This is the third of Jesus’s six comments on legal matters. The first two (murder and adultery) took a command from the Decalogue and extended it to the thoughts and motivations which lay behind the particular sinful act. So, “do not murder” becomes “control your angry thoughts” and “do not commit adultery” becomes “control you lustful thoughts.” With his comments on divorce, Jesus enters into a rabbinic discussion of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the meaning of the “indecent thing” in 24:1. He will then deal with making (and breaking) oaths (5:33-37).
As Scot McKnight points out, the reason for Jesus’s “utter horror” about divorce is his understanding of love and marriage based on the Hebrew Bible (Sermon, 95). Marriage is grounded in the creation of man and woman. Humans were designed by God marry and create families. There are examples of men and women enjoying live and marriage in the wisdom literature. In Ecclesiastes 9:9 the writer tells his readers to “enjoy life with your wife whim you love.” The Song of Solomon celebrates the joy of marriage in a way that makes some readers blush.
Jesus deals with divorce by grounding the idea of marriage in the creation. Humans were designed to enter into lifelong relationships, spiritual unions which create families and foster a community where children are raised. He alludes to the creation of humans as male and female (Gen 1:27) and quotes Genesis 2:24 as support for marriage. In the context of Genesis humans were designed to work and they were designed to build communities around the ideal family. This is the way things work best, although in the present world they are corrupted by sin.
Since marriage is embedded in creation itself, it is foolish to try to live in another way. (A related question is the issue of a person choosing not to marry at all. It is not my point here to say the only way someone can be happy and wise is to marry, see below on Matthew 19). People often choose to do the less-than-ideal thing and often indulge in foolishness with wild abandon!
With respect to the application of this teaching, the ideal for humans is a life-long marriage, but sin corrupts everything and sometimes things happen which prevent us from reaching that ideal.
Jesus intended divorce to be a rarity, but the fact he teaches on the issue indicates he knew it would happen. Like the wisdom tradition, he recognizes that God has designed humans to have marriage relationships, but he also recognizes human frailty (hard-heartedness) results in a breakdown of what God has intended. No one goes into a marriage expecting it to fail, but sometimes it does. A person experiencing marriage problems ought to be treated with grace and acceptance, in the same way we might accept a person who is an alcoholic as we help them to deal with their problem.
In a contemporary context, there are far more things breaking down marriages than adultery. If there is any abuse of either the wife or the children, the wife should separate for the safety of herself and children. Divorce and remarriage is one of those things which is “not the way God created us to be” and our sinful world makes it very difficult to live our lives fully to the ideal to which we have been create.
Jesus gives a similar teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:1-12. In response to a question from a group of Pharisees Jesus draws attention to the creation story and the original intention of marriage. If God’s intention was for a marriage to continue “until death do us part,” then the Pharisees ask why Moses permitted divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus repeats what he said in the Sermon on the Mount but adds the observation Moses added the possibility of divorce because the human heart is hard (19:8).
This might have surprised the disciples, who wonder if it is better not to marry (v. 10). Jesus responds to this with one of the more enigmatic sayings in Matthew” there are some people who are eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (v. 11-12). Not all can accept this voluntary celibacy, but those who can, Jesus says, should accept it.
With respect to modern application, this verse has been used far beyond Jesus’s original intent to defend traditional marriage or to prevent a woman from leaving an abusive marriage. In order to understand Jesus, we need to learn something about the state of marriage and divorce in Second Temple Judaism, read his brief comments in that context before drawing reasonable application to contemporary practice.
Historically, has the church missed the point on marriage and divorce? Is divorce permitted for a Christian? How can contemporary Christianity help develop a biblical view of marriage and reach out to people who have experienced the pain of divorce?