32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

In Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus briefly makes reference to his view on divorce. In two short snappy sentences, Jesus tells us that divorce is not a simple no-cost outcome that can be entered into casually. The marriage covenant is serious; so divorce is serious. So serious in fact that Jesus notes whoever divorces his wife causes her to become “a victim of adultery” (Gk. to be debauched / Hb. figuratively, to apostatize). The phrasing is interesting in Greek, Hebrew and English. In Jesus day, all of the power of divorce was with the man. He could decide on this path for almost any reason and, surprisingly to us as we usually consider the first century to be very conservative, divorce was very easy and very prevalent. In fact, as hard as it might be for us to grasp today, women were considered more like property than partners in a marriage.

Jesus speaks into this larger debate in Matthew 19:1-4. He is asked by a group called the Pharisees, whether a woman can be divorced by a man for “any and every reason”. While we might hear this as an isolated question, the first century BC was a”‘high context culture”. This means you could make a reference to the Old Testament scriptures and almost everybody listening would catch that reference. When Jesus is asked. “for any and every reason”, he is being asked to make judgment on a current debate on Deuteronomy 24:1-4. In this passage we read:

If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.

This passage was originally written as a case study on the subject of divorce. In an agrarian culture in which she would have no ability to earn her own income, a divorced woman would face a difficult choice: either to return to her fathers house (which was not always possible), or to turn to prostitution to survive. This teaching prevented that circumstance by allowing her to remarry. Unfortunately, it was taken by later generations to mean two things: first, that only a man could choose divorce, and two, it became a debate on what exactly the text meant by “something indecent about her”.

In the generation before Jesus, two rabbis dominated the teaching landscape: Hillel and Shammai both founded rabbinical schools that carried great weight, and they argued back and forth on many points in Torah. Shammai understood “anything indecent” to mean only “marital unfaithfulness”, whereas, Hillel believed the offense could be almost anything. He even mentioned that “burning a meal” could be included as a basis for divorce!! By Jesus’ day, Hillel’s opinion had become the dominant one, causing in part, the easy divorce culture of first century Judaism. By siding with Shammai, Jesus makes sure that women could not be cast aside casually. He tightens the principles around divorce and creates a better future for women, who found themselves on the margins. Noting what Paul begins to teach later Christians, we see how strict the Christian view of divorce would become — a great shift for the age.

So, how else have you seen Jesus speaking for those who found themselves on the margins?

How do you respond to Jesus’ ethics around divorce?

What questions does this teaching raise for you?

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