Jesus’ teaching on divorce seems so hardcore to us modern, or post-modern, Christians. I mean in Mark’s Gospel He teaches that whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery, and here in Matthew He only adds the exception of sexual infidelity. This isn’t a very forgiving or generous attitude towards divorce, is it? I mean, what if my wife and I just happen to drift apart after a lot of years? What if we’re incompatible? What if I’ve had it with her and simply can’t put up with her anymore?
I think that one of the problems is that we don’t really believe that marriage represents the marriage between Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church. We don’t really believe that marriage is a sacrament that God blesses. We don’t understand that when a man and a woman are so joined they become one flesh and one life.
Instead, we treat marriage like a contract – that’s why we have pre-nups, right? What’s the difference between a covenant, which marriage truly is, and a contract, which we treat it as? A covenant is put into effect by an oath. You remember your marriage vows, or oaths, don’t you? You swore that you would stay married, as one flesh, as long as you both shall live, regardless of your circumstances, whether rich or poor, or sickness or health.
God is the silent third party at every Christian marriage, and when you get married you have also made vows to God. You’ve told Him that you vow to stay with this other person for the rest of your life. Because such vows mean business and suggest a permanence that is at odds with our supermarket of choices, in the modern, post-modern, world, we get to write our own vows.
It’s all about us. The basic premise of this modern contract is that I agree to stay in this relationship as long as I feel fulfilled in it, however I choose to define fulfillment. It’s actually a mercenary transaction, and the moment I get a better offer, I’m out of here.
If you truly believe that your marriage is for life, you’ll be motivated to work towards making it that way. But if you think that there’s an asterisk by your names or that your names are written in disappearing ink on the marriage certificate, then you’ve already agreed to be willing to lead a life where divorce is an option. This is the essence of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s interesting that the one exception Jesus allows for is sexual immorality, which in a marriage essentially means sexual infidelity. No doubt, sex in marriage is important: it’s part of the becoming one flesh, literally and metaphorically. But sometimes we’re too hung up on the sexual. We’re taught that everything is ultimately about sex.
The truth is that sexual infidelity is always preceded by other kinds of infidelity. You don’t just wake up one morning, see a beautiful woman you don’t know, and say, “I think I’ll give up 20 years of marital bliss for a few hours of a really good time.” How many smaller infidelities must have led up to a single decision to commit adultery?
No woman wakes up one morning, after 20 years of marital bliss and says, “Honey, I think I want a divorce.” Usually, there is a fairly long period of growing apart, although in some cases there was never much of a true relationship to begin with, which is its own problem for which there is culpability.
In a way, I think we groom ourselves for divorce. The romantic relationships that a lot of Christian young people have are a series of intimate relationships that get shattered. The pattern seems to be to draw close, become intimate, and hope and pray that the inevitable break up doesn’t come, and then wonder why it did and why it hurts so much when it does come.
What we don’t understand is the nature of the covenantal, marriage relationship that God has created. For this reason, parents who divorce often underestimate the devastation that divorce wreaks on their children. When I had some of my high school seniors write their spiritual journeys, I was moved to tears by some of their accounts of the terrifying effects of their parents’ divorce on them. No wonder they couldn’t concentrate in school or didn’t care. No wonder that a lot of postmodernity is about being homeless and that teens today often feel abandoned.
In light of the devastating impact that divorce has on the “little ones” of Jesus, Jesus’ blessing of the children in verses 13-15 is positively chilling!
What’s missing from all of this is Jesus’ understanding of marriage. “But what can an unmarried man really know about marriage,” some may say. But we forget that this man, who is also God, is married to His people, the Church. I think Jesus is fully aware of how difficult His teaching on divorce is. Remember: it comes after He has now begun to teach His disciples that the Bridegroom must soon give up His life for His Bride. Jesus’ teaching on divorce comes after His teaching on the cost of discipleship and the necessity of denying self.
This is what marriage is really about: it’s about love. It’s about the kind of love that the Bridegroom has for His Bride. It’s about the sacrifice that Christ makes for His Church. Only if a man and woman set out to serve each other in love, as their Master served them, will they have a sure foundation for a lasting marriage.
The same applies to any relationship that any of you are in, whether married or not. Think about a difficult relationship you have now or have had before. How would that relationship be different if you set out to relate to that person with nothing but love, regardless of what you got back in return? How might that relationship be better and more wonderful if you unilaterally chose to repay evil with love? How many more put downs and criticisms might you absorb if you put on love, and how many fewer criticisms and naggings would you commit if you put on love?
What if both of you set out to serve each other in love? What kind of relationship would be possible? No one said it would be easy. Maybe your spouse or person you have a relationship with (it could be a difficult sibling, for example) isn’t exactly a jewel. Maybe you feel like you were dealt a rotten hand (of course, if you’re married, then it’s a hand you dealt yourself).
But consider the deal that Jesus got! He didn’t exactly end up with the pick of the litter, and yet how He loves His Bride!
Jesus’ teaching about divorce is indeed hard, but it’s hard because marriage is to be made of the hardest substance known to man: love. It’s hard because marriage is a picture of the marriage of Christ and the Church. And it’s hard because marriage is the most amazing, intense, and powerful way in the world for two people to practice taking up their crosses and denying themselves in love for the love of the other.
Prayer: O God, who hast so consecrated the state of Matrimony that in it is represented the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his Church; Look mercifully upon these thy servants, those married couples I know, that they may love, honor, and cherish each other, and so live together in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their homes may be a haven of blessing and of peace; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
Points for Meditation:
- How might you be more loving towards a difficult person in your life or towards your spouse?
- In what ways have you not been faithful to your spouse, or to someone close to you?
Resolution: I resolve to find one way to show love to the person closest to me in my life (my spouse, if I have one).
Divorce – CC0 Public Domain