Critics of our position rightly pointed out that the Christian faith draws a sharp line about divorce, and they ask, “Well, if you Christians are so dead set against gay marriage, why aren’t you speaking out as loudly about divorce?” Furthermore, those critics also pointed out that just as many Christians get divorced as any other particular religious or philosophical group. So why, if this is the case–if we disregard or lessen this teaching on divorce–are we up in such arms about gay marriage? Now, I am not going to argue about gay marriage this morning. I want to deal with these legitimate questions that confronts us regarding divorce. It confronts our hypocrisy regarding our faith, and it also gives us an avenue to confront the true issue behind why marriages break up. Parts of the trip are not pleasant, but it is a trip that I think we are called to travel.
For you see, the temptation for any preacher when this text appears is to soften Jesus’ words. The temptation is to explain away what Jesus says to make everyone feel comfortable. Why? Well, you know why as do I. In this room this morning, not a single one of us has escaped the reality of divorce. Some of you have gone through a divorce and are remarried. Some of you have loved ones who are near and dear to you who have divorced. Some of you have good friends who have divorced as well. You hear Jesus’ words, “Whoever divorces and remarried commits adultery,” and you say, “Is that really the case? Am I...are my friends...are my parents really committing adultery?” If you ask me that question directly, and I am afraid you will leave the church because of my answer, I, as a clergy, am often tempted to do what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in his book The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer criticizes the church and says that we are all to ready to justify the sin instead of proclaim the justification of the sinner. Now, what does that mean. Just this: there is bad news. If you divorce and remarry, you are committing adultery. But there is good news: you are forgiven. There is no softening Jesus’ words. He spoke them for a reason, and I hope that once you see what that reason is, you will understand. Let’s turn to the text.
We begin with the Pharisees coming to Jesus to trap him. The Pharisees don’t like Jesus. They want Him silenced. They actually want Jesus dead. This is obvious by the question they ask Him about divorce because of the location of the question. Jesus and His disciples are in the region of Perea. This was the region controlled by Herod Antipas. What is significant about this? Well, if you remember Mark chapter six, there was that “wonderful” story about John the Baptist being beheaded. Why was John beheaded? Because John dared to criticize Herod Antipas because he stole his brother’s wife Herodias and they were living in an adulterous and incestuous relationship. John angered Herod Antipas and especially Herodias, and she simply bided her time until she was able to have John killed. By raising this issue in this territory, the Pharisees were hoping word would get to Herod Antipas about Jesus, and Herod would silence Jesus once and for all.
But Jesus is the ultimate master of debate. He is the master at outwitting traps, and Jesus maneuvers perfectly as He answers the Pharisees’ question with a question. “What does Moses command you?”
Craig Evans in his commentary on this text says this, “For the Jewish people, at least for those who were Torah observant, appeal to the commandments of Moses was an appeal to the highest authority on any question.” This is a master stroke by Jesus because Jesus is calling the Pharisees–who were staunch defenders of the commands of Moses, to delve into Scripture. He is making them answer the question from their own source of authority.
They reply, “Moses allows us to write a certificate of divorce and dismiss our wife.” The Pharisees are absolutely accurate in this comment. In Deuteronomy 24, permission is given for a husband to divorce his wife. The text reads, “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house 2and goes off to become another man’s wife.” There is more in this text, but I will not read the entire portion here. It would get too long. What I hope you can see is that in the Scriptures, there are grounds for divorce to take place. The Pharisees knew this. Jesus knew this. So why did they ask the question?
Walter Wessel points this out in his commentary on this text, “The crucial words are “something indecent.” What did that include? The school of Shammai, the stricter of the schools, understood these words to mean something morally indecent, in particular, adultery. The school of Hillel interpreted these words much more freely. Just about anything in a wife that a husband did not find to his liking was suitable grounds for divorce. Even if she burned his food! So where did Jesus stand in this? That was their question.”
Jesus doesn’t get caught up in this debate, however. Jesus drives much deeper. Jesus takes the Pharisees back to the first principles–to the creation of humankind. As Craig Evans once again says, “Jesus sidesteps these options and instead challenges the hermeneutical assumption that because something is “permitted” it is therefore according to the will of God.” What is God’s will for marraige?
Jesus quotes Genesis chapter 2, “6But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
Why is this text so significant? It is because of the Jewish understanding of God. God was seen as the ultimate being–a being who was whole, who was complete. If you remember the story of man and woman and how they became partners, God said that it was not good for man to be alone. Therefore, God began creating and bringing all the animals to man to find one who was suitable to be a partner. None were found suitable, so God caused the man to fall asleep, took out one of man’s ribs, and formed woman. Man was no longer whole. Part of him was gone. Woman was not whole because she was taken out of man. Neither could be whole and complete in and of themselves. It was only when they joined together–when they became one flesh, that they were once again whole and closer to God. So, if a divorce occurs, it is not simply two complete individuals going their separate ways. No. There is a literal tearing of flesh. There is a breaking of that which was once whole. This wholeness does not come about by the actions of people, but it is something that God does. Jesus points that out in His commentary. “What God has joined together, let no one separate!”
There is quite a bit of significance to this. Mark Edwards says this in his commentary, “The greatest difference between Jesus and the rabbis, however, is this: by giving a husband principal control over his wife, the Jewish divorce policy made the man the lord of the marital relationship. According to Jesus, however, it is neither man nor woman who controls marriage, but rather God, who is the Lord of marriage.: “what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
The disciples were apparently perplexed about this teaching, so as was their custom, they asked Jesus about it later in private. Jesus pulls no punches. Jesus wastes no time. Jesus teaches plainly and straightforwardly, “‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’
There is a lot to be said here, a lot. But first, let’s quote Walter Wessel again because there is something happening in Jesus’ teaching that makes perfect sense to us, but would have been shocking in His day. Wessel says, “Jesus did what the rabbis refused to do: he recognized that a man could commit adultery against his wife. In rabbinic Judaism a woman by infidelity could commit adultery against her husband; and a man, by having sexual relations with another man’s wife, could commit adultery against him. But a man could never commit adultery against his wife, no matter what he did. Jesus, by putting the husband under the same moral obligation as the wife, raised the status and dignity of women.” Jesus places a co-equal share on both men and women in marriage. Jesus gives rights to women that they didn’t have in the Jewish culture. It’s quite astounding.
But that doesn’t get to the heart of the question that perhaps many of you have. Is it really adultery? Yes, it is. Sorry, I’m not going to make you feel good about it. I’m not going to soften Jesus’ teaching. He isn’t beating around the bush, and neither will I. But, I will tell you this. Those of you who are divorced and remarried are the only adulterers in this room. You see, I am standing here this morning guilty of committing adultery as well. No. I am not, nor did I have an affair with someone, but none-the-less, I am guilty of adultery.
If you will permit me just a moment, I will read to you Matthew chapter 5 verses 27-28, “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Yep, I am guilty. I am also guilty of murder. Again from Matthew chapter 5, “‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Yep, I am guilty of that one too.
And I’m not going to try to justify myself or soften these teachings either. Christianity is not about justifying the sin. Christianity is about justifying the sinner. What do I mean by that.
Let me quote to you what N.T. Wright said about this passage from Mark on divorce. Let me literally try to get at the heart of the matter in what Wright says:
Jesus comment on the Mosaic permission is important as a clue to what he thought was going on in his own ministry. ‘Moses gave you this rule because of your hardheartedness’; in other words, Israel in Moses’ day was not able to fulfill the creator’s intention, and needed laws that would reflect that second-best reality. Hardheartedness, the inability (to use our version of the same metaphor) to have one’s heart in tune with to God’s best intention and plan, thwarted God’s longing that Israel should be the prototype of renewed humanity. The problem was not with the ideal, nor with the law, but with the people: Israel was, when it all came down to it, just like everybody else. Hardhearted. Eager to take the precious gift of genuine humanness and exploit or abuse it.
But this means that, for Jesus’ comment to make sense, he must be offering a cure for hardheartedness. If he is now articulating a rigorous return to the standard of Genesis, to God’s original intention, he is either being hopelessly idealistic or he believes that the coming of the kingdom will bring about a way for hearts to be softened.
The problem with divorce and adultery and murder and all sin is a hardness of heart. It’s our selfish nature coming back to haunt us. Divorce happens because one or both parties in marriage become self-serving and selfish. The relationship becomes all about that person and fulfilling that person’s needs often to the detriment of their partner. Selfishness consumes a person sometimes to the point where abuse takes place, and in such cases, I have even counseled people to get out of that marriage!! God does not intend for you to be consumed by a selfish, abusive partner!!
But God does intend for hearts to be changed. God does intend for marriages to last. God does not desire divorce. God wants marriages to last until death do us part, and in order for that to happen, something has to cure our hard-heartedness.
Christianity proclaims that this something is the Gospel. The Gospel softens our hearts because the Gospel says, “Jesus died for you when you didn’t deserve it. Jesus died for you and took your place on the cross when you were Jesus’ enemy. Jesus took punishment that you deserved and cried out that you may be forgiven.”
You know as well as I do that whenever someone does something for you that you know that you don’t deserve, it cuts you to the core. You know as well as I do that when someone gives you a gift or shows you compassion that you don’t deserve, it makes you feel both guilty and loved at the same time. You know you don’t deserve it, so you feel guilty, but you also feel deeply loved and appreciated because someone did such a thing for you. Take that instance in your life and multiply it on a cosmic scale. Multiply it with the significance of eternal life on the line. Add up all the times you were selfish and acted in your own self-interest and did all the things you wanted to do instead of acting for others, on behalf of others or simply doing the right thing. Know that all that burden has been erased by the God who took on human flesh and sacrificed Himself for you because He loves you.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.
This is what Jesus has accomplished for you. This is the cure for the disease of hard heartedness. And when this sinks down into the depths of your soul, you know it’s power. You know its ability to keep you humble. You know it softens your own heart.
Yes, you and I are living in sin. We live in sin every day. We are failures. We are adulterers. We are murderers. We are broken, failures. But we are loved with a love which surpasses all of these things. Our sins are not justified, but we are justified sinners because of the cross of Christ. Amen.