Can I have a divorce? (Matthew 19:1-12)

Have you experienced divorce as an adult, or as a child? In your family, or a friends’ family? It’s heart-rending. Your world is ripped apart. In the time of your deepest need, you find family and friends turning away.

That’s why it’s so confronting when religious people use it to impute guilt and failure. It wasn’t something Jesus raised as part of his kingdom agenda. Judean Pharisees used it to paint Jesus as an idealist out of step with Scripture:

Matthew 19:1-3 (my translation, compare NIV)
1 When Jesus had finished those messages, he left Galilee and went to the parts of Judea in Transjordan. 2 Sizeable crowds followed him, and he took care of their needs there.
3 Pharisees came up and tested him by saying, “On what grounds can a man divorce his wife? For whatever reason he wants?”

As they said, it was the man who held the power in the ancient world. Jewish legal code gave the woman some rights, insisting she receive a formal divorce document rather then being dumped with no status or opportunity. It also banned temporary divorce, so a man couldn’t try someone else and then return.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 proscribed the how of divorce, but not the when. That left the rabbis arguing over the grounds for divorce. Rabbi Hillel supported divorce for any reason, whereas Rabbi Shammai supported divorce only if the marriage was already ruined by adultery. The Pharisees tried to draw Jesus into this debate. They weren’t asking if divorce was okay, since their law was clear about that. The question was when divorce is okay: only when one party has already wrecked the marriage (Shammai’s view), or for any reason (Hillel’s view)?

Instead of arguing the grounds for divorce in Deuteronomy 24, Jesus redirected them to the grounds for marriage in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24:

Matthew 19:4–6
4 In reply he said, “Haven’t you read how the Creator, from the outset, made them a male and a female? 5 He said, ‘On this basis, a man will leave his father and his mother and unite with his wife, and the two will be fused into one flesh.’ 6 So it follows that they are no longer two, but one flesh. So then, what God paired up, no person should split apart.

Wow: this post has the wrong title. The question is not, “Can I have a divorce?” The question is, “Can we live as God intends?”

Matthew said they were trying to trap Jesus (verse 3), and we discover the trap in verse 7:
7 They say to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of divorce and dismiss her?”

If the Law commanded them to divorce, then failure to do so was disobeying Torah. Even if the man was completely innocent (i.e. the woman was the adulteress), he was guilty of law-breaking if he did not divorce her. And if Hillel was right, these conclusions were disastrous.

Jesus refuses to engage in this twisted legal argument. Divorce was a concession, not a command. The heavenly sovereign placed this concession in his law because he was managing broken people, people whose hearts were already resistant to him and to each other. Divorce is a failure of relationship; it was never part of God’s intent for our relationships:

Matthew 19:8–9
8 He says to them, “Moses allowed you to dismiss your wives as a concession to your hardhearted obstinacy, but it was not what God set up in the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who dismisses his wife for grounds other than immorality and marries another is being unfaithful to her.”

Jesus opposed easy divorce. Do not end your marriage just because you’re not enjoying your partner and you want someone else.

You might think Jesus sounded like Rabbi Shammai, but their logic was poles apart. Shammai argued over the words displeasing and indecent in Deuteronomy 24:1, to limit the availability of divorce. Jesus called us to enter life as God intended in the beginning, to maintain faithful love towards God, creation, and each other. Jesus expects us to be the kingdom of God on earth, with our home life as its most basic expression.

So, if you’re considering a divorce, re-read Jesus’ kingdom vision and apply it to your marriage:

  • Don’t be the unforgiving servant. Keep forgiving (18:21-35).
  • Resolve those differences. He’s present (18:15-20).
  • Share the searching Shepherd’s heart. He wants none of his little ones to perish (18:10-14).
  • Don’t trip each other up (18:6-9).
  • Quit the power games, and take the lowly position. Discover Christ in each other (18:1-5).

Our king is our inspiration. He paid more than his dues (17:22-27). He gives his life (17:22-23).

The question you ask makes a world of difference. It’s not, “Can I have a divorce?” It’s “How does God want us to live under his governance?”

But …

In Mark 10:11, the story ends right there. Remarriage after divorce is immoral. No exceptions. But the story we’re reading in Matthew 19:9 does provide an exception: except for sexual immorality. Are there cases where divorce is okay, or not?

How would you handle that question if you only had Mark’s Gospel? Would you treat it as cut and dried?

What if other Scriptures address exceptions not found in Matthew or Mark? For example, does 1 Corinthians 7:15 say you’re no longer bound to a marriage if your unbelieving partner leaves? Could there be other exceptions?

Stop! The fact that people ask these questions indicates that we’re approaching Scripture the way the Pharisees did. Scripture is not legalese. It makes no attempt at disambiguated precision covering all possible cases. Scripture is the revelation of God.

Matthew and Mark both say Jesus was opposed to easy divorce — effectively, “Don’t destroy the relationship.” In Matthew’s account, Jesus acknowledged the possibility that your partner may have already destroyed the relationship. Paul also speaks of how a partner may destroy the relationship. Truth is, you cannot restore a relationship your partner has destroyed, and God doesn’t expect you to.

What God does expect from you is to embody his character in your relationships, as far as it depends on you. Don’t ask God, “Can I have a divorce?” Ask him, “Is there anything I can do to restore this marriage?”

Why does this matter?

It matters because the world needs to see God in the people who reflect him. If you’re on the edge of a badly frayed marriage, ask God, “Am I misrepresenting you if I give up on this marriage?” Take time to work through that question.

Just to be clear, you don’t need to be married to express kingdom relationships. Jesus wasn’t. Verses 10-12 are a wonderful — and perhaps humorous — affirmation of singleness:

Matthew 19:10-12
10 His followers say to him, “If that’s how it is between a man and a woman, we’d be better off not to marry.” 11 He said to them, “Not everyone can accept the saying, only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are some people who were born impotent, just as there are some who were desexed by others, and there are some who chose to live without sex because they’re focused on the kingdom of heaven. If you can accept it, accept it.”

So, in whatever state you find yourself and your relationships, your brothers and sisters are here to support you, not to condemn you. Let’s challenge and encourage each other to live for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (19:12).

What others are saying

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 715–716:

The question is not whether divorce was ever permissible; that was accepted by all on the basis of Deut 24:1–4. It concerns the permitted grounds for divorce, an issue which among Pharisees at that time would have been focused on the debate between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. “To divorce his wife for every cause” might serve as a sweeping summary of the Hillelite view, which was probably the more influential among ordinary people. Would Jesus then support a more restrictive “Shammaite” approach, which would not be popular among most Jewish men … Moreover, the recent execution of John for questioning Antipas’ divorce (14:3–12) made it a politically sensitive issue, particularly as Jesus was probably now in Perea.

Related post

Update 2022-04-07: Original translation added (instead of NIV).

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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