Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
Matthew 19:3 (NIV)
I married as a young man with every intention of never divorcing. I was blessed growing up that I didn’t experience it in my own family. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have feelings of shame and failure when it actually happened seventeen years later.
Divorce is a sticky wicket among many Christian persuasions. Among some more Fundamentalist branches divorce is leveraged as a major litmus test to distinguish the pure and the unpure, who is “in” and who is “out,” who is “holy” and who is not. When my first wife and I were amidst our divorce I received a handwritten letter of some 8-10 pages from a “friend” who felt it important to explain to me why I was going to hell in no uncertain terms and would be forever sealed with the scarlet letter “D” for the rest of my days. According to him, divorce was an unpardonable sin. There was no grace, no redemption, and no going back. What was really interesting about it, however, was that this friend’s wife had left him many years before that, divorced him, and got remarried though he steadfastly refused to acknowledge that they were, in fact, divorced. He continued to wear his wedding ring and live in denial.
Divorce brings out all sorts of emotions in all sorts of people.
In today’s chapter, the fundamentalist religious leaders approach Jesus with the motivation of testing Him. If you want to “test” someone, just ask the person to take a stand on a controversial issue knowing that you’ll make at least half your audience angry. Politicians and journalists do it all the time. It’s a tactic from a well-worn playbook.
The test for Jesus was the sticky wicket of divorce, though modern readers may not comprehend the full context of the matter in Jesus’ day. Among the Hebrew religious lawyers at that time, there were two schools of thought when interpreting the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 in which a man who “finds something displeasing” about his wife “because he finds something indecent about her” then he can write a certificate of divorce and send her from his house. One legal camp focused on the term “finds something displeasing” and contended that any man could divorce his wife for any displeasure no matter how small or trivial. He might simply divorce her for burning his steak. The other legal camp focused on the phrase “because he finds something indecent about her” and believed that divorce was confined to some kind of indecent sexual immorality.
In Jesus’ day, divorce was a much larger social issue. Women had no rights. Women had no legal standing. Women had virtually no means or opportunity to survive and provide for themselves. Thus, a widow or a divorced woman was placed in the precarious position of having very few options available to them. They could find another husband (good luck finding a husband with that scarlet “D” on your tunic), they could live off the charity of family or friends, or they could become sex workers. A man who dismissed his wife was not only placing her in an impossible position but was also adding to a larger social problem for which there were few good answers.
Jesus, of course, pointed back to the pattern of creation as God’s intent: one man and one woman who become one flesh for life. I find it intriguing that polygamy was not a heated religious issue given this fact and its prevalence throughout history.
In the quiet this morning, I guess you could say that I’m wrestling with my demons. Shame is a constant for me. Jesus certainly pointed to the ideal as God’s desire for us, though my experience is that the ideal is rarely seen or experienced on this life journey in any context. In this fallen world, divorce is a human reality as old as humanity itself. It will never be ideal. At the same time, my personal experience is that God was never absent during the breakdown of my marriage or during the time of my divorce. And, my experience through it all was ultimately that of God’s love, grace, restoration, redemption, and the germination of new life in multiple ways. Old things passed away, and new things began.
There are so many sins and mistakes that wreak havoc on lives, families, and, society. Divorce is one of them, but certainly not the only one. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in my 40 years of following Jesus, it’s that the very heart of His entire mission was to take broken things and to redeem them, to make them new. Wendy and I have seen this and experienced it in countless ways, despite the pit to hell that my “friend” dug for me in his letter all those years ago. I can’t help but remember the words of Corrie ten Boom: “This is no pit so deep that God’s grace isn’t deeper still.”
Note: I will be taking a break next week while I’m out on a business trip and focusing on my client. Feel free to use the Chapter-a-Day Index to go back and read some old posts. You can also scroll back through old episodes on any of the podcast platforms. Have a great week!
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.