The following is taken from a sermon series preached at The Southeast Project. You can listen to the audio of this teaching on our sermon audio page at www.wearesoutheast.org
We recently rearranged furniture in our house and had a mattress to get rid of. My wife made a post on Facebook because she didn’t want to just throw it away or put it out on the curb because maybe someone would find value in it. But sometimes you just throw something away and you don’t really give it another thought.
In the ancient near east, 3,000-4,000 years ago, this is the way women were viewed. A woman was viewed as property. And because a woman was viewed as property a husband could get rid of his wife at any time for any reason he wanted to and simply toss her away like yesterday’s trash.
Doesn’t it feel disturbing to describe a woman, a wife, and a mother as property that could be thrown away? It does but we have to talk about it to understand the world of the ancient near east so we can understand what Jesus taught about divorce. So, to sum up what this looked like in the ancient near east: when a husband divorced his wife she, and her children, would have no rights, no protection, and no provision. If you as a wife, were dismissed, you had nothing.
Into this reality stepped a passage that still feels incredibly ancient but at the time was incredibly progressive. It was written to the Israelites, the people God had rescued from Egypt who were being formed by God to share a new way to live in the world. Part of that new way of living dealt with this issue of divorce because the customs and laws of the world around them were typically out of alignment with God’s desire and hope for the world. And God had a better way.
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,
I recognize that what I just referenced is an incomplete sentence but I wanted to focus on this part of the sentence today because while that passage seems barbaric-it sounds incredibly sexist and patriarchal-it was also giant leap forward from the way things had been. At the time this was written it was incredibly revolutionary and progressive. It was pushing things forward.
This passage was telling the Israelites- unlike their neighbors at the time and unlike the customs of the rest of the world- they couldn’t just kick their wife out of their tent and into an unforgiving world for no reason.
The Israelites were told here they had to go through a process of giving a certificate of divorce to their wives. This meant that in going through that process they may reconsider but, more importantly, this was a way of restoring their wife’s honor, dignity, and virtue. A sent away woman did not have these things in the ancient near east. A divorced woman had no value. That changed with this passage.
And all of this brings us to Jesus.
In the 50 years before Jesus, two teachers emerged who taught how to follow God by how they interpreted passages in the Hebrew scriptures. One teacher’s name was Hillel and the other was Shemaiah. These two teachers died about a generation before Jesus showed up but they cast a huge shadow on how the scriptures were interpreted. Hillel was typically permissive with his interpretations and Shemaiah was restrictive with his interpretations. Naturally these two teachers had differing views about divorce because of how they interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1.
24 If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her…
The reason they ended up debating is the same reason people debate things like the amendments in the constitution. It’s all about language. The word indecent is hard to define.
So, what ended up happening is that the Shemaiah school came to believe that to divorce a woman she had to be adulterous. That was their interpretation of indecent. That action triggered for them the legality of divorce. It made it more difficult for the man to kick his wife to the curb.
The Hillel school was a little more loose in believing any reason could be considered indecent as long as you thought it was indecent. This means that they went so far to declare even burning a man’s food (that’s actually found in a text) was a good enough reason to demand a divorce.
The first thing to say to this is that if you hold to a simple conclusion and belief about divorce I want you to recognize that this has been debated for thousands of years. For thousands of years people have been wrestling with the complexities, tensions, and heartaches of divorce. Divorce has never been simple. We do people a great disservice when we try to solve instead of manage this tension and fail to recognize the gray that exists here.
The second thing is this. Do you now understand why it is important to see the context and debate that Jesus was entering and to what he was speaking? When Jesus talked about divorce he was entering into a controversial conversation of his day and a debate of thousands of years. The question everyone had was who was Jesus going to side with? Whichever side Jesus landed on would have incredible ramifications and implications about men, women, and the value we all hold.
Now, in most places Jesus seems to side with Hillel when it comes to interpreting scripture. But here, Jesus sides with Shemaiah.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Jesus is saying a man can’t simply divorce his wife because he’s bored, she annoys him, or because she burnt his breakfast. He can’t treat her like property or malfunctioning kitchen product. He must show her the respect, dignity, and honor she deserves simply because she exists.
And this makes sense, because to understand this passage about divorce we have to look at what Jesus had been talking about in the entire sermon on the mount. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructed people to move beyond simply upholding law to looking into the depths of their souls in how they treated themselves and how they treated each other.
This could be summed up by saying that Jesus showed that the law in scripture was not more sacred than the people God created and, as a result, a marriage is not more sacred than the people in it.
That statement is hard to hear. And I’m still not even sure I’m totally comfortable with it but I like the tension it creates enough for us to wrestle with it.
This statement isn’t about devaluing marriage. It’s not about not hating the idea of divorce. It isn’t saying we should enter and exit marriage lightly. The idea that marriage is not more sacred than the people in it forces us to address what’s actually central:
Divorce, and the words of Jesus here, are not simply about some kind of right or wrong, it is about people with real heartache and real pain. The scripture is not written to be used to wound people who are already going through pain but is instead about showing us in the brokenness of our humanity how to love each other as God loves us.
When Jesus stepped into this debate he agreed with a group of people who said you can’t just throw your wife away. You can’t do that because the people in the marriage have value, worth, and deserve honor.
In the scripture passages we have studied the past three weeks Jesus was being very clear that the primary issue when it comes to the Kingdom of God is how we value each other and how we love each other. Using murder, adultery, and divorce as the contextual springboards Jesus led the crowd into truth they didn’t expect to find:
Murder is the symptom, anger is a disease.
Adultery is the symptom, lust is a disease.
Divorce is the symptom, contempt is a disease.
If the anger you carry eats you up inside, you have murdered that person in your heart.
If you lust after a someone and turn them into an object of your desire, you have committed adultery in your heart.
We think of divorce in terms of the very end: the decision to file, the legality of the paperwork, the finality of a marriage. The reality is that the true divorce happens when a person devalues, disrespects, or abuses their spouse. If you show contempt for your spouse, you have already divorced them in your heart.
A few thoughts as we close up today.
I believe in the miraculous power of healing that God is able to do in relationships when two people commit honesty about their brokenness within their relationship. My own marriage has benefited from counseling and prayer. I have also watched marriages on the brink find new life that didn’t seem to exist. We believe in the power of resurrection, we surely believe that resurrection has the power to be true in our relationships.
However, these stories are not the only valid stories. And while we should absolutely celebrate them it is wrong for them to be the only stories that are heard.
If you are wrestling with the question of divorce in your own life, whether you have gone or are going through divorce know that you are not alone. You are not condemned in your struggle. We know that your story is full of heartache and pain without the critique and condemnation of others adding to it. You are loved by your Heavenly Father and you are loved and supported by your church as we provide you support for healing to take place in your marriage or on the other side of divorce. We are with you.
If you’re not in this place in your own life, remember that neither marriage nor divorce is simply a piece of paper. It is the binding and unbinding of two people, two lives that have become one. No one gets married with the intention to get divorced. So instead of judging someone else’s story, value the person who sits across from you at the table and who lays next to you in your bed. Live out the words of Jesus and treat the people in your home as sacred.
If you aren’t going to take the time to understand the context and critical issues around a passage of scripture but would rather just use that passage to beat someone up with it: just shut up. The church has to stop wounding people.
Now, there are so many passages I could have used today but then I realized this sermon and this passage we read are not the final word on marriage or divorce. In fact, while Jesus is speaking about divorce, the context shows us he is speaking much more about the sacred value we all carry.
People are not objects to be hated, lusted over, or thrown away. They are to be seen for what they are-made in the image of God. And for who they are-sons and daughters of God.
This is how God sees us which shows us how we are to see each other. And may that be the word that leads us to value the people in our homes, our neighborhoods, and around our world.