And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 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’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 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. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 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.”
--Matt 19:3-12, ESV
Way back in January, we studied Jesus as He taught about how to treat other people under the Mosaic Law. I mentioned at the time that there was a very big debate during Jesus' day among Jews regarding divorce. The Law of Moses required that in the case of divorce, a certificate of divorce was provided--that is, divorce must be done legally and officially. But the Law was not really clear on when divorce was legally allowed. One the one side of the debate was the Rabbi Hillel, who followed the very divorce-friendly interpretation such as favored by the Romans: he allowed a man to divorce for nearly any reason whatsoever; JP Holding notes that even a burned dinner was a legal grounds for divorce. On the other side of the debate was the Rabbi Shammai, who was seen as ultra-conservative on this debate: he allowed men to divorce only in the case of sexual immorality. What was meant by sexual immorality was: (1) fornication (discovering that the wife was not a virgin at the time of the wedding), or (2) adultery.
This was perhaps the ancient Jewish equivalent of the 'gay marriage' debate of today. It was a highly debatable issue, and the Pharisees no doubt wanted Jesus to have to take a side which would anger some of His supporters. Hillel and Shammai debated over 300 issues in the first century AD, and in general Shammai was the more conservative rabbi while Hillel was the more liberal theologian.
The Pharisees ask a very specific question--"Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" In other words, "Do you side with Rabbi Hillel?" Jesus answered that marriage is a Creation-founded covenant, and man should not separate what God instituted. The Pharisees then challenge Him, trying to get Him to say that the Law was wrong: "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate...?" Jesus answered that the Law of Moses did allow divorce (though only in the limited cases as argued by Shammai), but that this was not the original covenant. Jesus here ties back to the covenant with Adam, which bounds all mankind--not just the Jews.
So Jesus clearly here takes a conservative theological stance: marriage is a Creation-based institution, and divorce undoes what God created. Thus divorce can only be undertaken for the most serious of transgressions--fornication, adultery, physical abuse. Only then (when one party has fundamentally ruined what God joined together) is it lawful for the couples to divorce.
This is an interesting passage because it is one of the few cases in Scripture where the exact discussion of today was addressed in roughly the exact same context. Today many churches debate when to allow divorce, and we live in a culture where divorce is rampant and can be granted for basically any reason ("irreconcialable differences", for example). And here Jesus takes what will seem to many like a hard line: marriage is a sacred union, and should not be undertaken lightly because God is not pleased when divorce happens.
It doesn't matter if the sex life sucks; it doesn't matter if love has faded; it doesn't matter if kids changed the relationship; it doesn't matter if one spouse got them both in debt; it doesn't matter if one is just miserable to be around. Those are not valid reasons for divorce, in God's eyes. Wow...that is radical.
I cannot help but laugh and the response of His disciples: "If such is the case...it is better not to marry!" Jesus admits that it is a hard truth, saying that many will be unable to follow Him because of it.
More shocking to me though is His next statement--that some will choose to be "eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs" (that is, lifelong virgins)--rather than to follow Him. Jesus actually here agrees...it would be better not to get married than to get married and end up with a woman who makes you miserable: because then you must choose between divorce (which violates God's commandment) and misery. I am thankful to have been blessed with an amazing wife. Our relationship has of course evolved (as all marriages do), but we remain just as committed together as we were when we were married (in ten more days, we will celebrate our 9th anniversary).
Many Christians worry about what they should think about divorce. There is no need to worry: Jesus made it pretty clear. Divorce is strictly forbidden in our religion unless one's partner has committed adultery. The Christian motto for marriage remains as it always has: "Abstinence until marriage, fidelity until death."