When Jesus exaggerates on divorce, part one

Ahem!?! Welcome to my most controversial piece of writing ever.

I hesitated to write on this, because divorce is a topic full of fire and fury in today’s evangelical church, but after talking to a friend this last week, I felt sure someone needs to say something.

And, by the way, before I go further, let me say that technically what Jesus says about divorce is an overstatement, that is, a form of exaggeration to make a point. 


Christ the Pantocrator by Jovan Zograf 2012 from wikipedia commons

From what Jesus says about divorce in Matthew 19 one could draw any number of theological conclusions. But I’m not so concerned with your conclusions in this post. I’m concerned with what Jesus said and “how he meant” as they say in hermeneutics class. Jesus didn’t answer the Pharisees on divorce in a vacuum, or in a 21st century American context. He answered their question on divorce and remarriage in a first century Jewish context, commenting on a law already on the books in the Torah. He didn’t nullify the Torah, but rather commented on the passage the Pharisees had already been arguing about. This is a distinction that appears to rarely be made when reading the Bible on divorce, but if you want to know what Jesus meant, you have to take the whole of Scripture into account, and you have to accept his words for what they meant when and where he said them.

Let me be blunt: I believe to do anything less is a failure to take the words of Jesus seriously.

God said it, and I believe it, and that settles it for me! can only be true if God really said what you think he said.

Here is the passage in question: Matthew 19:3-8

  • Pharisees’ question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
  • Jesus replies: Reminder of “one flesh” marriage; “what God has joined together let no man separate”
  • Pharisees shoot back: “Why then did Moses command that a man give a wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
  • Jesus replies: “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.”

Favorite evangelical conclusion: No one should divorce, ever, unless their spouse cheats on them; then they can get divorced and remarried. (And yes, there are many variations on this view.)

This is an attempt to take Scripture seriously and I applaud the intention here. Jesus was most certainly slapping the Pharisees upside the head regarding the casual nature with which a group of them viewed divorce. But Jesus wasn’t making a hyper-literal statement: he was making a point.

Next week: The two views of the Pharisees on divorce—and how Jesus exposes their desire to know “about when the divine plan for marriage can be ignored.” You don’t want to miss this! (Recommended reading: Divorce and Remarriage in the Church and Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament.)

Comments: What does your church teach about divorce? When you’ve heard teaching on divorce, has your pastor or teacher pulled Scripture from both the Torah and the New Testament? Do tell.

  • http://www.juliebarnhill.com Julie Barnhill

    Next week? Really? :) Looking forward to further development.

    • Suzanne Burden

      Ha! I knew you’d feel this way, because I did…but you’ll be back, right??

  • Elisabeth Corcoran

    Thank you for tackling this, Suzanne!

    • Suzanne Burden

      Elisabeth, I thought of you when writing. Look forward to digging in next week.

  • Margot Starbuck

    Soooo interesting that sometimes (when we want to) we RECOGNIZE that Jesus is using grandiose language to make a point & then other times…we don’t. Eye opening.

    • Suzanne Burden

      Yes! Why do we put our blinders on sometimes….and other times, take them off? That is another post in and of itself. Or a book. Want to write it? :)

  • Scott

    It may have very little to do with properly interpreting what Jesus means here, but it is still worth pointing out that a woman divorced by her husband in biblical times had very few options for her future compared to a woman divorced in our culture today.

    • Suzanne Burden

      According to Instone-Brewer in _Divorce & Remarriage in the Church_, both men and women would have been allowed to initiate divorce according to the OT, but only the WRONGED party could initiate. “The groundless divorce” for men only did not originate until around the time of Jesus’ birth, due to a “creative” interpretation of Deut. 24. Under this new “any cause” system a man (but never a woman) could divorce if the wife burned dinner or grew unattractive. Literally, for any reason. But hey, at least a woman got to keep her dowry in this scenario. Without it, of course, she’d be completely destitute. Power was titled in the man’s favor, of course.

      • Scott

        Wow. : (

  • John1Elmore

    How easy it is for us to take the words of an English-language Bible, translated from Greek and Hebrew and acculturated so we can understand it, and think we know precisely the point it is making while looking at it through our modern American lenses. I like your pointing out that we need to take into account who it is written to, why, when that was, and what the rules of society and the teachings of the religious leaders were for those people. It was written to them, to address a specific issue of the day. We can study scripture and learn from it and gain good insights and godly guidance. But making it into a Law for those who identify themselves with Christ to be considered acceptable or righteous is wrong. All fall short of the glory of God. And why choose some scripture passages to read literally (and some not); this just over-extends the original intent of the text. I like your recognition that Jesus used exaggeration to make a point. That probably wouldn’t occur to the literalists, that this idea of absurdity was even remotely possible in the words of Jesus. Looking literally at just the rock-skipping surface of the words is not enough to get to the heart of the message. No, plunging into the text for deeper examination of the intent of scripture passages will always be beneficial for grasping the point it is making. I am looking forward to seeing where you will take this topic of divorce (and our tendency to be judgmental about it) in next week’s post.

    • http://suzanneburden.com Suzanne Burden

      Thanks, John. Important to remember Jesus was commenting on Deut. 24 in the Matthew passage…not writing us a letter telling us exactly what to do in each and every circumstance. Interpreting it without looking at why Jesus was saying it is really placing “loosey-goosey” with the text.

      The more I study the words of Jesus, the more I realize how absurd his statements USUALLY were. He used exaggeration as a regular tool and dare I say it, SARCASM. If only I could hear his tone of voice…

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    Jesus is correcting seven (7!) misinterpretations of Scripture by the Pharisees in the Matt 19 text. He does answer the question asked, but only later in the discussion, and many do not see the answer because they do not understand the question.

    • http://suzanneburden.com Suzanne Burden

      Hey Donald: Would you mind listing the 7 misinterpretations? We know “any cause” was definitely flawed…