Jesus’ teaching on divorce and separation

  • Question 188, from Nigel, United Kingdom

    How would Jesus pastorally support someone going through a marital separation or divorce?

    This is a difficult question because Jesus seems to respond differently on the issue of divorce depending on the circumstances.

    For example, in an encounter with the religious leaders, he is quite outspoken on the issue of divorce.

    Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’

    ‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” 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”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

    ‘Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’

    Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.  I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’

    (Matthew chapter 19, verses 3-9)

    This could be taken to mean that divorce should only be permissible in cases where adultery has taken place. However, there are several aspects to this teaching that potentially soften it.

    This is a theoretical discussion, not a pastoral situation, and that is an important distinction. Jesus is asked two questions that are designed to catch him out. The first is deliberately vague, and Jesus answers by quoting Scripture, to show that divorce is not a frivolous act. The marriage union is divinely-sanctioned in the Torah and therefore the Pharisees, the proponents and experts in the Law, should know that.

    The second question is just plain wrong. Moses did not command people to divorce. The actual text this is referring to is at the start of Deuteronomy chapter 24, where Moses says that a man who divorces a woman can’t remarry her if she has married someone else in the meantime. Moses offered no instructions regarding divorce.

    Jesus seems to be saying that Moses tolerated divorce that was already taking place. Certainly the passage in Deuteronomy implies that there was a tradition of formal divorce. Moses’ ban on a man remarrying the woman he divorced after she has been married to another man was probably about preventing disputes over whose wife she was, given that it was an era where wives were considered possessions.

    Jesus then makes an explicit statement – divorcing a woman and then marrying another makes a man an adulterer.

    This has to be taken in context. In the culture of the time women were not considered equals and women who were divorced would usually become social outcasts living in extreme poverty. Jesus’ challenge is therefore to those with the legal power and, according to Jewish tradition, the moral duty in the marriage (for example, see Malachi chapter 2, verse 16).

    Jesus’ words are therefore a warning to his hearers not to treat the covenant and commitment of marriage with contempt; a lesson they should already have drawn from their reading of Scripture and understanding of the Law.

    But equally, there are examples in the gospels where Jesus is recorded as showing pastoral compassion to those who have been divorced or accused of adultery, for example the Samaritan woman at the well (John chapter 4), the woman who was to be stoned for adultery (John chapter 8), and the ‘sinful woman’ who washed Jesus feet with her tears (Luke chapter 7).

    In these circumstances, Jesus is not interested in offering judgement or condemnation. Instead he offers forgiveness and restoration.

    These two approaches can provide an insight into answering the original question. Like marriage, a divorce shouldn’t be entered into lightly. Commitment matters in all Biblical covenants, whether that is with God or between people. However, there is always the promise of restoration and redemption in any situation.

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