by Mike Bowling
Is it lawful (permissible) for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all? This was the question a delegation of Pharisees asked Jesus. Once again, we learn from Matthew their question was part of continuing testing of Jesus. Jesus was well aware of their position on the question and the position of their rival sect, the Sadducees. Jesus answers the question with a strong affirmation of God’s original creative work of males and females and the intended permanency of what most of us would call marriage. When the Pharisees continued to press him about the possibility of divorce, Jesus does not soft pedal the consequences of the legal “loophole” to the permanency of the marriage covenant. Regardless of the unpopularity of such a stance in Jesus’ day, and at the risk of being “canceled” or being called any number of unflattering names today, that is clearly what the text says. The disciples are aware of the “can of worms” this issue raises, but they could not have predicted the “warehouse of worms” raised in our day. The question produces complex biological, psychological and sociological issues, not to mention theological/philosophical questions which are both difficult and divisive. My personal opinion, which I hold lightly, is under constant review as I study Scripture, read and talk with others and consider a question which seems more consistent with the purposes of God found clearly stated in Scripture.
But before I offer an alternative question, here’s a few observations. The preceding chapter (Matt. 18) begins with Jesus answering a troubling question of rank in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus will continue to battle with the attitude from which this question originates throughout the remainder of his public ministry (see 20:20-28 and 23:1-12). His answer involved lifting up an attitude of childlikeness (humility) and a warning against a poor reception of children, who are always the most vulnerable in almost all communities. Matt. 18 continues with Jesus teaching the disciples to avoid creating alienating stumbling blocks (18.7-10), the inherent value of everyone (18.12-14), a process for being restored to communal fellowship (18.15-20) and the unwavering commitment to the work of forgiveness (18.21-35). Matt. 19 begins, “when Jesus had finished these words.” The reader of Matthew’s gospel is thus invited to connect “these words” to the next situation: Jesus moves into the region of Judea, crowds follow him, and Jesus heals them. This is the backdrop for the Pharisees’ question concerning divorce.
“What’s lawful or permissible” is the same old question which takes us down the same old paths. It’s a question which invites legalism over grace, judgment over discernment and resentment over forgiveness. Is divorce allowed? Is remarriage allowed? Questions more consistent with being a disciple of Jesus, questions more consistent with being a loving neighbor, questions more consistent with the mission of God might be: “Are others harmed by my actions?” or “Do my actions build up my community?" In the first century, women and children were significantly harmed by divorce. The harm done to women and children produced a domino effect for the community. Divorce was a symptom of some men’s lack of childlike humility, their placing of stumbling blocks, their indifference to being restored to communal relationship, and their refusal to ask for forgiveness.
Jesus demonstrated a concern for women and children as unjustly vulnerable in stories like the one found in John 8:1-11. Jesus showed no interest in what the Law said about adultery (or divorce for that matter); he seemed more interested in exploring the reality of “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The woman and her unidentified partner had no doubt harmed others with their actions, which is why Jesus commanded her to go and “sin no more” (Jn 8:11). The Pharisees and Jesus’ disciples were so preoccupied with “what is lawful,” they were oblivious to the questions of “who is harmed” and “what are the effects on community.” This preoccupation may explain the final three verses of our passage (vv. 13-15) where the disciples rebuked those attempting to bring children to Jesus for blessing. Jesus commands them to leave the children alone in the same spirit which he orchestrates the release of the woman in John 8.
Folks, it’s time we stop asking the ‘what's lawful' question. For sure, there are actions each of us do which hurt others and are unhelpful for any community’s flourishing. These actions need to be identified and their harm explained. Our approach to harmful actions should not be condemnation and punishment. As a church, we must continue to love and encourage one another, which includes shining a light on stumbling blocks, building habits of restoring one another to communal fellowship, consistently giving and receiving forgiveness in light of God’s forgiveness of each of us. If these grace filled habits become the norm among us, God will use it for a hopeful presence to our neighbors.