Scripture: “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” Matthew 19:3-12 ESV
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Observation: Recapping yesterday’s Daily Focus (click here to read), Peter asks Jesus how often we must keep forgiving someone who sins against us. Peter suggests a reasonable number of seven, but Jesus ups the ante to seventy-seven (not to be taken literally but to signify an unlimited number). Jesus then tells a parable of an unforgiving servant who pleads for mercy to his master to grant him time to pay back his insurmountable debt. The master goes one further and immediately forgives his entire obligation. But the ungrateful servant then shows no mercy to a fellow servant who owed him a small sum. When news reaches the master, he summons the first servant and sentences him into debtor’s prison until he pays back his once-forgiven debt. Jesus concludes with a warning that anyone who refuses to forgive others will face the same consequences from his heavenly Father.
Today’s text follows a brief time and locale segue: Jesus and his disciples leave Galilee, enter a region of Judea beyond the Jordan, and Jesus continues to heal the large crowd that follows him (vv.1-2, click here to read). As expected, the Pharisees continue to track his movements to build evidence against him as a lawbreaker. Hence, these spies approach Jesus and pose a question to entrap him: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (v.3b) Jesus wisely responds with a question that appeals to the creation mandate from Genesis 2:24 (v.5 above). He then comments on the mystery of this one-flesh union: since God has joined them together, humankind must not take this sacred union lightly. Thinking they had set up Jesus to incriminate himself, the Pharisees respond with a second question that appeals to Moses’ provision for a writ of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4, click here to read). But Jesus sees through their scheme and responds as one who has authority over Scripture: Moses appeased your hard hearts (including this generation of Israelites), but this is not God’s intent from the beginning. Thus, if any divorce their wife, other than for sexual immorality, and remarry, they commit adultery.
Jesus’ response unnerves his disciples, who later, in private, exclaim that with this high standard, one is better off remaining single. Rather than pander to their concern, Jesus explains that celibacy is a gift. While some are physically incapable of sexual activity and others choose celibacy, if they embrace their singleness as a gift from God, they will effectively serve his kingdom in ways that a married person cannot.
Takeaway: Over the centuries, rabbis debated the meaning of “indecency,” which Moses cited as the only legitimate reason for divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1). In the more liberal school of Hillel, its meaning expanded over time to any action that displeased the husband. Still, the conservative school of Shammai held to the original intent of the Hebrew word translated as “indecent”: unchastity. The divorced wife in first-century Israel would often suffer shame and social marginalization. But, as theologian Michael Wilkins notes, “Moses instituted a regulation designed to do three things: (1) protect the sanctity of marriage from something “indecent” defiling the relationship; (2) protect the woman from a husband who might simply send her away without any cause; and (3) document her status as a legitimately divorced woman, so that she would not be thought a harlot or a runaway adulteress” (The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, p.643). Click here to read more incites from my December 25, 2022, Daily Focus regarding Jesus’ earlier teaching from the Sermon on the Mount that aligns with his response to the Pharisees here (Matthew 5:31-32).
As this segment concludes, Jesus’ disciples overreact to the permanency of divorce, perhaps because parents arranged most marriages in Jesus’ day. Whatever the reason, Jesus does not disparage marriage (as evidenced by quoting from Genesis); he simply wants his disciples to know there are advantages to remaining single. Paul, who remained single, concurred (Corinthians 7:6-11, click here to read).
Our takeaway? The progressives of Jesus’ day did not seek a better understanding of God’s original intent but a prescription for divorce. They wanted it all without sacrificial commitment. Indeed, commitment is the big idea in our text. Those who remain single have more time and energy to focus on their relationship with Christ and to serve others. Still, for those who choose to marry, Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians that how a husband and wife love and respect one another witnesses to the Gospel of Christ and his bride the church (Ephesians 5:31-32, click here to read). Thus, if we desire a marriage partner, we will do well to patiently wait on the Lord to bring the right person into our lives and then keep relying on his Holy Spirit to mature us in sacrificially loving and serving one another. If we remain single, we need to safeguard against selfishness and rely on the Holy Spirit to direct our paths. Either way, it’s a lifetime commitment to glorify the Father and Son and grow their kingdom in preparation for the glorious eternity that awaits us.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who wholeheartedly committed himself to your will in serving us, even unto death on his cross. And while relationships can be messy in our fallen world, we are grateful for your Holy Spirit, who helps us learn how to love others well—whether our spouse or neighbor. So would you please help us uphold a lifetime commitment first to you and your Son and then to family and our neighbors? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling