A sermon by Fr. Justin Clemente, delivered to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican) on July 31, 2022. Part of our ongoing “The Hard Sayings of Jesus” series.
Salt in the Wound
As we begin our time around Jesus’ Hard Saying on divorce, I simply want to acknowledge that this is a sensitive and painful topic for many of us. As I think through our families in this church, I can think of very few who have not been touched by the tragic reality of divorce. I want to say that I see you and I weep with you over the wounds divorce inevitably causes. I know today, for some of you, will salt into that wound. May it be healing salt. I want to encourage you to seek healing in the ministry of the body of Christ as needed.
We want to approach this Hard Saying in two ways.
First, we want to keep the Gospel at the center. Our first and principle belief as Christians is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ can meet a person at any point in their life: before, during, and after a divorce, bringing healing, forgiveness and restoration.
But secondly, we want to bow before the Word of God. When Jesus says, “I say to you,” (v. 9) it is not the opinion of a man we have here, but the pronouncement of God incarnate. We do not want to imagine Jesus winking or crossing his fingers as he says these things. He means what he says. We should not prioritize our own experience over his word. So we each need to come humbly, repentant, and with a desire to hear him anew – especially in the midst of a culture that has, in many ways, simply given up on marriage.
It’s my goal today, in the time that we have, to simply walk us through the passage. I want you to see how Jesus’ teaching develops and where his heart is as at he teaches us about the nature of marriage.
A Response to Bad Teaching: Have You Not Read? (vs. 3-6)
First, look carefully at the context here. Jesus is responding to a trap set by a group of Pharisees. They test him, seeking to trip him up. Verse 3.
Now, some background is helpful here. There were two major school of rabbis in Jesus’ time: the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. Hillel held a very liberal position on divorce, and the Pharisees seem to be siding with Hillel. The question they bring to Jesus is something like, “hey, there are, like, lots of things we can divorce a wife for, right?” This included things like burning the toast or, even, not being attractive enough! Notice also how imbalanced the application of God’s Law is (!). Their question doesn’t go both ways – they are only interested in the reasons a husband may divorce his wife.
In response, what does Jesus do? He flips the table. He refuses the tactic and changes the conversation. He begins by saying, “Have you not read?” That’s equivalent to saying, “Are you reading the same Bible I am? Because my Bible says…!”
I want to note here that what the Pharisees are doing is still a temptation today in the church. Here’s what I mean by that: this passage itself is referred to as one that lists the few “biblical grounds” for divorce. But that’s not truly what Jesus is after. He is restoring the dignity, nature and intent of marriage in his response. He goes all the way back to creation and Genesis 1 & 2, saying, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” So in response to the question, “Hey, what is a good and lawful to get out of my marriage?” Jesus says, there are no good ways – there certainly is the sad reality of divorce, but that’s never God’s intent or design, and it’s never without real damage. Just because a scenario like ongoing infidelity, abandonment, or abuse may make divorce necessary it certainly doesn’t make ever make it good.
Jesus says that divorce always involves a tearing, a ripping apart, and even something akin to the death of person. It kills a promised covenant relationship created by him.
Here’s a related point: why does God hate divorce so much? Because it’s really all about him. (see Ephesians 5:22-33!). Marriage points to his own unstoppable, ever faithful, never giving up, never ending, and undeserved love for his own people. Christ is the good husband and he is jealous for way we talk about and treat marriage.
Here’s a related point that needs speaking to: as Anglicans, we do not have exactly the same understanding of divorce as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. Rather than say, as the Roman Catechism does[i], that marriage can never be absolutely dissolved, we simply say that it is possible to shatter the marriage covenant. We cannot make marriage, but we can in fact break marriage. Our Anglican Catechism ask the question, “Is divorce ever permitted? The answer given is: “The New Testament permits divorce in some cases; however, out of love for his people, God hates divorce because it severs what he has joined, causes immeasurable pain, and destroys family life.”
Moses’ Concessions vs God’s Intent (vs. 7-8)
But the Pharisees don’t back down. They counter with the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 24, verses 1-4. But they are still misreading God’s word. They key error is in the way they use this passage. Look at what they say in verse 7: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce…” The problem is that Moses commanded nothing in this passage. It was a concession to hardened hearts already in the process of a divorce. In fact, the only command in that passage is a protection for the divorced woman. That reality, the reality of divorce because of one or maybe both spouses having a hardened heart is what keeps divorce going today. It doesn’t happen without that.
The Hard Saying: Knock It Off! (v. 9)
Now comes what is considered the hard saying, verse 9. But note: this is Jesus’ response to the hardness of the Pharisees hearts. To hard hearts, his truly hard teaching is the one he already gave: let no man separate what God has joined together! (v. 6) Author Jeffrey Gibbs is helpful here:
“If Matthew had stopped his presentation of Jesus’ teaching with 19:8, that would have been enough. However, one more saying with authority is added (19:9), and I can only believe that Jesus chose his words for their shocking power to confront and destroy the thinking of his opponents. These Pharisees, along with others in Judaism, have blithely assumed that their basic assumption – that a husband could divorce his wife under certain circumstances – was derived from the Torah of Moses and was pleasing to God. Their disagreements with each other were only a matter of quarreling over the details of the circumstances that permitted divorce. Jesus annihilates their position.”[ii]
Jesus is after a change of heart from his opponents. Instead of asking, “how can I look holy and get a divorce,” he wants them to see the heart of marriage. And at the center of marriage is Jesus himself! The Gospel of Jesus Christ is at the center of what marriage is. It is preached in the marital union of every man and woman. Our Anglican Catechism defines marriage this way, “Marriage is the exclusive, lifelong, covenantal union of love between one man and one woman, and a reflection of the faithful love that unites God and his people. Marriage is therefore holy and should “be held in honor among all.” A Gospel-centered marriage is not about saying “how long before I can get out,” but rather is it about living together in thankfulness for the forgiveness of your sins, as Bonhoeffer said. It is the beautiful reality of knowing the faithfulness of the church’s Good Spouse and then turning, gratefully, to give that to one another. The only sure footing in marriage is found upon the level ground at foot of the cross.
I want to take a moment to aim this teaching at our contemporary moment. Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce is radically at odds with the status quo of today. Jesus annihilated the position of the Pharisees, and he would the same to the position of many today inside and outside of the church. We live in a time when marriage is seen not as a covenant, but as a social contract of convenience – always capable of being renegotiated or dropped altogether like a hot potato. Without covenant, without Jesus and the gospel at the center, marriage easily becomes selfish. The thinking goes: I’m here as long as my spouse makes me look good, but if they don’t, I’ll be looking for that upgrade! This is not all that far from the original question Jesus was asked by the Pharisees.
In this hard saying, as we think about marriage and divorce, we are all challenged to ask, “Is my heart in line with Jesus’s?”
Husbands and wives are called to love, honor, and serve one another until death. Having received grace, we are to grow in grace. We are to reflect, husbands in particular, however dimly, the One of whom, as we will sing in just a moment:
[Made the Church] His new creation / By water and the Word
From heaven He came and sought her / To be His holy bride
With His own blood He bought her / And for her life He died
There is no greater or more faithful love than the love Jesus has for his people. And that forever-promised love is to be the cornerstone for every human marriage until Christ comes to retrieve his Bride. Amen.
[i] Catechism of the Catholic Church, pg. 450.
[ii] Matthew 11:2-20:34 by Jeffrey Gibbs, pg. 952.