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Is It Lawful To Divorce One's Wife?

February 25, 2011

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Jesus’s teaching on marriage and divorce comes in response to a ‘test question’ posed by the Pharisees. What his opponents were asking was whether a man could divorce his wife on any grounds, which was the liberal opinion of the day, or only because of adultery, which was the conservative opinion. Jesus replies by referring to the chapter on creation in the book of Genesis. His conclusion: human marriage is the result of God’s creation. Therefore, it is an act of God and man may not tamper with it. Moses is clear on this. This answer does not please his questioners, but they could hardly contest it. So they come up with another: why then does the Law make provision for divorce? In his reply, Jesus implicitly devalues the Law. Provision for divorce is a concession to man’s ‘hardness of heart’, but in its origin, marriage is indissoluble in the eyes of God, and so it is meant to be. In stating this, Jesus rejects both the custom of Roman law which permitted either a man or a wife to initiate divorce, as well as the more lenient interpretation of Jewish law, which allowed divorce in ‘special circumstances’. What ‘special circumstances’? If the man had a concubine – an irregular union, but accepted in society – he could send the woman away without fault. He wasn’t obliged to keep her. The disciples were so taken aback by these words, they grumbled, “in that case, it’s better not to marry”. Jesus takes their response further: Not every one can live without marriage, he declares. Some are precluded because of birth defect, some through surgery. But for a rare few, marriage is sacrificed ‘for the sake of the Kingdom’. Jesus does not specify for what purpose this renunciation is made. But in the context of the renunciation he demands of his followers – the sacrifice of family and personal property – the call to be a disciple and to live by the values of the Kingdom, may well justify the giving up of marriage as well.
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