Next to homosexuality the issue that seems to be most contentious for the Christian church is that of divorce. I’ve heard people say, when arguing for Christian tolerance of gays, that in the Bible Jesus never spoke out against homosexuality but he did specifically condemn divorce, a practice widely accepted within (if not a prime motivation for) the mainline Protestant tradition. Those Christians who do consider divorce to be a sin often refer to these same scripture accounts, such as this one from chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel;
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.”“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’
But why is it that the Gospels are so specific about Jesus’ outspoken remarks on divorce when there are other ‘sins’ that are not mentioned? His condemnation of divorce would even appear to disregard the Mosaic laws permitting divorce, laws that are counted among those that Jesus says he did not come to abolish. Are the Gospels telling us about something rare happening here– Jesus expressly overruling an earlier Biblical instruction? (unless you think that his Sermon on the Mount is doing the same thing). But why this one? And why was the Pharisee’s question regarding divorce so tricky?
Perhaps we have a clue from chapter six of the same Gospel:
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’
John the Baptist was arrested and eventually beheaded for his outspoken criticism of Herod. In effect John was saying that Herod and Herodias were not worthy of their ruling status, that their illegitimate actions made their office illegitimate. This was not just a scripturally based Jewish perspective, Herod Antipas was not an authentic ruler but actually a puppet of the Roman Empire.
When Jesus publicly condemns divorce he is implicitly, and dangerously, condemning Herod and Herodias. He surely was aware of this and considering the fact that the Pharisee’s were trying to ‘test’ him one can assume that this was another of Jesus’ prophetic responses calculated to aggravate the Jewish people’s oppressors as well as their collaborators.
Herod’s marriage to his brother Areta’s wife was openly contentious and eventually erupted into war between their two provinces so Herod was not held in the highest favor by his Roman bosses. This was in spite of his immense and expensive construction projects designed to please the Emperor. The Roman buzzword was ‘peace’, a peace provided by Caesar Augustus, the “Son of God”, and Herod was expected to help maintain it.
So Jesus (also proclaiming to be the Son of God) was giving not only a teaching response but also a politically radical one, as insanely radical as a Parisian publicly criticizing Marshall Petain and Hitler during the reign of Vichy France. Herod was much more bloodthirsty than Petain and the Romans were every bit as brutal as the Nazis. While a firing line would inevitably be the fate of any such French political dissident, John would meet the edge of an Herodian blade and Jesus would hang on a Roman cross.
Jesus’ teachings on divorce, like many of his other teachings, are not expressly about theology. Unless you happen to believe that we are all motivated by our ‘theology’. Certainly Jesus’ understanding of God’s will was instrumental in his radically dangerous criticisms of empire.