He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’(NRSV)
Our passage begins with a less than genuine question. From the outset the reader is in the know: Jesus is being publicly tested.
Undoubtedly within the crowd are people for whom the Pharisee’s question is far from theoretical. We are left to wonder what unnamed losses and regrets colour the way individuals in the crowd hear Jesus’ teaching. Whatever the reality, the Pharisees’ line of questioning will make no allowance for such detail. Their question introduces a dangerously detached tone.
In such an atmosphere grace is at its most vulnerable.
And what more loaded and divisive topic than that of divorce? In Jesus’ time separation left women with little power. A career in prostitution was the likely outcome. There was little provision for just division of assets or a considered sharing of parental responsibility. Given the extravagant Jewish wedding, it would be harsh to suggest that heartache and shattered dreams were not also part of the first-century psychological makeup. Marriage, no less than now, was a expression of hope.
Moses’ law allowed due, if unequal, process. A husband could issue a certificate but no equivalent right was offered to a wife. Later, though scholars dispute its authenticity, we find Jesus understands that a woman could also initiate separation.
But Jesus is interested in much more than legality. He digs deeper offering reason for Moses’ apparent concession. The certificate clause exists in response to their ‘hardness of heart’.
But Jesus, while not condemning the clause, hopes for more.
From the beginning God was at work on the miracle of two into one. In the creation story marriage was introduced before there were any ‘hard hearts’. Adam and Eve do not become oneto prevent anything. It is introduced as nothing more than gift.
But after this hardening both Moses – and now Jesus – concede. It is a remarkable, if not dangerous, thought: What if we have a God humble enough to make allowance for something less than God’s original ideal?
Only later and more privately does Jesus speak openly. There we discover, perhaps unsurprisingly, that a certificate does not change the painful and destructive reality of such unfaithfulness.
At best the legal clause is pragmatic. There is a very real limit to the capacity of law.