Jesus on marriage & divorce
I'm still reading some of the lectures that can be found at Gresham College by Keith Ward, past Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. The one I just finished is There's nowt so queer as folk - Gender and sexuality and I thought it was really interesting. It's long, though, so I thought I'd just post the part of it that is on what Jesus said about marriage and divorce ......
There's nowt so queer as folk - Gender and sexuality
- Keith Ward
[...] At last I come round to mentioning sex, which I have deferred for as long as possible. Jesus says, 'Anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery' (5, 28). The interpretation I prefer seems to fit this case very well. Jesus is talking about inner attitudes. We can interpret his statement (but it is an interpretation) as saying that anyone who inwardly desires a married woman has committed a sin which is a sort of adultery. But he goes on to say that if your right eye offends you, tear it out. That is certainly not literal. It is a hugely exaggerated statement to make the point that the nourishing of an active desire for a wrong (in this case, sex with another's wife) is itself a wrong. Then comes a very mysterious passage. 'Anyone who divorces his wife (except on the ground of unchastity - porneia), causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery' (5, 32). Divorce is allowed by Torah, and it was relatively easy for a man to divorce his wife, for 'indecency' (porneia), which could be very widely interpreted to mean anything shocking or unacceptable, not just adultery. But now Jesus says that if the man divorces a wife, it is she who commits adultery. This could only be so if she marries again, and it seems to prohibit remarriage after divorce, even for women who do not want to be divorced, and who will be socially disadvantaged if they do not remarry.
This seems surprisingly uncharitable, if it is meant to be a rule. In some manuscripts, at Matthew 19, 9, Jesus says, 'Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery'. This formulation is found in Mark and Luke also. That makes more sense, and at least puts the blame on the man.
Matthew certainly represents Jesus as saying that divorce is a bad thing, arising from human hard-heartedness. 'It was not so at the beginning' (Mat. 19, 8). But is Jesus cancelling the Biblical permission of divorce? Or is he rather saying (by analogy with the 'law of retaliation' case above) that divorce is permissible, but disciples should not divorce their wives? If we follow the analogy of that case, however, we might expect that this is not a specific rule, but points to an inner attitude. Just as you are not expected literally to let evildoers do as they wish without resistance, so you are not expected literally never to divorce, nor is a divorced woman guilty of adultery if she remarries. The point in the former case is to be non-vindictive, but what you are to do in specific cases depends on the situation. If the analogy was pursued, in the case of divorce the point would be to condemn an attitude of frivolity or lack of seriousness about marriage, and to encourage an attitude of loyalty to a partner 'for better or worse, until death'. Jesus would be pointing out that commitment to another in marriage is to be serious, life-long and genuine, not a matter of momentary inclination or convenience.
But he would not be saying that in hard cases (as when a man deserts a woman), she is condemned never to remarry. Christian churches differ considerably in their interpretation of Jesus' reported remarks about divorce. The Church of England, strangely, has the harshest doctrine - that marriage is life-long and re-marriage after divorce is forbidden. Fortunately, perhaps, Anglicans rarely keep their own rules. The Roman Catholic Church also forbids remarriage after divorce, and holds that divorce is impossible, for marriage is indissoluble.
This is a strongly literal interpretation of Jesus' teaching. But the Catholic Church nevertheless annuls many marriages, saying that they were not genuine, so in practice people can marry 'again', even while children of the previous 'non-marriage' still live. The Orthodox Churches permit remarriage after divorce, as long as a public confession of regret for the breakdown of the previous marriage is made. Many Protestant churches permit divorce and remarriage, and so they are presumably committed to taking Jesus' words on this issue non-literally, as an exaggerated way of saying that ideally one should not divorce, and that one should do all one can to prevent divorce. But sometimes it happens, and we must then make the best of a bad job - and 'making the best' will often mean marriage to someone else. This shows how difficult it is to interpret Jesus' moral teaching on this central matter of sexual ethics, marriage and divorce. My own view is nearest the Orthodox and Protestant view on this issue, and for three main reasons.
First, Jesus' moral teaching in general seems to be stated in very exaggerated terms that cannot be taken literally, but that point to the ideal moral attitudes that should govern human life (we might think of Jesus' statement that a camel cannot go through a needle's eye as such a case, pointing out the difficulty, but not the absolute impossibility, of combining great wealth and Christian discipleship). So if we try to take one consistent way of interpreting Jesus' moral teachings, it has to be a non-literal way, but a way which does not in any way undermine the importance of absolute moral commitment. The commitment will be, however, not to external acts but to inner attitudes. Such attitudes will normally issue in external acts of a specific sort. Life-long commitment will normally issue in no divorce. But in hard cases, the required attitudes of true care for another and respect for their wishes can remain, or even be strengthened, by making an exception to the normal rules.
Second, Torah permitted divorce, as did all the Rabbis of Jesus' day. The disciples may have been shocked at the severity of Jesus' teaching, but it was shock enough to them that he made divorce extremely difficult, when they were obviously expecting him to have a more liberal attitude (that itself is perhaps a clue to the general nature of Jesus' moral teaching. He was generally liberal or humane in his interpretations of Torah, arguing for healing and for picking ears of what on the Sabbath - both allowed by liberal interpretations of Torah, but contested by very conservative readings). And according to Matthew, Jesus did not mean actually to contradict Torah in his teaching.
Third, the literal interpretation of the divorce aphorism in the Sermon on the Mount would be uncharitable to innocently divorced women, and I cannot accept that Jesus' teaching was ever uncharitable. True love of neighbour will sometimes involve marrying, and taking care of, women who have been left alone through no fault of their own, or by a tragic breakdown of marriage. And it will sometimes involve letting a wife of husband go, when they do not wish to continue a relationship further. These are hard cases, and it would be a mistake to build a set of moral laws on hard cases. It is better to do as I, at least, believe Jesus did, and that is to set out the moral ideals that should govern human life, and leave hard cases to careful and particular consideration in often unforeseen situations. The underlying principle that I would find in the sermon with regard to sexual morality is that life-long commitments of loyalty and trust, for better or for worse, are of great value, and should never be intentionally undermined (5, 31 - 32). In addition, it is wrong to make such relationships merely instrumental to gaining momentary pleasure, so that personal gratification is regarded as more important than a fully personal relationship of shared concern and experience (5, 27 - 30). Both these principles are fully consistent with love of neighbour, and they spell out what such love implies. In the form in which I have described them, they do not mention sex or gender at all. They are about friendship in general. And that, in my view, is how they should be taken .....
Professor Keith Ward, Gresham College, 1 March 2007