1 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning, it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” 10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION
- Jesus left Capernaum where he had been giving the previous teachings.
- He entered the region of Judea that is east of the Jordan River.
- Large crowds followed him to this region.
- He healed the sick people who came to him there.
- Some Pharisees came to him intending to test him so they could expose his heretical or unorthodox beliefs and practices.
- They ask him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason.
- Jesus answered them by reminding them of God’s intention for married couples at the beginning.
- God made two species of human beings: male and female.
- God’s intention was that a man and a woman would transfer the primary relationship from their parents to each other.
- Marriage would be a journey toward a unique relationship defined by one-ness, described metaphorically as “becoming one flesh.”
- He repeated that they would no longer live as two separate or independent people but operate as a single unit of two parts.
- Marriage would be defined by the fact that God had joined the man and woman together.
- The process of discovering oneness was to last for the whole of life.
- The relationship could be destroyed by what people do – either the man and the woman or other people with the consent of the man or the woman – but this would cut across the intention of God.
- The Pharisees challenged Jesus’ answer by telling him that Moses had commanded, in Deuteronomy 23:1, that husbands write a certificate of divorce when they decided to end their marriage.
- Jesus replied that this command was only given because of the stubbornness and hardness of heart among the people, not because God wanted marriages to end.
- He re-emphasised the fact that God’s original intention was stated in Genesis 2.
- Jesus said that for anyone to divorce their wives, other than for sexual infidelity, would be committing adultery if they remarry.
- The disciples made a comment to Jesus that if what he had just said was so, then it would seem to be better if a person didn’t get married in the first place.
- Jesus told the disciples that he was going to say something that would be difficult for some people to receive.
- He was saying it so that the people who needed to hear it would understand.
- He said some people would not marry because of their particular personality type.
- Other people want to be married but are prevented by humanly created circumstances: individual and/or societal failure.
- Other people who might have been suitable for marriage would not marry because of their commitment to serve the kingdom of God.
- Jesus called on everyone who was able to understand what he was saying to make sure they took on board what he was saying.
Jesus left Capernaum in Galilee and was making his last journey to Jerusalem. He took the usual route taken by Jewish people. Instead of taking the more direct route through a sometimes-hostile Samaria, they travelled along the eastern side of the Jordan River until they were in Judea and then went up to Jerusalem. This incident happened while was still in the region east of the Jordan. The crowds that had come to him in Galilee continued to come to him seeking healing and to hear his teaching. He healed the sick people who were brought to him.
While he was there, a group of Pharisees came to him and asked him a question. Their enquiry was motivated by their desire for him to further incriminate himself, i.e. to confirm their belief that he was a dangerous subversive. The question they had selected had to do with marriage and divorce. They asked Jesus to agree that the Scriptures taught that a man could divorce his wife for any reason.
Jesus did not directly answer the question they asked. Instead, he challenged them to notice what God has said about marriage at the very beginning, as recorded in Genesis Chapter Two. God affirmed that he had made two different species of human beings, male and female. Marriage was to be between a male and a female. Marriage was made possible when a man transferred his primary loyalty from his parents to the woman. He was to be joined to her. She was to become his wife. She was to be joined to him. He was to become her husband. Marriage was defined as an exclusive union where the two persons would cease to live as separate individuals but would become a single unit. That oneness was described metaphorically as becoming “one flesh.” The beginning of this relationship would be identified with the two being joined by God. Jesus said that it was imperative for everyone to honour this bond because even though it was endorsed by God, it could be severed by the actions and influence of people – either one or other of the married couple with the encouragement or involvement of others. They could destroy the redemptive union that God was creating and building.
The Pharisees rejected what Jesus had said by referring to something Moses had written in Deuteronomy 24. Moses said God had commanded men who had decided to end their marriage to write a certificate of divorce in order to send her away.
Jesus explained that what Moses had said was in harmony with the words he has referred to. The reason they were given was not to permit a husband to send his wife away but was because stubborn and selfish husbands were treating their wives so shamefully that he introduced laws to provide at least some protection for those mistreated wives, namely a certificate of divorce. He repeated that there was no intention of God other than the one stated in Genesis 2. Jesus further explained that the only reason a husband should think that the marriage covenant was broken would be if the wife had given herself to another man by sexually bonding with him. If a man severed the covenant commitment with his wife for any other reason in order to marry someone else, he should consider himself to be committing adultery with that woman.
The disciples were listening to the discussion and were more than a little stirred by what Jesus had said. They were not stirred about the nobility of marriage but by the fear of circumstances that could lead to adultery. How strange that they would presume that if marriage was something that lifted humanity into this holy sphere that the preference would be to remain unmarried.
Jesus responded to the quip by bringing revelation about the question of who shouldn’t be married. He pointed out that a lot of people would hear what he said but wouldn’t understand. Others would hear and feel greatly affirmed. There are certain people whose personality type predisposes them to live a completed life without feeling the desire to be married. A second group would definitely feel the desire to be married but would be forced by human decisions and circumstances to remain unmarried. A third group who might otherwise want to be married would not marry because of the way they wanted to fulfil their calling to serve the kingdom of God. Jesus called on all those who were able to hear what he was saying to embrace it fully.
THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY
1 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
This sentence describes a massive shift in the ministry focus for Jesus. He left Capernaum, where he had made his operations base, and set off to go to Jerusalem and the cross. Instead of going directly through Samaria he took the normal route for Jewish people, along the eastern side of the Jordan River and then up from Jericho to Jerusalem. The East Jordan route went through a region called Perea and is loosely identified with Judea since the Jordan forms the border between the two. The crowds followed Jesus as he travelled along this route and the same things were happening as at the beginning of his ministry. People were coming to hear him preach and teach and were bringing their sick family and friends in the hope of receiving healing. The willingness of Jesus to bring good news to the poor, healing, freedom from demonic captivity are as evident at the end of his three year ministry period as they were at the beginning.
3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Where there was a crowd, it seems, religious leaders were watching in disapproval. On this occasion, they approached Jesus with a question. They weren’t interested in discussing the subject in order to gain understanding. It was not a sincere gesture in any way. They wanted to provoke him so that he would say or do things that would incriminate him. When he was brought before the Sanhedrin on the night of his betrayal, witnesses were brought to testify against him. On this occasion, these Pharisees were gathering information with that end in mind.
It is of interest to consider how they thought to trap him with the question they asked. It is a feature of the Greek language originally used to record the New Testament that a question can be asked where the presumed answer is anticipated by the way the question is asked. If this case it would sound like this: “It is lawful to divorce someone’s wife for any reason at all isn’t it?” They are presuming the answer to be “Yes of course.” There is no way of understanding exactly how the entrapment was planned. We can only assume from the way the discussion unfolded that they suspected Jesus would answer the way he did and then they would pull out Deuteronomy 24:1 to prove his error. Perhaps they had heard or been told what Jesus said in the sermon on the mount. Perhaps he had said similar things on other occasions. If this was the case, their question could be paraphrased along these lines: “How come you are teaching everyone that it is wrong for a man to divorce his wife for any reason that he chooses?” The question itself doesn’t place value on providing a secure home for children, or for a woman. It sets the higher value on a man’s right to choose. It sounds a bit odd to our ears when we have been used to hearing phrases like “a woman’s right to choose” in the abortion debates of recent decades. The question also treats the idea of marriage itself as of less value than the rights of a man. If his wife doesn’t please him, she’s out on the street in a society where there is no welfare. She is not only on the street but off limits to any other man who might “pick her up.”
In his reply, Jesus provides us with a helpful case study in hermeneutics (or the principles of Bible interpretation). The Pharisees represent an interpretation of divorce laws found in Deuteronomy 24. God is telling Moses what husbands should do if their marriage is no longer viable. The certificate of divorce means that the woman who is being thrown on the street will not be prevented from marrying another man. It is a law that provides welfare support for unwanted wives. Jesus reminded them of what God had said about marriage as recorded in Genesis 2. The Pharisees were using Deuteronomy to guarantee husbands the right to choose. Jesus was pointing those same husbands (and their wives) to the lofty redemptive goal God had called marriages to accomplish. The Pharisees were doing what individuals and groups so often do. They selected the passages that serve their self-interest and ignored the bits that didn’t. The outcome for broken humanity seemed to be how to get God to bless my divorce. By contrast, God’s attention was focused on helping married couples to become one.
Jesus reminded the Pharisees of God’s intention for marriage. It was given to the man and woman who formed the first marriage and involved five features:
(a) it was designed to be a relationship between an adult male and an adult female.
(b) it was to be formed through the husband and wife setting aside the primary bond with their parents and forming a new primary bond with their husband and wife.
(c) The relationship was to be a journey toward a greater and greater experience of oneness. This oneness was to be so all embracing that it could be described metaphorically as the two becoming “one flesh.”
(d) The oneness would be built on the foundation that God had joined them together.
(e) This relationship was always going to be based on free will choice; in other words, it could be destroyed by human attitudes and actions.
It was this oneness or unity that Jesus was reminding the Pharisees about. Marriages might fail due to human factors (either the husband and wife themselves or through the involvement of others) but it was not the intention of God. The idea that what God was giving bad husbands the right to destroy what he had created at will was unthinkable. Similarly, that God should be used to approve the sabotage of something so sacred was scandalous.
7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.
The plot of the Pharisees seemed to be going according to plan. The important thing to notice is not just THAT they missed the point of Genesis 2 but WHY they missed it. It shows their appetite for casuistry. In its best sense, casuistry is the idea of forming an opinion or coming to a conclusion by looking at case histories relating to the matter at hand. The classic sphere is the law courts. Prosecution and defence lawyers will seek to base their arguments on sound precedents coming from previous cases. It is of interest that the word in our language has come to be associated with deceptive reasoning where people use points of law that were designed to create a better society for dishonest personal gain. It’s a bit the same with accountants. Whenever a new set of tax laws are enacted, large companies pay large sums of money to accountants to find the best way to exploit those laws. All of that to describe how these religious “lawyers” worked. They spend a lot of time talking about various issues of the law of Moses. As time went on the notes and definitions of the text of Moses became more important than the text itself. Indeed, the oral traditions were regarded with greater reverence since they were supposed to apply the principles found in the text that no ordinary person was capable of understanding. It is easy to see who gained power out of this process.
The best way to view the principle of interpretation that Jesus explained to them is to see how he linked the two. For him, there was no argument between them. God wasn’t guilty of saying one thing at one time and then the opposite thing at another time. The only way to allow each of these statements to stand together is to follow what Jesus said. Even when you read the full text of Deuteronomy 24, it is clear to see that the context is not to deconstruct Genesis 2. It is to make sure that when a marriage is going to finish through the destructive failure of human intervention, that the most vulnerable person in the relationship will be given some protection. NT Wright gives a good illustration of the intention of Deuteronomy 24 when he likens it to a set of instructions in the owners manual of a new car which includes a check list for what to do in the event of a crash. The check list is not there to encourage people to crash, but to help them if one occurs. The car is not built to be crashed. It is built to avoid crashes. But crashes sometimes happen. When they do there are things that help people survive and recover. Deuteronomy 24 is such a check list. It is not an encouragement for people to drive their new BMW like a drivers do in a Demolition Derby. I don’t know if you have ever watched a bunch of cars with huge protective bars around the drivers go at each other until only one car is still running. God has created husbands and wives to find out how to work together, so that become one. That oneness fills and celebrates their particular gifts and callings rather than limiting them. It composes a symphony of unselfishness. It involves both mysteries and understanding. Problems are resolved by moving away from two-ness in the direction of one-ness.
If the Pharisees had understood all of that, they would have approached the passage in Deuteronomy very differently. They chose to speak about the issue as if Deuteronomy was the only information given on the subject. Jesus linked the two in the only way that makes sense. The husbands among the Israelites were failing badly. Copying the cultures of the surrounding nations, men were sending their wives away to both poverty and misery. The situation was so bad that God himself stepped in to rescue these poor women and gave a command to hard hearted unloving husbands who had totally missed God’s intention for their marriage. By this command, at least, the women were given some protection. It was a divine response to persistent human sin.
We ought to be on the lookout for this kind of aberration of Scripture in our own experience. It is so easy to try and rationalise Scripture to cover our weaknesses rather than allowing our weaknesses to be transformed by God’s power until we become what the Scriptures are talking about.
9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
During my years of Christian leadership, I have seen fellow believers treat the words of Jesus the same way as the Pharisees were treating Deuteronomy 24. They are looking for a line that will determine when it is right for a marriage relationship to end. The answer is ‘never’ as far as God’s intentions are concerned. I am not suggesting that a woman should remain in the home where the covenant commitment of a husband has disappeared and what remains is physical or emotional violence or its equivalent. Jesus points out that there are things that have the capacity to break the covenant “asunder.” Sexual betrayal is one of those. When one or other of the partners in the marriage forsake their commitment to sexual fidelity and become bonded to someone else in a sexual relationship, the covenant is broken. But Jesus is not so much defining the boundaries of the covenant but citing reality. In my lifetime I have seen governments try to enshrine these principles in law. It was illegal for a person to divorce unless they could prove that their spouse was involved in an adulterous relationship. The sorry situation saw private detectives being hired to take photos that would establish the fact of adultery going on. It was then considered permissible to divorce.
Rather than succumbing to the pressure of human failure in marriage, Jesus was reaffirming its high calling. Of course, there would be failures, but the effort and focus should be on making the marriage strong, not sacrificing its honour by seeing who will win the race to the divorce court. Current figures in Australia show that marriage break ups cost the public purse seven times as much as it would if the marriage stayed together. And that doesn’t count the emotional and social costs to family members etc. There are no winners in a marriage break up.
10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
I love the way the New Testament records responses like this from the disciples. Commonly, in gospel stories, we have interactions between four different groups of people: there are crowds and individual people seeking Jesus, Jesus himself, religious leaders who are opposed to Jesus and disciples who are passionate followers. We get good ‘video clips’ of them all. Their intentions and reactions are all solidly recorded with winsome honesty. On this occasion, the disciples have observed the crafty approach of the Pharisees and were probably not surprised at the forthright answer Jesus gave. Characteristically, he didn’t take their bait. He offered them the best of the kingdom of God. On this occasion, he lifted marriage from the grimy pit of human self-interest and eloquently offered God’s universal call to husbands and wives and their children. The surprise for us comes from their suggestion that, if Jesus is challenging men and women to embrace this high calling, it would be better for them NOT to marry than to marry and risk becoming an adulterer. Wow??
The Pharisees wanted to provide a way to exonerate hard hearted husbands. By their interpretation of Deuteronomy 4 at the exclusion of Genesis 2, such men would maintain institutional righteousness. The disciples’ solution to the problem was to stay single. It seems like this is a race to the bottom. Instead of reacting to the paucity of this response as I have done, Jesus gave them a teaching about the reasons why people stay single. Remember this is a culture where marriage is so important that it is seen to be the holy way to live and singleness is almost regarded as a sin or as a judgment of God.
Jesus shifts the focus from the contemporary ‘married-holy vs. unmarried-unholy’ ideas to a different level. He basically says that there are three kinds of unmarried people. There are those whose personality type cause them to feel complete without needing to be married. I think we would refer to these people as genuinely celibate. They don’t want to be married. They have an approach to life that doesn’t presume marriage and they get on with life and don’t succumb to the otherwise pressure of their parents and the community to find them a husband or wife. There is a second group of unmarried people who DO want to be married. In their case, adverse human circumstances leave them unfulfilled. They might have been jilted or perceived to be unattractive. Perhaps family circumstances or isolation prevented their desire from being fulfilled. The fact that they end up unmarried is due to the failure of others, not of themselves. This is a sad situation because these precious people will go through life unfulfilled – and the reason will have little to do with them. It will have to do with a society that elevates certain types of persons and denigrates other persons. It creates hurtful peck-orders that rate desirability on some humanly contrived formula rather than seeing people as God sees them – worthy and worthy to be loved. The third group of people are different again. These are people who, likewise, remain unmarried but do so deliberately because of their calling from God. They choose to serve the work of the kingdom of God in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to be married.
In response to the question raised by the disciples, Jesus is plainly telling them that the idea of staying away from marriage just to avoid the possibility of failing is just as much against God’s purpose as it is to treat marriage as a commodity for individual male self-centredness. God has created men and women to marry. That is the overwhelming majority-state of personhood. So most people should marry and they should take up the high calling God has set before married couples. He doesn’t validate the view that treats people who don’t marry as rebellious or disobedient. He simply points to the realities of marriage in an imperfect world. What we need to hear is that marriage is a high calling. It is one relationship in life that is called to reflect the nature of the Godhead – where three Persons are One. In a marriage, the two persons are called to aim for the same oneness.
In Australia at this time, one in three marriages fail. Even so, more people are being married, and marriages are lasting longer before they break up. Divorces have now started to decline. Some sectors of our society seem to gain encouragement from the fact that one out of three fails. Some people think that marriage is an antiquated institution of a bygone era when we didn’t know any better. Jesus would urge us to celebrate and encourage marriage success. He would urge us to provide every form of support for husbands and wives, so they become skilled in the arts of oneness. In this way, their families will be better served. These marriages and families will, of themselves, become a resource for every marriage by modelling commitment, loyalty, selflessness and the sheer joy of lasting covenant love.
Of course, we are facing a different kind of problem. The relationship God invented called marriage is being pirated: pillaged and plundered. The fact that couples of the same sex wanting to call their relationship marriage are not really about equality. It is a different form of attack on something that represents the presence of God on the earth. We are witnessing yet another tragic sociological turning point in history. My own view about same sex relationships (leaving aside the range of transgender issues) is that people should be free to form those relationships. I don’t think they are righteous or right, but I don’t think they should be criminalised either. What I object to is the identity of those relationships. When we think about fruit, we have apples, oranges and bananas. They are all equal in that they are genuinely a fruit, but they are different; equal but distinctive. Imagine an immense social push to have all fruit called apples so that oranges and bananas would not feel discriminated against. It would be crazy for a lot of reasons. Different does not presume inequality. It is the same with relationships. In a society where freedom of choice is a God given value, we are being told that a same-sex relationship should be called by the same name as a heterosexual relationship. This is called equality. They are both relationships. They may be recognised as equal regarding them being based on a loving commitment. That commitment deserves a just set of legal protections and entitlements. It doesn’t make them the same. They will always be different and distinctive no matter what legislation is introduced. This is a beat up on what God has ordained. He created them male and female. He created a man to become the husband of a woman in a relationship that would become more united the longer it continued. He created a woman to become a wife to a husband and he called this covenant bond to be the environment for procreating and nurturing children. We mess with this to our individual and common peril. We need to hear and heed Jesus’ words, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning…” We are messing with the divine order in creation.
IF THIS WAS HAPPENING IN MY LIFE WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?
- I would understand how deep and close the idea of marriage is in the loving plan of God for his world.
- I would do everything I could to see that my own marriage was pointed toward “the two becoming one.”
- In this cause, I would seek to become the world expert in knowing and understanding everything that is sacred about my wife. With that understanding, I would want to become her number one supporter in achieving everything God wanted her to do. I would offer myself to help make that happen.
- I would also make sure I did what I could to allow her to understand what is sacred about me so that she would have the resources to support and participate with me.
- We would use every challenge and approach every obstacle as an opportunity to gain greater understanding of what it meant to experience what Jesus said, “…and the two shall become one, so they are no longer two but one flesh.”
- I would support and celebrate marriage and seek to support and strengthen all of the marriages in my spheres. I would try to rescue marriages that were struggling and try to find the best way for them to assume a posture that embraced what God has said about marriage.
- I would honour and defend the honour of marriage against all attempts to denigrate it either directly or indirectly by individuals and groups within our society. I would seek to do this in a reasoned and loving way, not in a judgmental way.
HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED IN THIS SITUATION?
Jesus turned yet another devious plot into an opportunity to offer people the best of the kingdom of God. He accomplished this by refusing to be intimidated or become defensive of his position when they were clearly trying to entrap and accuse him. He didn’t buy into their selective verse-picking approach to the idea that there was a righteous way for hard hearted husbands to get rid of their wives. He pointed them to the heart of God for marriage and called on them to rise to the challenge. This is by far the fullest and clearest teaching we have about marriage from Jesus. It could have been a fruitless battle of opinions, but instead, it was an eloquent proclamation of God’s view of marriage. By choosing to exercise this ministry in this way to the Pharisees and the others who were gathered, Jesus gave something special to the whole of humanity. We can learn to do the same. Instead of defending a point of debate we should just figure out how to proclaim the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ gospel was about marriage. It shifted the focus from what to do when a marriage fails to what we can do to make sure it succeeds. In this we have a choice and it is a gospel choice. When we heed Jesus call to oneness, we will be better equipped to deal with the many issues that challenge our marriages – from the tiny day to day ones to the once-in-a-lifetime ones. Like all things, marriage is not made in heaven. It was designed in heaven but needs to be worked out on the earth. It is not about getting lucky in finding the totally comparable man or woman. It is about two very different people being joined by God. It is about finding someone that we love without reason or question and making that relationship the most compatible. It is an exciting and important challenge for all of us in our day. At the bottom of this issue lies the challenge to learn twenty-four-seven unselfishness. Marriage gives us the very best of reasons usual of someone else before ourselves. If we rise to that challenge, our marriage becomes a redemptive force like no other and everyone benefits from its success.
 Matthew for Everyone, N.T. Wright p.40