Today we look at the third of the six statements where Jesus contradicts the accepted “morality” of His day. Here He deals with relationships by focusing on marriage and divorce, but His words are not just about divorce, but every relationship in life.
To this, we should look at the marriage customs of Jesus’ day. Parents chose their child’s life partner. This is still practiced in many countries, and most of those arranged marriages are mostly happier than ones where the children chose their own. If the parents love their children, they look out for their best interest. They find spouses who fit their personality, and take the child’s wishes into consideration. The whole system depends on commitment and trust between parent and child.
When a proper groom was chosen, the parents gave him a dowry, which was a promise to him of marriage. The groom gave the bride a monetary gift, usually in the form of a ring. Both gifts were intended to display trust and commitment.
The marriage had three stages, just like it does today. First there was the ring, or gift. Then there was the contract, or ceremony. Then there was the consummation, or honeymoon. Any of these three stages constituted legal marriage. If the groom slept with the bride first he was considered married to her. The lifetime commitment was implied in sexual union. They were one flesh.
The system worked because it depended on trust and commitment. Children trusted their parents to make a good choice; husbands trusted and committed to their wives. These outer commitments were built on inner commitments of love and respect. The idea of couples being “incompatible” never came up, because marriage wasn’t based on compatibility, but trust and commitment. A man gave his word to stay with a woman, and as a gentleman, he kept his word. Society was based on personal relationships of trust and commitment. People loved each other and kept their promises. No laws could ever replace that. If the love and commitment are not there, no one will obey anything.
This is still true. If people don’t trust the government, society falls apart. If government leaders don’t respect the people, society falls apart. Society depends not on people’s outer actions, but on their inner hearts.
But even in the old days, things didn’t always work out. Sometimes parents married off their daughters to the wrong man. Husbands broke trust with their wives. When that happened, divorce was necessary and unavoidable.
In Jesus’ day, Israel practiced “one way no fault” divorce. If a woman wanted a divorce, she had to give a good reason and be able to prove it. Even then, society blamed the woman. If a man wanted a divorce, though, he needed no reason.
The Talmud specifically states that a man may divorce his wife if she burns his dinner, or if he finds another woman more attractive. The Talmud also states that if a woman is proven to commit adultery, then the man must divorce her even if he would be inclined to forgive. Adultery was a stoning offense—for the woman, not the man. The sexism was tremendous.
We can appreciate how unfair this was to the woman. A woman had better learn to cook, or her husband can divorce her! She had better not get fat or unattractive, or her husband could dump her!
But we live in “enlightened” times. How we have changed today! We have equalized marriage by giving women the same rights as men. While in Israel men were free to dump their wives, in America, women are equally free to dump their husbands. Women have more leverage in relationships than before, more power. Because of this extra leverage we now have a 50-60% divorce rate. Women have freedom. Women have power. But none of us have trust, security or commitment.
Marriage is intended to be a life-long state. There are only three conditions which allow divorce, and those are infidelity, abandonment, and abuse. Malachi 2: 13-16 deals with this.
This is another thing you do: you flood the altar of the Lord with tears, weeping and wailing because he no longer pays attention to your offering nor takes pleasure in it from your hand. Yet you ask, ‘For what reason?’ Because the Lord acts as a witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you were unfaithful to her, your partner, the wife of your covenant. Did he not make them one? And the vestige of the spirit remains in him. And why did he make them one? He was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and don’t be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.
“Indeed, the Lord God of Israel says that he hates divorce, along with the one who conceals his violence by outward appearances, says the Lord of the Heavenly Armies. “So guard yourselves carefully, and don’t be unfaithful.”
God hates divorce but if a person cheats, or commits domestic violence, God hates that just as much. Malachi equates infidelity, domestic violence, and divorce as all bad. In God’s eyes, seeking a divorce for other reasons is tantamount to adultery and abuse.
Keep in mind, Malachi said this to a nation which outwardly followed God. Divorce, adultery and abuse aren’t just practiced by non-believers, but also by believers. Some evidence suggest that there is actually more physical abuse among Christians than among non-Christians. Don’t think that the covenant of marriage binds a wife to endure a brutal marriage where her husband treats her as a punching bag--it does not. Violence and adultery are divorceable offenses.
But Malachi also equates divorce with domestic violence. Divorce is a form of warfare. It isn’t just breaking a vow, but since we come together as one flesh, its amputation. “Friendly” divorces are a myth. Like any other war, both sides bleed. People may become friends after divorce, (I hope they do), but divorce is still ugly and painful to both parties, and even uglier if children are involved.
If divorce is so ugly, then why is there so much of it?
Jesus says it is because our hearts are hard. But to whom are our hearts hard? A person that is “hard-hearted” is not that way to everyone. Divorce happens not when we are hard to each other, but when we are hard to God.
Don’t ask why people should divorce--ask why people stay married. In Jesus’ day, most people stayed married for life. Today they don’t. The difference is this—they relied on trust and commitment, mostly to God. Their marriage trust was based on the assumption that they should trust God.
If marriage isn’t about God, then I have no problem with divorce. But if we have committed to the Kingdom of God, then marriage is a way of living out that commitment.
The first vows in a Christian marriage is made to God. You pledge to God to support and live with one person. Really, you aren’t pledging to each other, but to God. When you fall in love, you are entering into a romance. When you get married, you are signing on to a one-sided ministry. Marriage isn’t just about loving each other or meeting needs. It’s an oath to God. You take on a congregation of one person, to honor, love and to accept above all else, except God. Before you marry, make sure you want it. Ask God to give you the strength to fulfill that holy promise. Take God out of marriage, that oath is empty. If you put Him in it, then your oath is to Him, not to your spouse.
In the God’s kingdom, all things are done for God’s glory. Our first relationship is to Him, it is to Him we look to have our needs met. God will provide the support that our spouses will not. Changing spouses will not meet our needs if God doesn’t, because He is the source of all our support. Every decision we make in life is really a question of whether we are doing what God wants. All our relationships are for God’s sake, not out own. We enter them for His sake.
I will not say any of this is easy—it is not. I have known many Christians who chafe at this, who feel their spouse is a “ball and chain” around their neck. But when we feel this, we are looking at it wrong. It’s not the spouse that is the ball and chain. It is our feelings. The only way that we can live up to the standards our Lord sets down is to be changed by God’s Spirit from the inside out. God doesn’t trap us with laws we cannot keep. He frees us to obedience by changing our inside desires. Christ can set us from those trapped feelings which come when our hearts desire what we cannot have.
Many Christians live with a feeling of being trapped—trapped in jobs, trapped in addictions, and even trapped in monogamy. But Christ can change the desires of our hearts so we can enjoy the righteous path. He can make us appreciate the right way, and throw off the wrong way of sin.
This same principle applies to all relationships—friendships, neighbors, children, parents, churches, even society. We can stay where you are, with the commitments we have for as long we live, and still be free in our hearts. Society depends upon trust, and trust depends on being under God. We can love our country, even when our country is wrong. But I can only do it if I love God more. No legal or moral threats, punishments or rewards are strong enough to hold people together when we don’t believe that God is in it.
It is not my intention to pass judgment on any who have endured the agony of divorce. Nor is it my intention for any to view these words in a legalistic or binding way. Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount is not to set up a new law, but to show by example how people think whose minds are renewed by grace. If we seek God, then we won’t be seeking to break our vows to God or to another, but to follow a path of love.
Instead, it is my hope for those who may be struggling with difficulties to consider that more is at stake than your personal feelings of comfort. Stay married for as long as you can. Work out your differences. Seek counseling. Swallow your pride. The single greatest motivator to stay together is not how you feel about each other, but how you feel about a covenant you made before God. f God is first in both your lives, then no power on earth or in heaven can ever tear you apart.