Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
We are in a unique moment in the United States, confronted as we are by profound and troubling divide over sexual assault, the treatment of women, the allegations about Brett Kavanaugh and his elevation to the Supreme Court. The words of Jesus on divorce echo profoundly in our time, not as legal precept, but as commentary on our divisions. What follows is a posting from 2015.
Cuckold. It is a verb that describes what one man has done to another by being intimate with his wife. Committing adultery in the Biblical world was about cuckolding. It was something a man did to another man. Sex outside of marriage wasn’t the issue. Adultery was shaming a man by taking what was his – or shaming the woman’s father and brothers.
We tend to think about adultery as a matter of personal morality, a measuring of ourselves against a personal standard of conduct, not altogether so different from measuring our Body Mass Index or how fast we can run the mile. In the Biblical world, adultery is a betrayal of your neighbor and a rupture of the human community.
This was also the problem with divorce. Marriage was arranged by the parents. It involved an alliance of two families (or a bond within an extended family, since the ideal marriage was with a cousin or second cousin). For the groom’s family to dismiss the woman and send her home told the whole village there was some defect in her. It brought shame to her father and brothers. It led to feuding. It tore the fabric of the community.
So adultery and divorce are part and parcel of the same problem – human communities at war. Betrayal. Dishonor. Revenge. Feuding. It is a world awry. It is a world sundered from God and one another. The world where Cain kills Abel and we assassinate with everything from words to barrel bombs. It is the world where Jesus will be crucified.
Divorce isn’t really authorized in the Old Testament law; it is merely acknowledged. What is in the law are some restrictions to limit the destructiveness of divorce.
But, of course, that is the essential nature of the law. It seeks to limit our destructiveness. The concern is always our neighbor. The commandment not to steal, kill – or commit adultery – is not about my personal moral integrity; it is about protecting my neighbor. So the scripture limits revenge, limits greed, limits our treatment of the natural world, limits our wars and slavery and all the other realities of a broken world.
But God intends more for us than just that we be a little less cruel, a little less violent. God wants the law to be written on our hearts. God wants our lives to be governed by God’s own Spirit. God wants us to be new creatures in a renewed creation.
So, when asked about divorce, Jesus talks about the beginnings, about God’s intention, about Eden, about all that marriage could and should and will yet be when the stone is rolled away and the Spirit given and the new world begun.
We need to do more than limit the harm we do. We need to be born anew. We need to journey with Christ through the death of our old self into the resurrection of the new. The argument here isn’t whether divorce is “right” or “wrong”, but whether I am right or wrong. And the unspoken but precious promise here, as Jesus and his followers head towards Jerusalem, is that Christ will set me and us and all things right.
It seems to me that the words of Jesus should put the Christian community on the side of reconciliation and the healing of the human community rather than the pursuit of political triumph. They also put us on the side of hope.
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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Studio_per_Vulcano_e_Venere.jpg Tintoretto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons