***This is the 5th article in this series. It is VERY important that you read these articles in order. If you have missed any in this series, please go back and read them before continuing to read this post. First Article, Second Article, Third Article, Fourth Article***
The two largest passages in the Gospels concerning marriage and divorce are recorded in Mark 10 and in Matthew 19. These are parallel passages. Meaning, they are describing the same event. It is important to study both of these texts together, as doing so can help to “fill in the gaps.”
What we see taking place before our eyes is a pretty familiar scene at this point in the ministry of Jesus. The Pharisees came to test Him. They were not coming to Jesus for instruction. They were not coming to Jesus in order to learn. They were coming to Him in order to put Him to the test, and do their best to trap Him. Here, Matthew records a slight detail that Mark does not. The Pharisees were not simply asking if it was lawful to divorce. As has been demonstrated in previous writings, it was lawful to divorce. The question was, is it lawful to divorce for “any cause”?
Not as simple as it seems:
When the Pharisees came to Jesus and asked Him this question, it was not as simple as it appeared to be. They were trying to lure Him into a trap. They were asking Him to pick a side in an ongoing debate that had been taking place. Many pages have been written detailing this debate. I will briefly summarize the issue here, but will make no attempt or claim to exhaust every facet of this debate.
The Jews were essentially divided into two camps when it came to their understanding of what God allowed as reasons to divorce. Each of these two schools of thought had a leader. Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. These two Rabbis disagreed on what constituted grounds for divorce. In a previous article we discussed Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and what God, through Moses, was communicating there. Within that text, there was a Hebrew word that was a little ambiguous and hard to define. Some translations translate this word as “uncleanness” or “some indecency”. It is difficult to define the word precisely, as shown below.
Nakedness of a thing. That is about as clear as mud. Shammai focused on the word “nakedness” and determined that this was to refer to sexual sin. Therefore, one could divorce if their spouse was sexually unfaithful. Hillel focused more on the word, “thing”. He took the approach that this wasn’t about sexual sin, but rather something that was shameful. Which opened the door for basically, “any-cause” divorce. Anything that the husband found to be shameful, was grounds for him to divorce his wife. Consider the following excerpt:
Think about this. Jewish Rabbis were teaching that if a wife messed up a meal, the husband could divorce her for that reason. If a wife argued with her husband, he could divorce her. If a man found another woman he liked better than his wife, and now found his wife displeasing because he liked someone else more, he could divorce her. This was what was being taught within Judaism. As you might imagine, the school of Hillel was more popular than the school of Shammai. People preferred the less restrictive approach, which freed them to essentially discard their marriages at will. This was the trap that the Pharisees were laying for Jesus. They were not asking Him questions for the purpose of learning. They were not interested in what the totality of God’s design, desire, and laws were for marriage. They wanted to involve him in this debate, and make Him pick a side. When they asked the question, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for “any cause?” They were asking, “Do you agree with Hillel?”
Before answering their line of questioning Jesus turns their attention back to creation. Sin had certainly done it’s damage among God’s people concerning their marriages. What God designed to be a lifelong union between one man and one woman, had devolved into discussions about being able to divorce because a man found a woman he found to be more attractive, or because last night’s dinner didn’t go as planned. How can man go from God’s beautiful design, to this extreme display of selfishness and disregard for God’s laws? Jesus called their minds back to the beginning. Back to the design. Back to the intent.
Jesus then spoke these words, “let not man separate.” He is clearly stating God’s design/intent for marriage. It is to be lifelong. Man is not to separate for “any cause”. They are supposed to hold fast to one another, cherishing this union. Some have taken this statement to mean “cannot separate”. Indicating that it is not possible for them to separate. This does not track with the other commands of God. For example, God commanded His people to not murder (Exodus 20:13). However, they still had the ability (and sometimes did) murder. God’s people were told repeatedly to rid themselves of idols, yet they repeatedly turned to idols. When Jesus said, “let not man separate” He was not indicating the impossibility of their separation. Rather, that to separate would go against His command, and would therefore, be a sin.
Following the story:
This concluded what Jesus said to the Pharisees. They tried to lure Him into a trap. They wanted Him to pick a side. They wanted to see if He would side with Shammai or Hillel, or possibly teach something that was not in the law so that they could have grounds to charge Him. Jesus did not side with either school of thought. He called their minds back to the design for marriage that was unchanged since creation. One man, one woman, for life. Rather than giving the pharisees “reasons” for divorce, He told them that they should not separate what God joined together.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the account reads as if it were one flowing conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. However, Mark records for us that this was the end of His discussion with them on this matter. At a later time, (possibly the same day) the disciples were still thinking about what Jesus had said to the Pharisees, so they asked Him about His teachings again.
Matthew is the only NT writer who records what is commonly referred to as “the exception clause”. The word translated as sexual immorality is the word πορνεία (porneia).
While alone with His disciples, Jesus is stating his agreement with Shammai in the debate that the Pharisees tried to lure him into. Can we divorce for “any cause” or for sexual immorality? Jesus states that only πορνεία (porneia), not “any cause”, was grounds for divorce.
One other additional observation about some differences in Matthew’s Gospel and Mark’s is that Mark also addresses women. While not possible to confirm, a common belief is that Matthew does not include Jesus’s address of women in his Gospel account because women initiating divorce was not common and possibly not practiced at this time within Judaism. Whereas, Mark’s audience was of a completely different makeup, and those women were active in initiating divorce. The same rules applied equally to men and to women.
In Matthew 19:9 we read that a man who divorces his wife (without cause) and marries another commits adultery. When we parallel this account with Mark 10, we see a detail that Mark records that Matthew does not.
Mark records that, yes, this man who behaves in this way commits adultery. However, He is committing adultery “against” his first wife. This is significant for our understanding of the text. Consider with me:
We read of Jezebel, and how God had given her time to repent of her sexual immorality. In this text we read of those who committed adultery “with her”. When we consider Jesus’s teachings in Mark 10 He is not describing an individual who is committing adultery “with” someone, but “against” someone. In our next article, we will delve deeper into this by examining what is meant by, “adultery” in the Biblical context.
Better Not To Marry:
Mark’s account of this teaching and conversation has come to a close, and we are left now with only what Matthew writes. After hearing not only what Jesus said to the Pharisees but also the private conversation that they had with Him. The disciples were in shock. After all, the teachings of Hillel were the dominant voices of the day. To them, marriage wasn’t a large commitment, because it could be discarded for “any cause”. When they heard what Jesus had taught, they realized that there was a lot more to this marriage commitment than they had previously believed.
The disciples had a classic overreaction when they heard what Jesus had to say. They stated that if “such is the case”, (man cannot divorce for “any cause”) it would be better not to marry! Jesus pointed out to them that not everyone could receive this saying. What saying could some people not receive? The statement that the disciples had just made. Jesus said that only those to whom it had been given could receive this statement. He then concluded with, “Let the one who is able to receive this, receive it”. Jesus certainly, is not referring to His command. God does not command something that we do not have the ability to obey. However, the statement concerning “not marrying” is something not everyone can do. This agrees with what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:6-7. Jesus said, only those “to whom it is given”. Paul would call the ability to remain single/celibate a gift from God in his writings.
This is the longest article in this series, but it needed to be so. We have seen what sin’s corruption ultimately did to God’s design. What was meant to be a lifelong union was being discarded for “any cause”. Jesus instructed the Pharisees to go back to God’s design. Jesus elaborated on His teaching with His disciples. He did not side with Hillel in this debate, rather He sided with Shammai. He taught that those who did otherwise were committing adultery against their spouse. In our next article, we will talk more about what that means.