“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Listen to the words of a song classic. Listen to a song of divorce. Listen to the pain. Listen . . .
“Memories light the corners of my mind,
Misty water colored memories
Of the way we were.
Of the smiles we left behind,
Smiles we gave to one another
For the way we were.
Can it be that it was all so simple then,
Or has time rewritten every line?
If we had the chance to do it all again,
Tell me, would we?
Memories . . .”
Throngs of people these days are identifying with the tender agony of that song. Last year there were over a million fresh divorces in the nation. Nearly half of all marriages will end with the drop of a divorce court judge’s gavel.
The tragedy is, fewer of us are taking divorce seriously. I saw a bumper sticker that read, “How do you spell relief? D-I-V-O-R-C-E!” In a café I heard a young woman say to her companion, “It’s a friendly divorce. He gets to keep whatever falls out of the back of the truck as I drive away.” Even the radio makes light of it all as a country singer explains, “All my exes live in Texas.”
Did you know some churches have even begun to offer sacred services of divorce recognition? It has even become fashionable to mail out engraved divorce announcements. One reads . . .
Colleen and Mitchell F. Amor have parted
Amicably and without rancor.
Colleen is once again happily Ms. Colleen Ibsen
Residing at the Bradley Creek Towers.
Mitchell’s permanent residence is now on his boat, I Pagliacci
Where he will continue to drift aimlessly . . . forever.”
I asked a young man about the divorce of his wife of eleven years. He replied, “It works for me!” And I shot back, “But does it work for God? For your wife? Your children? Society? For your grandchildren?” In all of our own noisy opinions, what does the Bible say?
As always, I am reluctant to discuss divorce. It is so widespread. There is so much hurt. And I do not wish to trample upon you. But as Jesus dealt with divorce in His sermon, so must I. So I promise to try to be truthful and sensitive.
At the outset, let me assure you that God knows all about you. He knows what you have done. He knows what has been done to you. And He still loves you. And He is more eager to forgive you than He is to judge you. In fact, Jesus Christ is able to meet you where you are and still bring a blessing out of your life!
So, with these mercies ringing in our ears, lets look at Christ’s words.
“You have heard it said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him write her a certificate of divorce?’” Jesus is quoting Moses’ words from Deuteronomy 24:1. “When a man hath taken a wife and married her and it comes to pass that she find no favor in his sight, . . . let him write her a bill of divorcement.” All it took was one hastily written paragraph given to her in the presence of two witnesses and the marriage was over.
In Christ’s day only a man could do this. The right of divorce was not given to a woman to initiate except in rare instances.
The area of argument among the Pharisees was what Moses meant when he said a man could divorce if his wife, “If he find no favor in his sight.” There were two schools of thought on the matter– the one liberal, the other more conservative. Rabbi Hillel led the liberals explaining that a marriage could be dissolved over the slightest infraction: if she spoiled your dinner, if she put too much salt on your food, if she was quarrelsome, or if the man found someone better. Meanwhile, Rabbi Shammi taught strictly that a marriage could only end over adultery.
Which school of thought became the most popular? The lax view. So, in Jesus’ day there was widespread sexual immorality with plenty of divorce and broken homes. And it was not just the Jews coupling and uncoupling in matrimony, the Greeks were the worst. Men, you see, married. They had children. And their wives ran the household.
Women weren’t allowed to be public figures. Education was denied them. They were kept at home to feather the nest and live a life of seclusion.
Meanwhile, men enjoyed harlots and kept mistresses. It was a double standard. Wives must remain pure and at home. Men were expected to cad about.
Some of the writings of this day are quite revealing. Socrates wrote, “Is there anyone to whom you entrust the more serious matters less than to your wife, and is there anyone to whom you talk less?” Another male denizen spoke, “The happiest day of my life was the day I wed. The next happiest was the day I buried my wife.”
The Roman Empire was built on the civilizing influence of the family. One early Roman official said, “Marriage is a life-long fellowship of all divine and human rights.” For the first 500 years of Roman history there is no record of divorce. The earliest mention of a failed marriage came in 234 B.C.. A fellow named Ruga dismissed his wife because she bore him no children. By the second century B.C. divorce was as common as marriage and it was nothing for a man to marry five or six times over his life.
So, by Jesus’ day Greek immorality had infected Jews and Romans. The sanctity of marriage had so eroded that women were held in low regard as objects of lust, afternoon carnal refreshments to be used and
discarded like food wrappers. There were no moral absolutes sexually. The family was torn apart by divorce, incest, illegitimacy and lack of parenting.
On all of this Jesus comments, “You have heard it said if your wife displeases you write her a divorcement. But I say he who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.”
Let’s say you are conducting an important chemistry experiment. In a test tube you’ve carefully mixed your compounds. Then along comes a class mate who spits in your test tube. It is now contaminated and useless. The experiment has been adulterated.
God, you see, conducts a grand redeeming strategy of human redemption. And marriage is central to His plan. The Scriptures teach that history began with a wedding in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:18-24). Christ launched His public ministry at the wedding of Cana where He turned water to wine, His first miracle (John 2:1-11). Afterwards Jesus began to call Himself the Groom and to speak of the church as His bride (Ephesians 5:21-33). And Revelation 19 teaches that history will end soon at the wedding supper of the Lamb.
Hence, marriage is a lesser relationship that points to a greater relationship. It is the little picture God uses to point to the Big picture. Thus is God greatly upset when anyone contaminates His grand redeeming strategy with adultery.
Consider how divorce ruins what God plans.
First, there is the adultery of sexual union. The two cannot become one because of flashbacks, mental comparisons of how it was with someone else. Frankly, when two divorced people remarry, four persons get into bed together. So there is no pure, unblended bond, but, rather, a mishmash of comparisons.
Then there is the adulteration of finances. For, as with most working class mortals, when finances are cut in half, neither makes out very agreeably.
Then there is the adulterated self-worth. One of the reasons it feels so good to get married is the sense of “chosenness.” “Out of all the people she chose me!” But one of the reasons it feels so awful to get divorced is the feeling of being de-chosen. And divorce is such a terrific body blow that some never recover in their self-esteem.
Don’t overlook the contamination of children and the authority structure of the home. For when divorce and remarriage blends his, hers, and our kids, how does one exercise parental control? “You’re not my real daddy!”
And, yes, there is the mixed adultery of commitment. Kids see parents quit when it gets tough, so they live like that, too.
Finally, there is the adulteration of culture, the contamination of the foundation on which society is safely built. Martin Luther wisely observed 500 years ago, “What is a city but a collection of houses? Where fathers and mothers rule badly and let children have their own way, there neither city, town, village, district, kingdom, nor empire can be well and peacefully governed.”
Two minutes of thought will tell you that a brick buildings strength is in the integrity of its bricks. If enough of the building blocks are broken, then the edifice is unsafe. Marriages are the building blocks of society. And when enough of them are unsound then no society can stand.
Danny DeVito said it well in the movie about divorce, “War of the Roses.” “Civilized divorce is a contradiction of terms.”
Christ Jesus stunned those of His day when He said no to lust, no to adultery, and no to divorce. His world was not used to any rules of sexual conduct. So they did as they pleased. And in the end no one was pleased– not God, nor man, nor woman, neither children or society!
Southern novelist Pat Conroy divorced his wife Barbara. And, as a means of coping, he wrote a book about the ordeal, Death of a Marriage. In it, he confessed, “Each divorce is the death of a small civilization. Two people declare war on each other, and their screams and tears infect their entire world with the bacilli of their pain. The greatest fury comes from the wound where love once issued forth.
“I find it hard to believe how many people get divorced, how many submit to such extraordinary pain. For there are no clean divorces. Divorces should be conducted in surgical wards. In my own case, I think it would have been easier if Barbara had died. I would have been gallant at her funeral and shed real tears– far easier than staring across a table, telling each other it was over.”
“It was a killing thing to look at the mother of my children and know that we would not be together for the rest of our lives. It was terrifying to say goodbye, to reject a part of my own history.”
“When I went through my divorce I saw it as a country, and it was treeless, airless; there were no furloughs and no holidays. I entered without a passport, without directions and absolutely alone. Insanity and hopelessness grew in that land like vast orchards of malignant fruit… .”
Now you see why God declares in Malachi 2:16, “I hate divorce.”
In verse 32 Jesus seems to leave the door ajar to divorce on the grounds of sexual immorality. “Except for the cause of unchastity,” He says. In the Greek, the word for “unchastity” is “porneia.” We get our word pornography from the same word. It means uncleanliness, and it is usually translated as adultery.
Aye, but here is where Christians who take the Bible seriously quarrel. For there are three camps of interpretation.
Camp one stoutly holds out for singleness or one man for one woman for life. No divorce is allowed for any cause. These scholars point out that the gospels of John, Mark, and Luke do not issue any qualifier as Matthew does. In Hosea, the prophet is asked by God to take back his wife spoiled in harlotry. For Christ, our Groom, will never dismiss us, His soon-to-be bride. Our steadfastness in matrimony should simply match God’s.
Camp two likewise holds up singleness as a laudable way of life. And one man for one woman for life is the ideal. Yet when there has been adultery, the marriage bond is severed as Jesus says here in verse 32. Sometimes Paul is quoted in 1 Corinthians 7 as adding desertion as a grounds for divorce.
Camp three fully agrees with the other camps as to singleness and the sanctity of marriage. But it points out that the list of things that lead to divorce according to the Scriptures is likely not inclusive, but indicative. Porneia, they say, is uncleanliness. And that’s not just adultery. It can be pedophilia, homosexuality, even serious drug abuse or trafficking in the occult.
Whichever camp you come to, no serious student of the Bible can
justify divorce as a first recourse and on flimsy grounds. Divorce must be an extreme last resort, and only then on the grounds of serious porneia.
Personally, I try to do three things here. One is to hold high the standard! Singleness, or one man for one woman for life.
Two: To enable people to reach God’s ideal for the single or married life.
And, three: To minister to those who fail. As Jesus in John 4 cared for the Samaritan woman so worn out with bad relationships, so must we, too, care for those suffering in divorce.
One hundred years ago divorce was almost unheard of in the United States. People married for better or for worse until death did them part. Fifty years ago couples wed and remained so until they simply couldn’t stand it any more. Then they reluctantly divorced. Now we get married and stay so until something better comes along. And we’re fast becoming little more than a nation of yard dogs led about by our passions.
Jesus stood up in a culture like ours. He preached against lust, adultery and easy divorce. He said we must not casually flick off our relationships with a man-made certificate. There is something of great value in marriage. Something God wants. And we should embrace it.
I have a house plant that once bloomed beautifully. But it wilted and died back. Rather than throw it away, I pruned it, fertilized it, and nurtured it in a sunny window. Over time it has bloomed again. Jesus is saying that we should find a way to nurture our own marriages again and again to good bloom. My suspicion is that many people simply conclude they are unable to do so when, in fact, they are unwilling. They say the pain is too great, but it isn’t. 1 Corinthians 13 teaches, “Love suffers long.” It doesn’t say how long, but it is longer than we think.
In the end, divorce is not a solution, but, rather, an exchange of problems. You give up one set of woes only to take up another. And, believe me, the frustrations that come with divorce are almost always worse than any in marriage.
Lord, help me to take my relationship seriously. Show me the way through, not out. And give me compassion for those who fail. For Christ’s sake. Amen.
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