ON SPIRITUALITY AND ETHICS
“Matrimony is always a vice;
all that can be done is to
excuse it and to sanctify it.”
How can divorce be necessary? It is an ugly experience, often the most traumatic of a person’s life.
Divorce can also be a spiritual curse. The Catholic Church, in its most brazen betrayal of the grace of Christ, refuses communion to parishioners who divorce and remarry. Canon law declares violators are among those who “obstinately persist in manifestly grave sin.” Protestant clergy may also inappropriately reject divorce as an option when parishioners seek their counsel. These judgments are the opposite of Christ’s teachings.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs, “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” To properly apply this passage to our lives, we must understand its social context as well as its context in the sermon.
In Jesus’ culture, a wife cannot divorce her husband. A husband, however, can divorce a wife for virtually any reason. Spoil the dinner, you’re gone. Refuse to wear a veil in public, you’re dismissed. Talk with a man in the street, you’re out. With two witnesses in attendance, a husband presents a certificate of divorce. The wife must leave.
Suddenly, the woman’s status has dramatically deteriorated. For some women, the only option is becoming a beggar. Like males who suffer economic injustice, these women are unlikely to survive more than five years. Divorce is sometimes a death sentence.
So what sounds like a prohibition against divorce is actually a warning against gender injustice. The social context of Jesus’ saying is clear: Women are property—and divorce is a method for husbands to dispose of their property. As a result, marriage is so insecure that some women refuse to marry.
We also overlook the depth of Jesus’ teaching if we interpret these verses on divorce literally. This saying is one of six antitheses addressing people who claim they are ‘righteous’ by fulfilling Old Testament law. So Jesus declares it is not enough to avoid murder; we must not cling to our anger. It is not sufficient to avoid adultery; when we lust we also commit adultery. It is not enough to be truthful when we swear an oath; we must be so honest that oaths are irrelevant.
Likewise, the vengeance of “an eye for an eye” and the hatred of enemies must be transformed by the practice of forgiveness and compassion.
Jesus is not instituting a new set of laws. He is stating the impossibility of gaining righteousness through law. Jesus is asking us to measure our distance from the ideal. Instead of concluding we are good and just people, we must recognize our profound need of God’s forgiveness.
The deeper meaning of these antitheses is Jesus’ call for relationships that strive to be just. The ideal calls us to avoid bearing grudges. The ideal asks us to respect human beings rather than perceive them merely as sexual objects. The ideal is honesty, forgiveness, compassion and love—and the ideal for marriage is a permanent relationship encompassing all these values.
Jesus is not codifying a new law for divorce. All of us fall short of the ideal of marriage even if we never divorce. Jesus is calling us to continually strive for the ideal in all our relationships, including our marital relationships.
Remaining married when a partner is abusive and refuses to change does not make us righteous. Indeed, continuing in such a marriage often perpetuates injustice. Jesus has not mandated a new legalism for marriage or any other relationship. Rather, he wants us to appreciate our dependency upon God’s grace.
Sometimes, divorce is necessary. In such circumstances, we must recognize our failures, learn from our mistakes, and seek God’s guidance to live justly. By God’s grace, we will find that which we seek.
© 2005 Harry Rix. All rights reserved.