, she in a sense became the husband of whatever man that was in the eyes of God. Paul seems to allude to this. It might be noticed in the other gospels, even the idea of her not being a virgin is mentioned as an exception to divorce.