Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mike: Matthew 5:31-32

"It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'" (Matthew 5:31-32) (NRSV)

Few New Testament passages provoke more conversation than Matthew 5:31-32. American Christians tend to treat it in one of several ways: make it a church law, apply it mostly to special groups (pastors, etc.), ignore it, restrict its application to the first century, interpret it in terms of leveling the playing field for women and men, or simply live uncomfortably with the knowledge that it exists within the canon. Individual Christians sometimes elevate the passage, treating it as a kind of supreme test of fellowship. More often than not, such individuals are dealing (poorly) with painful divorces within their families or friendship circles.

According to many a commentator, Jewish men in the first century could rather easily divorce their wives. Adultery, disobedience, and--at least in one often cited list--burning the meal were considered amble cause for divorce. Insofar as I know, women had little if any recourse. My best guess is that divorce proved a little harder in practice, not because of legal restraints but because of the forces of family, economics and compassion. Still, there seems little doubt that men held an enormous advantage with regard to power and that women were blamed for divorce.

Jesus seems to insist on at least two things.

First, he clearly take marriage and divorce seriously. Kingdom life does not trivialize marriage. Ending a marriage is not a light matter. Even if we allow for the "exception clause" (and it may well have been added by editors), Jesus clearly teaches that divorce should be rare.

Second, he places enormous responsibility on the husband. The husband forces his former wife into a situation where she may well be compelled by economic necessity, family pressures or other considerations to marry another male. In such a case, both men effectively force her to commit adultery. In the first century world, a divorced woman had few economic options. If her birth family refused or was unable to care for her, she might well be forced into prostitution or into another marriage in order to survive. All of the preceding can provoke endless discussion, but for me the key point is this: Jesus took the "get out of jail card" away from men.

In our time, roughly 50 percent of American Christians experience divorce. Most, in my experience, feel they had few options, yet they also tend to wrestle with considerable feelings of guilt. My personal position is that all the brokenness of human life (including divorce) is subject to the grace of God, through which we not only receive forgiveness but often find God fashioning an unexpected good thing. This does not eliminate personal responsibility and pain, but it does project the possibility to an end to what we might call an "exile experience" coupled with some kind of restoration/rebirth.

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