In his continuing commentary on embodying kingdom righteousness, Jesus turns to the topic of divorce, saying “It was said ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’…”
This is a partial quotation of Deuteronomy 24:1 which says “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens if she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house…”
This was not a part of the original law God gave to the Israelites. When Moses repeated the law to the people near the end of his life, knowing their stubbornness, he made this allotment for divorce. Before Jesus’ time, a debate had developed around this passage as two leading Pharisees, Hilell and Shammai, differed on how to interpret. Hilell asserted “if she finds no favor in his eyes” meant that men could divorce their wives for any displeasing reason, such as burning toast! Shammai, however, stipulated that phrase was contingent upon her “indecency”, or sexually immoral or adulterous acts she may have committed. Hillel and Shammai’s differing interpretations framed this debate for generations; eventually prevailing opinion during Jesus’ time and the future sided with Hilell, asserting a man could divorce his wife for almost any displeasure.
In a sense, this popular interpretation modified Deuteronomy 24:1 with user-friendliness to enable men to get their way should their marriages not be working out how they preferred, making satisfaction of the self the center of how they understood marriage. It was an understanding Jesus would correct. He continued “but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Notice how Jesus shifts the conversation focus away from Moses’ allowance of divorce or the presumed cultural acceptance of divorce to the adultery or corruption it induces. Exactly what is it about marriage that divorce corrupts?
An extensive Scriptural discussion, of Ephesians 5:22-33 in particular, reveals marriages are designed to project the redemptive relationship between Christ and his redeemed people, the church. As God subjects all of life to his kingdom reality, which includes the redemption of roles and relationships, marriages are now portrayals and practicums through which kingdom reality is learned and understood. Husbands and wives are to embody their roles as depictions of kingdom righteousness, “so that He might sanctify her…that she would be holy and blameless.” Men learn to be husbands by loving their wives as Christ loved the church; women learn to be wives by responding to this Christ-centered love as those sanctified for Christ-centered service. Husbands and wives learn to serve Christ by serving each other; they learn to be the church by serving each other. Their marriage proclaims the redemptive reality of Christ and his church in how they serve each other. The sacred oneness in marriage is everyday covenant exercise for abiding in sanctified oneness with God.
Divorce corrupts this sanctification. Wives in this time and culture normally needed a husband in order to survive; being divorced by her husband would likely cause her to remarry, corrupting the sanctified oneness she had been cultivating in her first marriage. And if the husband remarried, he also would be corrupting the sanctified oneness he was to cultivate in his marriage to the wife he had divorced. To Jesus, corrupting the sanctification of a spouse or our own sanctification was reason enough to not get divorced.
This seems to be the only point Jesus wishes to underscore with his divorce comments. While this cultural debate fixated on divorce and what its legitimate reasons were, Jesus is restoring sanctification to the heart of marriage. The goal of marriage is not to avoid divorce; the goal is to embody kingdom righteousness in every aspect of your marriage.
We go into and through marriage with a lot of hopes and expectations, many of which either don’t work out or go a lot differently than imagined. We eventually come upon the realization that marriage does not completely satisfy. Sometimes we resist that realization, sometimes we adjust to the disappointments, and sometimes we begin to consider divorce as a gateway to starting anew. Jesus wants us to see our marriages in view of what God wants to do through them. Scripture frames marriage as a form of discipleship, a communal context in which we cultivate the holy character of Christ. Marriages are a wonderful opportunity to experience satisfaction, but they exist to bring us into sanctification.
Marriage teaches us how to be the church. Being the church starts and is sustained at home, when husbands and wives put Christ and his holy character at the center of how they actually do marriage. That means husbands letting their Self be crucified in order to lead and serve his family in the likeness of Jesus. That means the wife following the lead of her crucified servant husband, participating in the good works they live out together. As they do life together, sanctification shapes their relationship to proclaim the redemption Christ is cultivating amongst his church, the reality in which God wants all relationships to be rooted.