In the main text for this week, Jesus weighs in on what was a theological hot topic of His day—what constitutes biblical grounds for divorce. There were two main schools of thought on the interpretation of ‘erwat dabar (uncleanness) in Deuteronomy 24:1—the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. The more liberal school of Hillel taught that any form of indecency on the part of the wife constituted grounds for divorce. Something so trivial as ruining her husband’s dinner could warrant a letter of divorce. On the other hand, the school of Shammai restricted the meaning to illicit sexual intercourse as well as indecent exposure.
Jesus takes a biblical-chronological approach to the question, pointing out first what God’s original intention for marriage was by quoting from Genesis 1 and 2 (Matt. 19:4–6). In a perfect world, there is no such thing as divorce. As far as God’s intentional will goes, the marriage vow is binding for a lifetime.
According to Jesus, there is just one circumstance where it is permissible to seek a divorce, and that is in the case of adultery (v. 9). Here, Jesus draws the strict standard that only illicit sexual intercourse (porneia) would be considered legitimate grounds for a divorce. In fact, in Mosaic law, both the offending spouse and the other sexual partner caught in adultery would be executed, thus dissolving the marriage de facto (see Leviticus 18 and 20). Nonetheless, according to Jesus, divorce under these circumstances of adultery is not mandated but permitted (v. 8). Nor is divorce a privilege granted to God’s people but a divine concession.
While the discourse in Matthew 19:1–20:16 occurs in Perea and the one in Matthew 18 occurs in Capernaum, the two are thematically connected. Of particular interest is the theme of hardheartedness. In chapter 18 Jesus calls His disciples to tenderheartedness. He begins with the injunction to become as little children, continues by expressing God’s deep concern for the welfare of the “little ones,” the methodology for ministering to an erring fellow believer, and finally, the parable of the unforgiving servant whose heart was not touched by the forgiveness he had received.
The parable of the unforgiving servant comes in answer to the disciple’s question, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Matt. 18:21). Apparently, Jesus’ prescription for how to deal with someone who has wronged you (Matt. 18:15–20) seemed so involved that they could not conceive of going through all of that every single time. They likely thought themselves to be quite generous in their suggestion of seven times, which is the number of completion. But Jesus counters that we are to forgive until we have lost count (Matt. 18:22)!
Then in Matthew 19:8 Jesus gives the reason why, although it is not part of God’s ideal plan, He grants permission for divorce in the case of adultery—that reason being the “hardness of your hearts.” Evidently, the heart of forgiveness He had elucidated in the previous chapter is to be applied in the closest of human relations, the marriage context. Even without the painful complication of adultery, a happy marriage requires healthy doses of forgiveness, because no one can hurt you like the person you have made yourself vulnerable with. Indeed, it is those closest to us that can cause us the most hurt.
The seemingly easy way out of the pain of hurtful relationships is to sever the relationship. But what if that is not an option, as is the case in the indissoluble union of marriage? Some Pharisees had created loopholes to get out of inconvenient marriages. Instead of seeking a heart transformation and patiently working and praying for their spouse’s transformation, they found it easier to simply dissolve the marriage and look for a better situation.
Christ’s requirement for longsuffering in relationships becomes even more challenging when a spouse has egregiously betrayed the marriage vow through adultery. If you were tenderhearted, Christ is saying, then even in this most painful of circumstances you may choose to remain with your erring spouse and be reconciled. However, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives” (v. 8). Jesus hastens to reiterate that this is not God’s ideal, “but from the beginning it was not so” (v. 8).
The disciples understood the intensity of Christ’s words, because they responded, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (v. 10). The reality of our brokenness means that every relationship will need healthy doses of forgiveness. Even in the one instance that God permits divorce, Christ’s teaching points to forgiveness as the best course of action.