When Jesus exaggerates on divorce, part one

Ahem!?! Welcome to my most controversial piece of writing ever. I hesitated to write on this, because divorce is a topic full of fire and fury in today's evangelical church, but after talking to a friend this last week, I felt sure someone needs to say something.

And, by the way, before I go further, let me say that technically what Jesus says about divorce is an overstatement, that is, a form of exaggeration to make a point. 

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From what Jesus says about divorce in Matthew 19 one could draw any number of theological conclusions. But I'm not so concerned with your conclusions in this post. I'm concerned with what Jesus said and "how he meant" as they say in hermeneutics class. Jesus didn't answer the Pharisees on divorce in a vacuum, or in a 21st century American context. He answered their question on divorce and remarriage in a first century Jewish context, commenting on a law already on the books in the Torah. He didn't nullify the Torah, but rather commented on the passage the Pharisees had already been arguing about. This is a distinction that appears to rarely be made when reading the Bible on divorce, but if you want to know what Jesus meant, you have to take the whole of Scripture into account, and you have to accept his words for what they meant when and where he said them.

Let me be blunt: I believe to do anything less is a failure to take the words of Jesus seriously.

God said it, and I believe it, and that settles it for me! can only be true if God really said what you think he said.

Here is the passage in question: Matthew 19:3-8

  • Pharisees' question: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"
  • Jesus replies: Reminder of "one flesh" marriage; "what God has joined together let no man separate"
  • Pharisees shoot back: "Why then did Moses command that a man give a wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?"
  • Jesus replies: "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery."

Favorite evangelical conclusion: No one should divorce, ever, unless their spouse cheats on them; then they can get divorced and remarried. (And yes, there are many variations on this view.)

This is an attempt to take Scripture seriously and I applaud the intention here. Jesus was most certainly slapping the Pharisees upside the head regarding the casual nature with which a group of them viewed divorce. But Jesus wasn't making a hyper-literal statement: he was making a point.

Next week: The two views of the Pharisees on divorce—and how Jesus exposes their desire to know "about when the divine plan for marriage can be ignored." You don't want to miss this! (Recommended reading: Divorce and Remarriage in the Church and Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament.)

Comments: What does your church teach about divorce? When you've heard teaching on divorce, has your pastor or teacher pulled Scripture from both the Torah and the New Testament? Do tell.