2Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
What I Am Learning:
The biblical scholars who use the social sciences are teaching us to appreciate the culture in which these passages were written and the differences between that culture and our own.
This is challenging in many ways.
First, we have learn that many of our interpretations, both cherished and hated, are probably not the issue being taken on by the writers of the Bible. This can be disorienting as many of our varied Christian traditions assume interpretations of passages that just don't seem plausible. This can be disorienting because for many Christians, Bible passages and our understanding of them have shaped much of our lives. Second, the social sciences perspective requires that we build a map of first century Mediterranean culture in our heads and hearts. This takes energy! Third, this perspective requires that we look deeply at our own culture and its spoken and unspoken assumptions.
There are many in conservative Christians who use this passage to talk about Biblical family values. But the Bible contains many such values. Some of them conflict with each other. Others we find deeply abhorrent.
Many Mediterranean peoples allowed multiple marriages, men to have concubines as well as wives, that a young woman who is raped must be married to her rapist, prohibition to marry non Hebrews, daughters of priests can be burned alive if they have sex outside of marriage, and generally allowed women far less power and freedom in relation to men, property and the social order. The Bible was deeply influenced by the culture in which each part was written.
All of this is ignored by the proponents of Biblical family values.
But other parts are ignored by many on the more progressive side as we recoil from many of the values represented in the Bible.
We have serious problems with the notion that if a woman's husband died, for instance, that she would marry her deceased husband's brother. (Deuteronomy 25:5-6) But underlying this practice was an attempt to provide for children for the dead brother's family and to keep that part of the family from hunger and perhaps death. Of course, if women were allowed to own property and to marry whom they choose, they would not have needed this practice!
In a strange way, then, this "marrying your brother-in-law" rule was a way to provide a social safety net for people within the constraints of that culture.
And that's the problem, the Bible represents a culture, with social values that we find horrific and with some values that we agree with carried out in ways we don't agree with.
Further, the biblical writers often challenge the status quo, moving human beings toward more equitable and just relationships.
This passage is one of those.
John has lost his head challenging the marriages and divorce of Herod. The Pharisees are trying to put Jesus in the same pickle. He responds with the law and then expands on it, even changing it.
In this passage that the Pharisees quote Deuteronomy 24:1-4 in which a man can divorce his wife with a certificate of divorce.
Notice then what Jesus does with this passage: he argues for the expansion of women's rights by saying that women can also divorce men.
Jewish tradition taught that a married woman could commit adultery against her husband. This reflected their belief the whole marriage set up was to ensure the reproductive rights of the husband. (See Ecclesiastes 23:22-23.)
Jesus says not only can a wife commit adultery against a man, but that a husband can commit adultery against his wife. This means that she also has reproductive and sexual rights.
Once again, Jesus is a radical feminist, who works for the equal rights and power of women.
This passage is often quoted by those who oppose same sex marriage - they say that Jesus is arguing that only heterosexual relationships are valid.
It seems to me that Jesus is arguing for a deeper biblical value: equity for all people. This value is at the heart of the story of the Hebrew Scripture: the story of liberation of people from inequitable slavery to God's people seeking to be a blessing to all nations.
When this equity cannot take place in the context of marriage then divorce is necessary.
When this equity cannot take place by the laws of a culture, then those laws need to be changed.
The recent change allowing same sex marriage is not against Jesus' deep values. It is an expression of his deeper value - equity for all people.
Jesus calls us to continue to live out this value in our lives a disciples and as communities of disciples - to work for greater equity for all people within the institutional and structural systems that so dramatically impact how people can love one another.