“But Jesus told them, ‘He wrote this command for you because of the hardness of your hearts. But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
In many of the weddings I’ve done and attended over the years, a common feature of the ceremony was some sort of a symbolic unity ritual. Most often it has been a candle. Two candles are lit at the beginning of the service and during the affair, the bride and groom take up their candle and use them to simultaneously light a third. Sometimes it has been a sand ceremony. Here, two different colors of sand are poured from their respective vessels into a third resulting in a mixing of colors. One time the couple weaved a braid together into a cord of three strands. The point of these exercises is to signify the permanence of the relationship being formed. Why is this kind of thing included in so many wedding ceremonies, and how should we think about this in a day when divorce is common and marriage rates are falling? Let’s turn today and tomorrow to some words from Jesus that speak right to the heart of this issue and see what kind of clarity He brings to the matter for us.
Let me start this with a bit of shameless personal back-patting. In nearly thirteen years of ministry, I have been involved personally in ministering to a marriage relationship that ended in divorce only one time. Honestly, given the state of our marriage culture today I’m pretty proud of that fact. Along the way, I’ve done a lot of premarital counseling and a little bit of walking with already married couples through one crisis or another. I’ve personally watched marriages survive struggles with disease, miscarriages, pornography use, infidelity of varying sorts, and the list goes on. Now, I’m under no sort of delusion that I’m the reason these couples have survived and thrived. All that credit goes directly to God Himself. But that He allowed me to play a role in His work is something for which I’m pretty grateful. After all and again, marriage sometimes seems like it’s on the ropes these days.
But lest you think we’re somehow different on this point from our past, think again. The permanence of marriage and the accessibility of divorce has been a topic of conversation and debate among thinkers and teachers both religious and not for hundreds, but thousands of years. The simplest reason for this is that marriage is hard. Taking two separate lives and combining them together for a lifetime in spite of all the baggage and brokenness that each brings to the relationship is a monumental task. Many couples get it right, and the results are simply amazing. Many couples don’t, and the collateral damage from those explosions is littered across human history.
As followers of Jesus, this is something about which we should be at the very least interested, and at the most deeply concerned and involved. Thankfully, we are not without some material from Him to help guide our teaching. We are not without this because many of the issues we face today were issues the people were dealing with in Jesus’ day. In particular, on this day that the crowds had converged on Jesus and He started to teach them, as we talked about yesterday, some religious leaders of the Jews pushed their way to the front of the crowds and dropped a cultural bomb at His feet to see what He would do with it. Their real goal was to get Him to say something they could use to discredit Him before the people.
“Some Pharisees came to test him, asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?'”
Now, stated simply like that, they were really setting Jesus up to make a big whiff. This was a debate that had been going on for a very long time. They might as well have asked Jesus which came first, the chicken or the egg. There was no way He could answer this question in a way that wasn’t going to make somebody mad.
In the culture of the day, there were generally two camps on the matter, one more conservative, one more liberal. These camps were headed by the two most famous rabbis of the day, Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel. The former tended to be more conservative and the latter, more liberal. Generally speaking, religious leaders of the Jews fell into one camp or the other on pretty much every major issue. If you didn’t have one of them to give weight to your arguments, you weren’t going to be able to make much traction in a debate.
On many issues of the day, Jesus leaned a bit in the direction of Rabbi Hillel in His basic approach. And perhaps that’s what the Pharisees were hoping here. On the question of divorce in particular, Rabbi Hillel tended to be very permissive. A man could divorce his wife for any reason or no reason. He merely needed to speak the words and the thing was done. He could turn her out on the streets. He could always find another bride who pleased him more. Note the glaring one-sidedness of his approach. Rabbi Shammai, on the other hand, was much more restrictive. His teachings made getting a divorce entirely more difficult and complicated. As it turns out, that’s the direction Jesus moved.
Ultimately Jesus answers their question and gives His opinion on divorce, but that’s not where He goes right away. Instead, He starts by taking them back to what God intended for marriage in the first place. In total, His answer was probably not what the Pharisees wanted to hear.
He started by taking them back to the very Law they professed to love so much: “What did Moses command you?” In other words, what does the Law say? They knew the answer to this. In Deuteronomy 24:1, Moses said that if a man’s wife becomes displeasing to him because of something indecent she has done, he could write her a divorce certificate and send her away. There you have it. The Law permits divorce. The matter should be settled. Right? Wrong.
Jesus took things three steps further. He pushed them back to the original design for marriage. Along the way, He challenged the whole premise of their question and the attitude behind it. Moses, Jesus said, gave this command because the people were stubborn and weren’t willing to accept God’s original design for marriage.
As a side note, in giving this command, Moses was not weakening the institution of marriage in that day as we might think. He was actually strengthening it and moving a people who were far from God’s ideal a few steps back in the right direction. Before this command, a man who wanted to divorce his wife could just do it and be done. He just had to kick her out and the relationship was over. By requiring a certificate, his actions were rendered public where the judgment of his peers came into play. That put a bit of accountability on the matter and a man may therefore be shamed into getting over himself and trying to work out his issues before simply kicking his wife to the curb in a culture that had no kind of social support system to help her make it without a husband.
God’s original design for marriage, Jesus said, was rooted back in creation itself. The last thing that happened during the creation narrative was that the man and woman were married. God created the first humans male and female with marriage in mind. That in and of itself speaks to the inherent wrongness of an understanding of marriage as anything other than a relationship between a biological male and a biological female. I’ll leave that alone for now. The point here is that marriage then – and in Jesus’ day and now – was intended to be the permanent joining of two lives. The two lives, Moses said and Jesus echoed, became one flesh. Two were one and in such a way that a separation was no longer possible. In other words, marriage was designed and intended to be a permanent state of affairs.
Before answering their question of divorce, Jesus wanted them to better understand the nature of marriage itself. Marriage is supposed to be permanent. And in spite of where our culture is today, a part of us inherently understands this truth. This is why so many marriage ceremonies include some sort of a unity ritual. When you take two candle flames and use them to light a third, it is not possible to divide back out the parts of the flame that came from each respective candle. Something new has been created and it cannot be uncreated. The same thing goes with the sand ceremony. Perhaps given enough time and effort you could separate out the sand back into its respective original containers, but it would be a monumental process. Marriage is supposed to be forever. That’s how it was designed. Anything other than that is a deviation of what God intended. And how we should think about such deviations is something we’ll talk more about tomorrow.