Some Pharisees came to [Jesus] to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
When married people face dark times in their marriage, they may quietly sort through the ramifications of divorce. Knowing what the Bible says is critical in that process. But couples also need to figure out how to respond to friends and family who divorce. Do we need to know all the details in order to know who to support? Do we have to choose sides? What do we do when a friend divorces and then remarries? Should we go to the wedding?
As a pastor, I don’t think there is any life situation harder to sort out than divorce. Every story is different. Every situation is painful. It isn’t always easy to determine if there is a “guilty party.” How to weave compassion, grace and righteousness together often confounds me. Christians who take the Bible seriously and who earnestly want to please the Lord don’t always come to the same conclusions. But one thing is certain: We need to consider what Jesus has to say about divorce and remarriage, particularly in Matthew 19.
Divorces in Jesus’ day make our “quickie” divorces of today look positively glacial. A man could divorce his wife, as verse 3 says, “for any and every reason,” at least according to one school of Jewish thought. (Others took a stricter view.) As we are all wont to do, these Pharisees who questioned Jesus wanted to know exactly what reasons justified getting a divorce. But the question was loaded; these Pharisees apparently were among those who used the Law of Moses (specifically Deuteronomy 24:1–4) as proof that divorce for any reason was lawful.
Jesus’ response was that Moses allowed divorce, not to give permission for divorce, but to solve the problem of marital infidelity. Something has to be done when sin utterly poisons the covenant relationship of marriage. Jesus said that sexual immorality (sure evidence of a hard heart) can so poison the covenant of marriage that the innocent party can be released from the marriage commitment.
While Matthew 19 can stir up as many questions as it answers, there are some inescapable conclusions: First, divorce is rarely a solution for followers of Jesus to consider. Rather, we are to cultivate marriages with the grace and truth of God so that they may shine forth the love of Jesus to the world around us. We are not to be like the Pharisees, who tried to push the limits of the law as far as it would go.
Second, we are to become marriage builders among our friends and family. We know how hard and even hopeless marriage can seem sometimes, but we are to be agents of grace and truth to these struggling friends, helping them find hope and help, praying with them and providing a haven away from the tension.
Third, we should affirm those who choose to remain single for the sake of the kingdom, as Jesus did in this passage. Singles don’t need our sympathy; they deserve our respect! Those who remain single and single-mindedly serve Christ are models to us all.