Marriage, Divorce , Remarriage, Sex, Adultery, Gender  & Children

Matthew 19: 1-15

Okay, I would like to present you with a disclaimer before I even begin. I love that Jesus doesn’t shy away from any topic the Pharisees choose to throw at Him. Today’s Scripture has Jesus weighing in on some heavy topics, marriage, divorce, remarriage, sex, adultery, gender and children. There is no way in the next fifteen to twenty minutes I will be able to provide in-depth details. I can’t say everything that needs to be said. I hope to focus on the heart of the issue from Jesus’ point of view. It is my prayer you will hear me out and I want you to know I am open for discussions with anyone at another time if you would like. 

We are reading through the Gospel According to Matthew. At this point, Jesus and His followers are on their final road trip together, heading towards Jerusalem. They began this trip back in chapter 16, in Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus told His disciples He was on His way to Jerusalem and that He would be killed. The disciples didn’t believe Him and although they continued to follow Him to Jerusalem they have convinced themselves that Jesus will indeed be King but they haven’t come to the realization just what kind of King Jesus knows He will be. Last week we wrapped up the pit stop Jesus made in Galilee where He focused on some Kingdom principles His followers would need. 

In today’s Scripture reading Jesus has finished His instruction. They leave Galilee and head into the region of Judea, where He was still followed by large crowds. Jesus’ popularity has grown wherever He goes. 

Regardless of where we find Jesus He continues to heal the people who come to Him. 

However, his popularity was not positive with the religious leaders. We are told they also came to Him, but not to be healed. Instead, they came to test Him. This wasn’t the type of test to see if He knew His Torah or not, this was the type of test to see which side of the fence He stood on the topic of divorce. It was an attempt to trap Jesus. The question they put forth was, 

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

Divorce was as controversial a topic for 1st Century Jews as gun laws are for us today. 

So to understand why this question was so loaded and why the Pharisees wanted to hear Jesus’ point of view we need to look at the history of this question. We will go back to the Old Testament and see where it originated and then focus on what Jesus had to say. 

When we research divorce in the Old Testament we need to go back to the laws God gave the Israelites while they were at Mount Sinai. God started out with ten commandments but then He continued to give Moses more and when all was said and done they had 613 of them. And out of all of these laws that God had given to set His people apart from all the other nations around them, only two of them gave guidance about divorce. That seems rather odd, since marriage was such an important factor in human society. 

Here is the first law, Exodus 21:10-11,

“If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.”

Random trivial fact, there we have the first divorce law in the Bible. Okay, before you compare any law from the Bible, remember, these have no comparison to modern law. God gave these laws to ancient Israel to set them apart from their ancient neighbors. When we look at these laws we also need to remember, they are not a representation of God’s moral ideals. God was taking the Israelites just the way they were, at the time, after centuries of slavery in Egypt and working with them to set them apart. So, after centuries of slavery in Egypt the Israelites were a nation that practiced polygamy. 

This was a very common practice in ancient cultures, and still is in some cultures today. So let’s take ourselves back there for just a moment and consider what life was like. This ancient culture was patriarchal and because of this males had developed the practice of acquiring more than one wife. Women were seen as property and because of that men could acquire them or discard them as property. So when we read this law, we recognize that God was actually protecting the dignity of women, of the underdog in that society. God doesn’t turn this culture into the American view of equality, as if everyone should be like us? Instead, He works with the culture and sets up safeguards for those that are vulnerable. The important thing to notice that is underneath God’s directions here is God’s view of marriage. The Bible sees marriage as a set of vows that are a covenant promise that these two people will provide for each other, food, clothing and sex. 

So when we look at this law, we see the possibility of the husband not providing food, clothing and sex to his first wife, which borders on abuse. Taking a close look we realize it is not God’s law that breaks the marriage but the choice of the husband to neglect what he once promised. The wife is free to go as a result of her husbands ending their marriage vows. God’s allowing the woman to go and divorcing her husband is not what ends the marriage. Divorce is the result of a marriage that has already been broken. 

Now let’s look at the second verse about divorce in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 24: 1-4,

“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.”

So what is this law about? Actually, it is about remarriage. It assumes that divorce has already happened and that should a woman who remarries get divorced again or her husband dies, the first husband can’t remarry her. But that is not what the debate was about for those in Jesus’ day. The issue the Pharisees wanted to test Jesus about was the first sentence of this law. Apparently, after marrying a woman a man could divorce her if she became displeased with him or if she had done something indecent. The debate came down to, what does it mean for a man to become “displeased” or what is the matter of “indecency.” 

So why the debate? Well, for whatever reason the Hebrew terms used here for “matter of indecency” are made up of legal Hebrew words that are only ever used in Scripture this one time. There are no other places where this ancient word is used and so the scholars have no other context with which to compare and consider. Thus, it is left up to interpretation. 

By the time we get to the first century, there were two sides. There was the more strict and unpopular view which was promoted by Rabbi Shammai. He took the Exodus law into consideration and understood “indecent” to mean “sexual immorality,” and he argued that was the only valid reason for divorce. 

Then there was the more lax and popular view from an opposing Rabbi Hillel. 

He took his view from the word, “displeasing,’ and said that “indecent” meant anything that was displeasing to the husband. That could be a whole lot of things, such as burning a husband’s breakfast, which would be labeled “indecent” and was valid grounds for divorce. Rabbi Akiba went as far as to say that a man could divorce his wife if he found a woman whom he liked better and considered more beautiful. 

Let’s stop right here and think about this for a moment. The debate has been presented. And one side of this debate has only men, having the ability to establish grounds for divorce, in an already patriarchal society, for anything their wife does that displeases them. 

Which side of the debate do you think the majority of the Jewish men in Jesus’ day took? 

It’s a no brainer. 

And the Pharisees were well aware of this. Jesus and the disciples had grown up in a culture where men could divorce their wives for any or every reason, but women cannot do the same. Exodus 21 was completely ignored by the people in Jesus’ day. 

Stop, think, what does that mean? Do you understand the snare the Pharisees believe they have created for Jesus?

And what does Jesus do? He doesn’t even nibble. He goes to the root of the issue. He asks the Pharisees, “Haven’t you read your Torah? Did you forget about the first few pages? In fact, when asked any question regarding marriage, divorce, remarriage, sex or gender, Jesus goes back to Genesis 1. For Jesus, and for the Kingdom of God, when we go back to the beginning and we understand who humans are and what marriage is, when controversies arise, we will know which way to go. 

Jesus quotes from Genesis 1:27-28, the first place we read anything about the image of God,

“So God created humankind in his own image,

    in the image of God he created them;

    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number;”

So why did Jesus quote this poem? Well, He knows that the people listening to Him are going to hear what He is quoting and go immediately in their heads to this poem. It is part of the Torah that is read in synagogue on a continual basis. It is also the very premise of the first commandment. The Israelites were to be set apart and they were not to make an image of God. 

But God could make an image of God and He did and He describes it right here. It’s humankind. 

And humans are to somehow reflect God and present His image out into creation. The poem goes on to tell us how this happens. Humankind is one species that consists of two, male and female. However, as the poem continues, the two become one again, through a covenant of love and marriage and they create another human. Jesus cites this poem, because if you get this poem, you will get the meaning of marriage. 

Jesus was also aware that humans are not the only species that start as one species, have two, come together and make another one of the species. Animals do this too. That is why Jesus quotes the second part of Genesis, chapter 2, verse 24. 

“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

Humans, as a species, make the decision to leave their biological family and come together to form a new family, not just by having sex, but by a covenant promise. That covenant promise is about Exodus 21, they will care for, help feed, clothe and provide sex and bind their body and soul to this one opposite gender for the rest of their life. 

There is something unique about this monogamous covenant humans make to each other that sets them apart and it is meant to represent and be a symbol of God’s own love. 

Jesus knows that when we look at marriage and 

we look at what humans are 

we should be using that understanding 

to decide what are grounds for divorce. 

So if we look at marriage, like Jesus, as a symbol of what God’s covenant love is toward us, we would hold on to this covenant as a lifelong relationship not easily broken. And with this statement, the Pharisees get defensive. They come back with, verse 7,

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Okay Jesus, you ask us if we read our Bibles, what about you? In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Moses commands divorce.

Jesus comes back, totally disagreeing. Jesus tells them that Moses did not command divorce, he permitted divorce because of hard heartedness. God’s laws were set up for the people of Israel, based on where they were as humans at the time. They were not God’s moral vision of the way things should be. 

The purpose of the laws was to take Israel, the way He found them, in their fallen state and push them towards justice. At the point in time Moses was writing down these laws, Israel was a culture where men could divorce for whatever reason and according to this verse sometimes without even a certificate of divorce, so God stepped in and said that was wrong there needed to be a certificate given. 

Then Jesus takes a position within the debate. If you divorce your wife for anything except sexual immorality then you have committed adultery. But don’t go to this law for God’s view on the matter. Go to Genesis 1 & 2 for that. But if you want to know how God deals with a bad situation and has to choose between the best of two evils, then go to Deuteronomy 24. 

What does this have to do with us today? I think this offers us a Christian view on what behaviors break a marriage covenant and are grounds for divorce. 

There are two views:

  1. Only adultery – taken from Matthew 19:9

I think this view is limited. Because the only reason Jesus states verse 9 in chapter 19 of Matthew is because He is responding to the debate over what the words meant in Deuteronomy. He gave His evidence from Genesis on what marriage was in the Kingdom of God and then He answered the trick question. When Jesus takes this view it is significant to recognize who Jesus is defending. Remember, this was a culture that was practicing this law in a way that was sexually and physically and emotionally distorted towards women. Think about it. Men had decided that they could divorce a woman for any and all causes. 

Jesus was standing up for those women who had been unjustly treated. From our cultural point of view we think He is being totally conservative. He did choose the more conservative view but only because the other view was so unjust and was ignoring the other divorce law in the Torah in Exodus. 

The debate wasn’t over what constitutes divorce and we don’t know what Jesus thought about the other verse in the Bible, Exodus 21:10-11, that talks about divorce, because no one brought up the debate with Him. 

However, a second view does exist, and it consists of, 

  1. Adultery – Matthew 19:9 and because of 

Neglect & Abuse – Exodus 21:10-11

Paul brings up Abandonment – 1 Corinthians 7:15

Jesus sees through the smoke screen here. The whole purpose for marriage from the point of view of the Pharisees was to please men. 

Think about it, if a man could divorce his wife for any reason of displeasure, what is the worldview of marriage underneath that law? Marriage was established to please the man and as soon as it didn’t please the man, well, it was over. 

Jesus has a fundamentally different, upside-down view of the meaning of marriage. For Jesus, marriage is sacred and an image of the covenant love of God. 

Next, comes the response from the disciples. Check this out, clearly they have not heard Jesus speak on marriage in quite this way before, because they definitely seemed surprised. They ask, verse 10, 

“If this is the situation between a husband and wife, why would anyone get married?” 

Think about it, they actually heard what Jesus was saying and they matched it with the world as they knew it and wow, the rug just got pulled out from under them. They grew up believing that marriage was set up to please men and if Jesus says the Kingdom of God view means I have to be with this person forever? I have to work out my differences with someone, I can’t just go get a new wife, when I am not pleased, why choose marriage? 

Jesus responds in theory stating you are more right than you realize. But in reality Jesus talks about eunuchs. Another cultural conversation those who were listening would have totally understood. Quick historical update. The existence of eunuchs came about in ancient times when there were lots of kings who had harems of women. There were a lot of duties involved to take care of these women and to take care of their property, etc.  

So the king would castrate men and use them as servants to take care of his wives and his kingdom. This way the king knew his wives were safe. 

Jesus was using the term eunuch as a metaphor for a person that would not have sex, who would not get married and who would not reproduce. Jesus states in His metaphor that there are three kinds of eunuchs 

  1. Those that are born that way, even though He just got done saying humans were created in the image of God to enter a covenant relationship and procreate Jesus tells us right here that not everyone is born that way
  2. Those who were made a eunuch by others
  3. Those who choose to live that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, basically describing Himself

Why does Jesus say those like Him would choose to live like a eunuch? For the sake of the kingdom of Heaven. Notice the purpose. The purpose of life for Jesus was not happiness. The purpose for life for Jesus was the Kingdom of God. He came to earth to show us that we will obtain our purpose in life when we are living and breathing in the image of our creator God. For some humans that will mean getting married. Jesus just described how marriage is a covenant symbol of the covenant love of God. However, for Jesus it was not the only way. He states right here and demonstrated it in His own life. Being single was also an elevated way of living and just as significant and capable of demonstrating the covenant love of God. 

Let’s bring it back to our culture. When our culture hears Jesus say, you don’t have to have sex to have a meaningful life, they think He must be alien. Our culture is so sexually saturated that we have taken the act of sex and separated it from the act of procreation. Sex has become a commodity and something people do because it feels good. 

In our America today, sex is presented as what allows you to really be alive and happy. We have taken the goals given to us by our founding fathers that every person has the right to pursue, life, liberty and happiness. No wonder sex rates up there as a right. 

Marriage in our culture is seen as the primary way to live a fulfilled life. So are we surprised that our country has separated sex from procreation and marriage has been redefined and separated from gender? 

Ask these questions, 

What is the best thing in life? Answer – Sex. 

What is the best way of being fulfilled as a human being? Answer – Being Married. 

Unfortunately the church has often bought into these beliefs. Maybe not so much the sex part, at least not out loud, but definitely the marriage part. 

Singles often feel isolated in the church and are constantly being asked when they are going to settle down and get married? Because the dominant paradigm is to get married and have kids, that is the path to a wonderful and meaningful life. I am convinced that Jesus did not think this way. For one thing, He didn’t get married and I’m sure He had a meaningful life. Probably the most meaningful life ever. 

Jesus no sooner gives another way to live a life for the sake of the kingdom of heaven when people bring little children to Him. We read the disciples rebuke them. Don’t they remember that Jesus said in order to enter the kingdom of heaven one had to become like a child? 

I wonder if the disciples associated children with marriage and having sex and were just exasperated with the whole thing?  Notice Jesus’ response, 

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

What a reprieve from confrontations with Pharisees. May we also take this reprieve and become like a child and come to Jesus, just as we are. May we humble ourselves and recognize that Jesus accepts us all, invites us all and opens the door for all of us to enter and eat with Him and be part of His Kingdom. 

No trick questions, the Lord’s Supper is open to anyone who chooses to receive. 

The Lord’s Supper.