Matthew 19 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Grounds for Divorce in God's Law

The hardhearted person who cannot forgive or live in proper relation to others in Christ's body (18:1-35) will also despise weaker people in society-in Jesus' day, these included wives (19:1-12; compare Mal 2:14-16) and children (Mt 19:13-15). By contrast, Jesus, who is not hardhearted, remains unimpressed by worldly status (vv. 16-22). When we hold grudges against a genuinely repentant spouse and remain hardhearted toward her or him-whether or not we officially cast the person away-we hinder our own communication with God (1 Pet 3:7-12) and ultimately can invite our own damnation (Mt 18:34-35).

It is thus no coincidence that in Matthew Jesus' teaching on marital commitment directly follows his teaching on forgiveness (18:21-35), just as in Mark it follows a discussion of sinning against a "little one" (Mk 9:42-50; compare Mt 18:7-9). The more intimate the relationship, the deeper the wounds of interpersonal friction sear; marriage without forgiveness and reconciliation would be difficult. Some of Jesus' contemporaries for this reason either emotionally neglected or divorced their wives; many of our contemporaries refuse to form close bonds of commitment to begin with. This passage provides a number of essential principles.

Jesus Summons Us to Work Toward God's Ideals (19:1-6)

God wants us to work for the purposes he intended for the world before it was marred by sin. Matthew introduces the setting of Jesus' debate in a manner similar to Mark 10:1, but again notes Jesus' healings (19:1-2). The religious elite, perhaps provoked again by Jesus' indisputable signs (compare 9:34; 12:14, 24; 14:36-15:1; 15:38; 16:1), try to lure him into a debate on the sorts of issues in which they had sharpened their own debating skills.

The two main schools of Pharisaic teachers debated the meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1, in which a man finds "any matter of indecency" (my translation) in his wife and hence divorces her. The School of Shammai interpreted Deuteronomy 24 as indicating that a man could divorce his wife for the cause of unfaithfulness ("indecency"); the School of Hillel understood the passage to mean that a man could divorce his wife for any cause, even burning his toast ("any matter"-m. Gittin 9:10; Sipre Deut. 269.1.1). In practice both schools agreed that the law at least often granted the man a right to divorce, regrettable as divorce was (as in b. Sanhedrin 22a).

Jesus, however, circumvents their whole argument based on Deuteronomy 24. The ultimate issue should not be the right to divorce, but God's original desire for husbands and wives to be one flesh (compare Belkin 1940:231); "one flesh" is the language of family ties and alliances (as in 2 Sam 5:1). The Genesis principle from which Jesus draws this application goes beyond opposing divorce; it opposes marital disharmony altogether. Indeed, the purpose of the Deuteronomy 24 law itself was probably "to check haste in divorce" (Gundry 1982:380), hence to provide some legal protection for the wife (Luck 1987:109; compare Coiner 1968:368-69). Jesus' call to follow and proclaim him comes first (Mt 10:34-39; 19:27-30), but one's relationship with a spouse must take priority over any other relationship but one's relationship with Christ.

Although his opponents claim Scripture for their purposes, Jesus challenges their actual knowledge of Scripture by showing that they are proof texting rather than reading it in light of God's whole plan: Haven't you read . . . ? (v. 4; compare 12:3; 21:16, 42; 22:31). Some Pharisees might have considered Jesus "liberal" (as we would put it) in his interpretations, but his objection was not to Scripture but to human traditions of interpretation (15:2-9; compare 5:17-20; 8:4; 22:24, 32); here he even attributes a saying of the biblical narrator directly to God (19:4-5; J. Wenham 1977:28).

Some People Interpret the Bible in a Way That Treats Others Unjustly (19:7-8)

God sometimes allowed what was less than ideal because people's hard hearts made the ideal unattainable (for example, Ex 13:17; 1 Sam 12:12-13). To be able to exercise some restraint over human injustice, Moses' civil laws regulated some institutions rather than seeking to abolish them altogether: divorce, polygyny, the avengers of blood, and slavery (Keener 1992b:192-96). Jewish lawyers themselves recognized that God had allowed some behavior as a concession to human weakness (Daube 1959).

Nevertheless, Jesus' opponents here assume that whatever the law addresses it permits (Mt 19:7). Jesus responds that Moses permitted this merely as a concession to Israel's hard hearts, implying that his questioners who exploit this concession also have hard hearts. Thus in Matthew (in contrast to Mark) the Pharisees even exploit Moses' concession as a command (Gundry 1982:380). American slaveholders were similarly sure that the practice of slavery in biblical times proved the Bible's approval of slavery (Sawyer 1858), the same way Muslim slaveholders applied the Qur'an (Gordon 1989:xi; B. Lewis 1990:78). Some husbands today twist biblical teachings to justify abusing their wives (see, for example, Alsdurf and Alsdurf 1989). And some churches use Jesus' words in this very passage-words that may have been meant to protect an innocent Jewish wife from being wrongfully divorced by her husband (Kysar and Kysar 1978:43; France 1985:280; M. Davies 1993:54)-to batter innocent parties in divorces. Human nature has changed very little in two millennia.

An Exception for the Innocent Party (19:9)

God's ideal was always that we should avoid divorce; the preservation of a marriage depends on both wills, however, and one partner can sometimes end a marriage unilaterally against the other's will (see comment on 1:19). Roman law permitted either party to divorce the other; Jewish law permitted the husband to divorce the wife, regardless of the wife's wishes (Keener 1991a:51).

Matthew mentions an exception to the general rule about divorce: except for marital unfaithfulness, or literally (and more ambiguously) except for porneia, sexual immorality. The NIV probably rightly interprets the sense for this context, which provides a specific exception for those already married. When Matthew speaks of this exception, his readers very probably would have understood this as a legal charge (as in Quint. 7.4.11; Suet. Julius 6, 74), hence as referring to unfaithfulness; thus, for example, the wife's adultery exempted the husband from returning her funds to her (Safrai 1974-1976b:790). Jewish and Roman law both required divorce for these grounds (Safrai 1974-1976b:762; see comment on 1:19). Matthew's audience would thus probably interpret these words in line with the typical meaning of "infidelity," namely, sexual unfaithfulness to the marriage, as grounds for divorce. Mark and Luke probably could assume such an exception without explicitly stating it (Carson 1984:418). As France puts it (1985:124): To repudiate a wife after she had committed adultery was therefore simply the recognition that the marriage had already been terminated by the creation of a new union. . . . The Matthaean exceptive clause is . . . making explicit what any Jewish reader would have taken for granted when Jesus made the apparently unqualified pronouncements of Mark 10:9-12.

I believe that most other views of porneia in this text fail to treat Matthew's specific cultural setting adequately (taking into account the "charge") beyond their own proposal. Most of these views also give porneia ("immorality," "infidelity") a more restricted meaning than it normally bears unless explicitly qualified, which it is not here (as noted by many commentators, such as Hagner 1993:124). They also miss how such a term (used in its unqualified, general sense) would function in a usual legal context (see above). Most views other than the infidelity view imply that Matthew permits divorce only when the original marriage is not valid, but divorce was unnecessary in the case of invalid marriages; further, such marriages were not common enough to warrant Matthew's mention.

"Except for infidelity" may modify Jesus' statement about divorce rather than remarriage (Heth and Wenham 1984:117; G. Wenham 1984 and 1986; compare against this position Murray 1953:39-43), but if it does, it does so precisely because in Jesus' graphic statement it is the validity of the divorce that is in question. No one permitted remarriage if a divorce was invalid, but a valid divorce by definition included the right to remarry, as is attested by ancient divorce contracts (see, for example, m. Gittin 9:3; CPJ 2:10-12, 144; Carmon 1973:90-91, 200-201) and the very meaning of the term (besides sources in Keener 1991a, see, for example, Jos. Ant. 4.253; Blomberg 1992:111). Jesus' point is at any rate not to break up second and third marriages (even for guilty parties)-as if the hyperbolic element in his graphic statement might be missed-but to underline in no uncertain terms the sanctity of marriage and our solemn responsibility to preserve it when this is at all possible. Thus most conservative Christian writers acknowledge some cases where divorce and remarriage are permitted (for example, Dobson 1986:68; Adams 1980:86-87).

Remaining Single Is Sometimes the Price of Following Jesus (19:10-12)

The disciples are concerned about the danger of marrying without an escape clause, and Jesus responds to their question (Carson 1984:418-19; France 1985:282). Parents arranged marriages, and in Galilee at least prospective spouses could not spend time alone until after the wedding (Safrai 1974-1976b:756-57; Finkelstein 1962:1:45). Then, more so than today, marriage partners could not know in advance how their spouse would turn out. To marry without the possibility of divorce in a painful marriage seemed worse than not marrying at all! Responding to this objection, Jesus replied that some would indeed be better off not marrying; perhaps because of the intensity of their calling, it would be difficult for them to find a compatible spouse who would share their commitment (this is not only an ancient situation).

Jesus' remark about celibacy is graphic and would certainly seize the attention of Jewish listeners; Jewish people did not allow eunuchs into the covenant (Deut 23:1; though compare Is 56:4-5; Tannehill 1975:136-37). Although some sectarians in the wilderness may have preferred celibacy, mainstream Jewish society regarded marriage and childbearing as solemn responsibilities (Keener 1991a:72-78). A metaphor of such shame and sacrifice testifies to the value of the kingdom of God for which anyone would pay such a price (Tannehill 1975:138-40). By embracing both shame and temporary self-control, Joseph to a lesser extent models the nature of this demand (1:25; compare 1 Cor 7).

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