Jesus doesn’t pull any punches, does he? When his disciples want him to explain his teaching, hoping that he will add a few caveats, he only gets more extreme.
This is hard stuff. Anyone who has seen nasty marriages and family conflict must feel sympathy for people in those situations. How could anyone object to such a divorce? We all want our friends and family to escape suffering, don’t we?
This was the way Jesus’ countrymen thought as well. They turned to Deuteronomy 24:1–3 to demonstrate that God permitted divorce if a man “has found some indecency” in his wife. While some (more conservative) Jews argued that this meant adultery was the only ground for divorce, most agreed that these verses allowed divorce for any reason. Regardless, all agreed that divorce was permissible.
Some of these Pharisees must suspect that Jesus holds radical views on this issue (and boy, are they right). They want to undermine Jesus in some way, and they know that if he places any restrictions on the right to divorce, he’ll become unpopular with the crowds. So they ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus replies, “What did Moses command you?” Of course, they refer him back to Deuteronomy.
Now, here’s where Jesus brings down the hammer. The Deuteronomy passage didn’t command divorce; it acted as damage control in case of divorce—which it assumed was already taking place. It prevented God’s people from being defiled by forbidden forms of remarriage. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” In other words, Deuteronomy doesn’t reveal God’s ideal plan for marriage. God was being flexible with his stubborn people; but Jesus hates hardness of heart, and he holds his disciples to a higher standard. So he tells them what God really thinks of divorce.
In order to establish God’s original plan for marriage, Jesus goes back earlier than Deuteronomy. He goes all the way to the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2. He reminds the Pharisees that “God made them [man] male and female” (Genesis 1:27). They were created incomplete; God intended for them to be paired together. “Therefore,” Jesus says, “a man will leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” He’s quoting Genesis 2:24 here and establishing it as the foundation for marriage. God created man and woman to be paired together, and marriage is what weaves them together. It’s an act of God’s creation. For this reason, Jesus warns, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
In other words, divorce is man’s attempt to undo God’s work of uniting husband and wife. It’s an attempt at uncreation, at tearing apart God’s created order. Jesus insists that divorce is an act of rebellion against God, an attempt to usurp divine authority. Jesus has come to serve and submit to God, so he is adamant that his disciples not participate in such a power play that stands in total conflict to his mission.
What makes this teaching so hard is that divorce doesn’t feel like rebellion; it doesn’t feel like a power play. It feels like a painful and desperate attempt to escape an awful situation. That’s why Jesus’ disciples question him afterward. They’re shocked by how radical and insensitive his teaching is. But Jesus only gets more extreme: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Apparently, divorce is not only an attempt to usurp divine authority, but it’s a failed attempt to usurp divine authority. God refuses to accept man’s efforts to undo his act of creation. From his perspective—the only one that matters—a “divorced” couple is still married. He will not permit man to be victorious over him.
As Christians argue about divorce, the debate often centers around possible “exception clauses” found in Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15. These are important discussions. However, it’s easy to make the mistake the Pharisees made, to focus on finding a loophole to get out of a bad marriage. Jesus calls his disciples to be willing to suffer as he suffered. Divorce is an easier path, but Jesus has not called his followers to an easier path. He wants them to explore other options.
This may be the most difficult saying of Jesus for me to stomach. It seems cruel not only for people in bad marriages, but also for people who are already divorced. Are they doomed to remain lonely if they aren’t able to return to their previous spouses? The fallout from Jesus’ teaching is terrible. It would have been just as terrible in his day as it is now. Yet he said these words anyway.
This leads us, I think, to the question, “Would Jesus ask his followers to suffer for his sake?” Would he dare to ask them to suffer through painful marriages? Would he dare to ask them to remain single for the rest of their lives if need be? I think we can say that yes, he would.
Jesus wants disciples who, like him, will remain in suffering if that’s what it takes to follow him. “If anyone would come after me,” he says, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). He was willing to suffer if that’s what it took to submit to the will of God. If you join him, he will be glad to call you his own when he comes in glory.