The Church is often perceived (unfairly) by what we are against, more so than what we are for. But saying to “No” to one thing is usually just another way of saying “Yes” to another. Sadly, most miss the important point and get stuck on what is denied, rather than consider what is affirmed. It is this way with the divorce question. Today, let’s look at what is affirmed.
We pondered yesterday how Jesus sets forth Divine Law and forbids divorce and remarriage. That much is rather clear. But what is Jesus setting forth more positively? Is it enough simply to say Jesus that forbids divorce and therefore so does the Church? It is not. Jesus actually paints a powerful portrait of love, fidelity, and the capacity of the human heart for tender, forgiving love. In this positive light, let us consider the teaching of Jesus, using Matthew 19 as our source.
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Have you not read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ ? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3-9)
I do not intend here to provide a line-by-line commentary of this passage, but rather to draw from it some fundamental gifts that the Lord highlights. For, more than forbidding divorce, the Lord is painting a picture of the human person, transformed by His grace, loving his wife tenderly and preserving union with her. Divorce is from the reign of sin; faithful, loving marriage is the fruit of the new life of grace fully embraced. These are not abstract gifts the Lord offers; they are real and true gifts that He died to give us. Let us consider the “positive” teachings that are set forth in the forbidding of divorce and remarriage.
1. A New Heart – Note that the Lord teaches these men of old that Moses permitted them to divorce their wives because their hearts were hard. Here Jesus taps into an old Rabbinic interpretation wherein Moses reasoned that if he were to require that marriage were “until death do them part,” the men of his time might well arrange the death of their wives in order to be free. Thus he reluctantly permitted the lesser evil of divorce to prevent the great evil of uxoricide (the killing of one’s wife).
Now this bespeaks a very hard heart. Jesus traces the problem of divorce to hard, mean, and unforgiving hearts, and these come from sin.
Jesus also says that at the beginning it was not this way. The “beginning” refers to God’s original plan for marriage in the Garden before Adam and Eve sinned (Gen 1 & 2). Prior to sin, their marriage was described poetically but idyllically. Adam speaks tenderly of Eve as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” and also thereby expresses his unity with her. That they are naked but do not know it speaks to a relationship devoid of lust and exploitation. It also speaks to a marriage wherein nothing is hidden; there are no coverups, no masks, and no fear of ridicule; there is openness, communication, trust, assurance, and comfort in the presence of each other.
This was marriage “in the beginning” before the long reign of sin. It is a portrait of tender love, and a relaxed, joyful, and grateful acceptance of the other as from the hand of God. Here are two hearts, alive and open, tender and accepting.
But no sooner do they sin than their marriage is affected. The coverup begins as fig leaves are sewn together. The trust gives way to fear as important aspects of the other are covered, hidden from ridicule, exploitation, and abuse. There are now things with which they will not trust each other. Adam now speaks to God of Eve as “that woman you put here with me.” Here is distance, anger, and bitterness. Eve is told by God that though she will depend on and desire her husband, he will lord it over her and she will suffer the abuse of power.
Here is a sad portrait of how marriage suffered in the reign of sin.
But Jesus announces a great return! Now, on account of the healing He effects by dying and rising for us to new life, God’s original plan for marriage is again available. We can return to the way things were “in the beginning.” Our hearts, hardened by sin, can be healed by His grace. It is now possible for spouses to love each other with tender hearts freed from the hardness of sin. Through grace, the Lord Jesus can make it for couples more and more the way it was for Adam and Eve before the Fall. With new minds and hearts, husband and wife are now equipped to forgive, to trust, to cherish, and to love with great tenderness. Why would such spouses want to divorce at all?
Thus in forbidding divorce, the Lord Jesus paints a picture of transformed human beings and summons us to the new life he died to give us. It is a magnificent pictures of hearts set free to love and to abide in that love with tenderness and deep affection.
2. The Capacity to Cling – In quoting Genesis, the Lord says that a man “clings to his wife.” The Greek word used is κολληθήσεται (kollēthēsetai) which means (more literally) “to stick like glue,” to bond, cleave, adhere, be joined or connected, etc. This is strong language in the Greek. It bespeaks a man who works hard to preserve love with his wife, who says to her in effect, “Honey, if you ever leave me, I’m going with you!” And while the text speaks to the man as head of the home, it surely also refers to a wife who does the same.
And why do they do this? Because they want to! They love each other and cannot dream of being apart. Here too are tender hearts full of love, and love seeks union with the beloved. Here too is a work of God available to us on account of the new life Jesus died to give us. Here is the positive picture of hearts no longer hardened by sin, but set free to love and to seek union joyfully.
3. Become what you are! Jesus says they are no longer two, but one flesh. They are this because God has made them so, and what God has joined no one can separate.
We are never more content than when we are what we have been made to be. And here Jesus says to every truly married husband and wife, “I joined you. I have made you one. You are no longer two; you are one. Now allow me to deepen your experience of this as the years go by. Become what you are by my grace! You will never be more happy than when you become what you are. There will be growing pains, but never forget who you are, and allow me to accomplish this miracle of unity for you. It will complete you and sanctify you.”
4. The Fruit of Love – Elsewhere the Lord also commands the fruit of love when He says, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:22) And thus husbands and wives are called to celebrate and rejoice in their mutual love with great intimacy and joy, and in the context of that marital joy, rejoice to see their love bear fruit in their children. They can say to each other, “See how we love each other. These children are the fruit of our love.”
And thus we see in the commands of marriage that the couple is to cling, to reject divorce, and to bear the fruit of children. These are the promises of God and the glorious vision of lives transformed by grace. For God does not command what he does not empower. In Jesus’ every command is presumed the grace to accomplish it abundantly.
In upholding the Divine Law of Jesus against divorce, the Church is not merely enforcing “rules,” she is pointing to the magnificent portrait of the human being transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ. She is saying, “There is the life that Jesus died to give you. Now go lay hold of it!”
Here is a video I put together back in 2009 to commemorate my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary. They had both passed away by that time, but it still had to be celebrated. I will not say that they had an easy marriage. There were struggles and tragedies. But through the years, my parents came to be what they always were: one. And when my mother died suddenly and tragically my Father wondered how he could go on living when half of him was gone. He died less than two years later. The two had become one flesh. This commemorates his sorrow at her passing.