Jesus on Divorce

Did anybody else cringe on Sunday? Because I did. Not because of anything in particular that happened, or the preaching or the music. But I cringed at Jesus. Our gospel reading this past Sunday was the infamous “divorce text” where Jesus is quoted as saying, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

It’s cringe worthy, because divorce is not an uncommon occurrence. If we haven’t experienced it within our own family, we certainly have friends or more distant relations who have gone through the painful process of separating from a partner. Because so many have experienced divorce, Jesus’ words are often hurtful in a situation where so much pain and hurt has already been endured.

While our first instinct may be to try and ignore these words, we can’t. They’re there, and not talking about them only increases stigma and shame. So I want to consider Jesus’ words about divorce from two angles: historical and relational.

When we’re talking about divorce in first century Palestine, we’re talking about something that bears little resemblance to what we know today. It was lawful for a man to dismiss his wife according to Jewish teaching, but there were two schools of thought as to why. For one, a man could only divorce his wife if she committed adultery. For another group, a man could dismiss his wife if she displeased or angered him somehow.

In either situation, the consequences for the woman were disastrous. She had no support system and could not return to her parents because of the disgrace. Jesus’ particular words are also interesting: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” In the ancient world, if adultery was committed, the offended party was not the woman herself, but rather her father. It seems that in speaking about divorce, Jesus is at least somewhat concerned with the effects on the vulnerable woman.

Then Jesus goes on to quote Genesis, which is where we turn to looking at the relational aspects of this passage. For the folks questioning Jesus, divorce was a legal issue. But by quoting Genesis, which has nothing to do with divorce, Jesus turns it into a relational issue. Human beings form relationships because “it is not good for man to be alone.” Relationships are a gift from God, and a blessing.

But, because we are imperfect and (dare I say) sinful, relationships, like all things in life, can become damaged and broken. It is, as Jesus described, a sin—a sign of the brokenness of our world and of our lives. Something that God has gifted to us as a blessing becomes hurtful, painful, and life-taking, rather than life-giving. It is something that we grieve, just as we grieve broken friendships, enmity among siblings, and trauma between parent and child.

So while the legality of this passage is, I think, best left in the first century, Jesus has something very important to say about relationships. They are gifts from God. They should be treasured and respected and deserve our time and work. And relationships that are mutually supportive and loving and faithful should be celebrated!

But just as God desires us to have relationships that give us life—I believe the opposite is also true. When a relationship is beyond repair and takes away from our life, God grieves along with us. But such a hurtful relationship is not what God intends for us. We must, like Jesus, be concerned about how divorce and broken relationships affect the vulnerable ones involved (particularly children), but also know that divorce is sometimes the best way to seek the blessings that God intends us to have in our relationships.