That is also why we have some bad guys in this story. We don’t know much about the Pharisees, but they get picked on an awful lot in the Gospels. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were enemies of Jesus; it means they’re a stand in for all the other Jews who didn’t follow Jesus, who didn’t think he was the Messiah. They are asking a question that was probably posed to the first Christians: why doesn’t your radical teacher allow divorce when everyone else does?
Why would Jesus forbid divorce? Well, let’s talk about first century Jewish divorce laws. Divorce was allowed in first century Palestine, no question. Divorce, however, could only be undertaken by the husband against his wife, and we know the method of divorce from the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible: if a man found an indecent matter in his wife, he could write a certificate of divorce and put it in her hand, at which point she leaves. To divorce one’s wife was essentially to fire her as a wife, and once she was divorced, she was entitled to the dowry she had brought to the marriage, but no more. That meant divorced women were economically vulnerable, especially if any children from the marriage came with them.
The practical issue for rabbis of the day was not whether divorce was lawful, but what constituted grounds for divorce. Divorce was permissible if a husband found an indecent matter in his wife, but the question was, what was the definition of an indecent matter?
It was not adultery. Adultery was a serious crime, and there were different laws dealing with it. The crime of adultery was not one of infidelity, but one of property: a wife was the legal property of her husband, and if a man slept with a married woman, the crime he committed was against her husband, because he was defiling the other man’s property. But if a married man slept with an unmarried woman, he had not committed adultery.
So what did constitute grounds for divorce? There was much argument, but the phrase “an indecent matter” was interpreted to mean childlessness, failure to follow religious practice, and talking to men in public.
Now, these are broad strokes, and I am sure there were still happy, fruitful, fulfilling marriages. But we can see the pressure on women and men to adhere to strict codes of behaviour, and this is the backdrop against which Jesus is teaching on divorce.
Let us now look at the passage. What is Jesus actually teaching?
Jesus’ central argument is when he quotes the book of Genesis to the Pharisees: “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” These are two separate verses from chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis, and linking these two passages was a well-used interpretation to prove the value of monogamy. To our ears today, this may sound like an argument for a heterosexual marriage, but that wasn’t on the theological radar in first century Judaism. What is important to Jesus is that it is two who shall become one flesh, not three or four.
This can be really tough to hear. We live in a couple-centric society, and for those of us who are single, this passage can prod that tender spot. But at its heart, this is about how we are designed for relationship. Genesis is not only a story of the original couple, it is a story of the original relationship. When God creates the first earth creature, the adam, he says that it not good for the creature to be alone, and so he creates the next creature from the rib of the first. We are part of each other, and we are not meant to be alone. Alone does not mean single. That means alone: isolated, lonely, with nowhere to belong.
Jesus believed that his arrival meant the return of the conditions of Genesis and God’s creative action; that the Kingdom of God was at hand, a time when the world would reorient itself to God’s original intention.
Except it didn’t. Jesus wound up crucified, and instead of living fully in the Kingdom of God, we are still living with the shadow of the cross, and the anguish of broken relationships. That is why we still need the allowance for divorce: because we have not returned to the Garden of Eden.
But there is still good news in this passage. There is good news about gender, about relationship, and about community.
By prohibiting divorce, Jesus is telling us that women must be treated well: they could not be abandoned to poverty and vulnerability. That is a relevant message when 21% of single mothers in Canada are living in poverty, as are 37% of Indigenous women living off reserve. Jesus also prohibits women from being divorced from being childless. That means she is a partner in the marriage, not just a baby making machine. She is a person. She is more than the sum of her reproductive parts, and this means that we are defined by more than the body into which we are born.
Jesus also argues that men should be sexually faithful to their one wife, and he says it is adultery if a man divorces his wife and remarries. This is radical: he changes adultery from being a crime of property between men to a crime of faithfulness between a man and a woman. Again: the woman matters as a person, not an object. This is an incredibly important message for us today. The #metoo movement has reminded us again how much we still view women as property, as objects whose only purpose is to serve male sexual gratification. But this concept of male sexual gratification is constructed, not inherent.
The masculinity of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk is dehumanizing. It requires loss of empathy, loss of vulnerability, and a loss of feeling. When being a man means being a sexual conqueror and being a woman means being property, it makes every man a potential predator and every woman a potential victim. That is not what God designed us for. That is not the reality of Eden.
We are made for relationship, for mutual vulnerability. We cannot be in relationship with God when we are not in right relationship with each other, and being in right relationship takes work. Whether it is marriage, siblinghood, or friendship, true relationship takes investment and energy.
We know that. We know that relationships require working on communication, healing the hurts we deal each other, and asking for what we need. We don’t need to be lectured on it, we need help in making it possible.
The Greek word for church is “ekklesia,” and it is the word used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to mean “the congregation of Israel.” To be the church is not just to show up on Sunday mornings together, but to be a people of God together. It means being in relationship and supporting each other in our relationship. That’s why we have witnesses at baptisms and weddings. They are both rituals of forging new relationships, and in performing them within community, we are recognizing that we need the community to help us flourish in our relationships with God and each other. We need the community to help us refuse the cultural norms that tell men they only want one thing, and women that they have to be the gatekeepers.
It is this same community to whom we turn when our relationships break down. Sometimes, a marriage needs to end. Sometimes we need to set limits around a family member. Sometimes a close friend betrays us. When that happens, we as the community are called upon to enable a good ending, an ending in which we still, however impossible it seems, strive for right relationship. That’s hard: even when we are in pain, we are asked to be in relationship.
That means we need to hold faith for each other. Supporting each other in the mess of divorce or dealing with an addicted family member can mean casseroles and Kleenex, but it also means having faith for each other when we lose our own: when we believe there will be no end to the pain, that God is not with us, that we have no future.
This teaching on divorce is really a question to us as church, as the ekklesia: how do we want to be a community of faith together? How can we be in right relationship with each other? How can we allow the God who created us to work among us, so that we can keep catching glimpses of the Garden of Eden?
When God created us, God affirmed our goodness. May we help each other live into that goodness.