Divorce is a tragic fact of life.
ONE IN THREE marriages in Australia end in divorce. In America, it’s WORSE. The most accurate figures suggest more than 40% of marriages end in divorce.
What’s troubling is that being A CHRISTIAN, at least in America, doesn’t seem to make much difference. The Barna institute reports that, in America, 32% of people who classify themselves as born again Christians have been married and divorced. That’s almost identical to 33% of NON-Christians who’ve been married and divorced.
I couldn’t find any figures for AUSTRALIAN Christians, but even if it’s not as bad as that, it’s still a HUGE PROBLEM. All of us know people personally affected by divorce. Plenty of people right here in church.
The topic of divorce isn’t simply THEORETICAL. It’s not an irrelevant question of theology. It’s a difficult problem. It’s PAINFUL, it’s POWERFUL, and it’s REAL.
It ruins lives – not just husband and wife, but children and grandparents too. And not just in the SHORT term either – it can mess up lives for DECADES. The consequences of a divorce can flow through to the marriages of the children when they grow up, as they bring their pain and insecurities with them.
When it comes to the question of divorce, churches often seem to make one of two mistakes. They’re either too HARD. They think divorce is almost the unforgiveable sin. That you can’t be divorced, and be a Christian. And they treat divorced people like lepers. There’s no grace, no forgiveness, no chance of restoration.
The other mistake is to be TOO SOFT. To see divorce as just a fact of life. And that it doesn’t matter. Sort of like ripping off a band aid. That marriage isn’t worth fighting for. A short term project. Something you can grow out of. To UNDERVALUE how IMPORTANT marriage is.
And so, too little EFFORT is made to HELP marriages in trouble. To work hard at IMPROVING marriages.
My view is that Jesus’ attitude is NEITHER of those two extremes. And so we need to be somewhere in the middle. So let’s look at what Jesus thinks.
A test not a genuine dilemma
While divorce is a hot topic TODAY. It was just as much an issue in Jesus’ time. That’s why the Pharisees brought it up in the FIRST place. See it there in v3? They come to Jesus with a tricky question about divorce.
But it’s a TEST, not a genuine dilemma. Nothing to do with actually wanting to know THE TRUTH. They’re not interested in fixing a pastoral problem, or solving a moral dilemma. In reducing pain, or improving marriages. They simply want to CATCH HIM OUT. TRAP him. V3
They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
Notice what they’re NOT asking. They don’t say, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” That was a GIVEN. Deuteronomy and Leviticus talk about what husbands are to do if they’ve given their wives a certificate of divorce. And so, it was assumed God was fine with men divorcing their wives.
And so the question was “What’s an acceptable REASON for a man to divorce his wife?” In other words, is it lawful to divorce for ANY AND EVERY reason? Or are there only SOME reasons that are ok?
You see, Deut 24: 1 says
24:1 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…
And then it goes on to talk about what the husband is to do should other situations happen.
And so people debated about what it meant that the husband found SOMETHING INDECENT about his wife. The LIBERALS said it could be for pretty much ANYTHING. MINOR things. ONE teacher, Hillel, said if a wife BURNED THE DINNER – that was suitable grounds for divorce.
Then there were the CONSERVATIVES, like those from the school of Shimmai, who said that “something indecent” meant marital unfaithfulness. And THAT was the only acceptable grounds for divorce.
Marriage is for joining, not separating
But Jesus isn’t going to play their game. He says they’ve got the emphasis all wrong. Don’t focus on the SEPARATING. Because marriage is about JOINING, NOT SEPARATING.
And he goes back to the Scriptures. Not to Deuteronomy or Leviticus or Numbers, like the Pharisees. But all the way back to CREATION. When God made Adam and Eve. Back to the very FIRST marriage. God’s original design. V4.
4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be UNITED to his wife, and the two will become ONE FLESH’? 6 So they are no longer TWO, but ONE. Therefore what God has joined together, LET MAN NOT SEPARATE.”
God’s plan is for husband and wife to be JOINED TOGETHER. Connected. Two becoming ONE. Two different individuals, with different goals and opinions and interests and perspectives and preferences, coming together to become ONE.
Not suddenly agreeing on everything. Not becoming CLONES of each other. But committing completely to the other person’s interests as NUMBER ONE. Committing to a lifetime of serving. Of NOT SEPARATING. Of working hard at communication, at openness and intimacy. At removing barriers, and building connections.
A connection like THAT is life-long and strong. It’s a connection that’s pretty difficult to break. It’s a connection that a burnt meal, or sickness, or unemployment can’t split. A connection that wrinkles, or gray hair, or unemployment, or floods, or a mid-life crisis can’t split.
One flesh. Not to be separated. That’s GOD’S view of marriage. Not something you chop and change like putting on a new season’s outfit because LAST year’s is out of fashion.
You see, God sees marriage as a Katoomba express train. But the Pharisees see it as an all stop suburban train.
Sometimes I’m in the city for a meeting. And my favourite train to catch home is the Katoomba express train. It’s smooth, comfortable and fast. It doesn’t stop at Macdonaldtown, or Stanmore or Pendle Hill. Sometimes it doesn’t even stop at STRATHFIELD. But that’s FINE, because I don’t want to get OUT at those stops.
Other people catch an ALL STOPS train because it’s CONVENIENT. Perhaps, they want to get off at Clyde, or Auburn, or Westmead. It’s CONVENIENT, but it’s not IDEAL. It’s slow, and hot. It’s often crowded and uncomfortable. People can’t wait to get off it. As soon as their stop arrives, they’re OFF. As quick as a flash.
And that’s the way SOME people view marriage. They’re happy to be on the train. As long as it suits THEM. As long as the feelings are there. Or until something better comes along. But they’re looking out the window for a stop. As soon as they see somewhere else they want to be, they’re OFF. Looking for a more comfortable place. Somewhere more convenient.
But that’s not marriage says Jesus. It’s for the LONG HAUL. It’s the Katoomba express. Don’t worry about all the other stations flashing by. Sit back, commit yourself to the journey, and enjoy the ride. Sure, there’ll be some bumps and turns. Sure, you won’t get to see those other stations, but the train’s not meant to stop there anyway.
But when husband and wife are focussed on the final destination, and committed to the end, it’s a great trip.
That’s Jesus’ position. And he concludes (the end of v6). “Therefore, what God has joined together, LET MAN NOT SEPARATE.” In other words, your emphasis is all wrong when you’re focussed on separating what God’s JOINED. Don’t DO IT. Concentrate on staying ON THE TRAIN. See it through to the end.
But the teachers hit the ball back into Jesus’ court. V7.
7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
In other words, does that mean Moses is against God’s purpose when he tells a man to present a certificate when he divorces her? Is there some sort of CONTRADICTION here? Remember, they’re trying to TRAP Jesus.
But, for Jesus, there’s no contradiction. V8
8 Jesus replied, “Moses PERMITTED you to divorce your wives because your hearts were HARD. But it was not this way from the beginning.
The IDEAL was husband and wife joined together as one flesh. That was God’s design in the beginning. And it’s what all marriages should be working hard to MAINTAIN.
The REALITY however, whether in Moses’ time, or Jesus’ time, or even today, was something far different. Some people joined together not by COMMITMENT, but for CONVENIENCE. Not for the OTHER PERSON’S good, but for THEIR OWN. Marriages that have the APPEARANCE of a joining as one. But in reality, two people looking to their own interests. It’s hard hearts, wandering eyes, and short-sighted selfishness.
In Moses’ time it showed itself in polygamy. A husband taking another wife who catches his eye, but not divorcing his FIRST wife. Not allowing her the opportunity to ever find a one flesh relationship. That was THEN.
Today it shows itself in couples living together. It’s the OBVIOUS and ACCEPTED thing to do. Or else, in affairs or open marriages. Or two strangers living under the same roof. They have the same NAME, but they live TWO SEPARATE LIVES.
Or it shows itself in a series of relationships, moving from one to another as casually as you might update your car. People not taking their marriage vows seriously.
And it’s all a problem of the hardness of the heart. Of not committing to joining as ONE. For GOOD.
Divorce is an obituary, not an opportunity
And so Jesus says Moses’ command was a CONCESSION. A REPAIR JOB for a so-called marriage where the bond had ALREADY been broken. Where there’d been an indecent attitude or act that had already split the union.
Jesus’ point was that divorce is an OBITUARY, not an OPPORTUNITY.
It was given to formalise what was ALREADY dead. To free a wife. To allow her to find ANOTHER husband where a REAL marriage might be found. Rather than remaining in limbo: not DIVORCED, but not one with her husband EITHER.
Whereas the sinful attitude of Jesus’ time was to treat it as an OPPORTUNITY. “Found someone else you like? Found a newer, flashier model? Then the certificate of divorce is your ticket to trade-up. And you can still keep God’s law while you DO it!”
But divorce should be AN OBITUARY, NOT AN OPPORTUNITY. A serious, measured, saddening final step. Not to be taken LIGHTLY. It’s a DRASTIC FINAL MEASURE. V9. Jesus continues
9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman COMMITS ADULTERY.”
The penalty for adultery was STONING. This is serious stuff, says Jesus. To use a minor problem as an excuse to break a marriage so you can marry someone else is nothing other than ADULTERY. To treat divorce lightly was a grave sin. Far from KEEPING the law, divorce like that was nowhere NEAR God’s intention.
Marriage is hard work, but worth it
So, what does that mean for those of us who are married? If Jesus treats DIVORCE so seriously, it’s because MARRIAGE is so important. JESUS valued it, and so should WE.
We should WORK HARD at our own marriages. We should ENCOURAGE each other in our marriages. Support each other. Pray for each other.
We spend hours each week on the garden, or on the housework. But how much time do we spend cultivating our marriages? Does the TIME we spend reflect the IMPORTANCE we place on our marriage?
Marriage is hard work, but WORTH IT.
Building one-ness – fostering and keeping it – TAKES EFFORT. Divorce should be the FINAL CARD to play. Not THE FIRST. You should battle through a whole lifetime of tough times and fights and stresses before it’s even CONSIDERED. And THEN, only as a formal recognition of a separation that’s already happened.
The disciples pick up the WEIGHT of what Jesus’ is saying.. Because he’s not just talking about DIVORCE, he’s talking about MARRIAGE. V10 “If marriage is through thick and thin. If there’s no easy escape clause, if the sin of looking for an easier better option is ADULTERY, then why would you get married? IT ALL SOUNDS TOO HARD. V10
10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
Why not just stay single?
And while people have different opinions for what Jesus said next, from v11, here’s what I think he’s saying. “Not everyone DOES get married. That’s TRUE. SOME people are eunuchs – either by CHOICE, or by BIRTH, or caused by SOMEONE ELSE. Now THAT’S tough! (I think that’s why he uses the term “eunuch” – to point out that some people really DO have it tough.)
By comparison, being married and STAYING married. That’s not REALLY tough! All it takes is some COMMITMENT, and some sacrificial love. If you can’t handle THAT, then don’t get married. “The one who can accept this should ACCEPT it!”
In other words, marriage is hard work, but WORTH it. It’s hard work, but not THAT hard. The alternative to marriage (singleness) suits SOME people, but there’s plenty of downsides to it too.
So don’t complain about how tough you’ve got it. Suck it up, and work a bit harder in your marriage. Work hard at putting your spouse first. At building that unity and “one flesh”. “The one who can accept this should ACCEPT it!”
Don’t look over the fence, and think the grass is greener somewhere else. That someone else has got it better. Easier. Like EVERYTHING in life, God calls us to be CONTENT where we are. That’s faith in action – to be CONTENT. To trust that God’s working out all good things for you. Faith in action says “I’m married – it’s hard work, but it’s WORTH it. I’m going to commit myself to building that one-ness with my spouse.”
And I guess that’s where the rubber hits the road for US. To VALUE our marriages. Because GOD values them. His goal for them is ONE FLESH. Complete intimacy and unity and connection. We need to work HARD for that. And not settle for LESS.
Or for those of you NOT married, make the commitment to view marriage that way. God’s way. So that when, or if, you get married, you’ll have a solid foundation for a great marriage. And encourage those around you who ARE married. Pray for them. Help them out.
A good marriage ISN’T easy. It’s NEVER easy. And God actually USES that hard work to make us more like Jesus. To make us more patient, and forgiving, and understanding, and helpful, and compassionate. To show us our selfishness and short temper, and self-centredness.
It’s hard work, but it’s WORTH it. The one who can accept this, should accept it!