Jesus’ Radical View of Divorce

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.


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  1. #1 by logiopath on July 17, 2009 - 6:12 pm

    Only you could make an analogy between the teachings of Jesus and French partisan.

  2. #2 by Christian Beyer on July 18, 2009 - 6:57 am

    That’s the word I was looking for! Partisan. But I wouldn’t have used it anyway. Partisans would have been analogous to the militant Zealots. John and Jesus did not push violence.(Even though at times, like with Nazi occupied Germany, I’d be all for it. Didn’t do much for those who rose up against Rome, though.

  3. #3 by logiopath on July 19, 2009 - 4:55 pm

    Honestly, in a perfect world, people would marry for life–but even religions with extreme moral codes, like Islam, allow for relatively easy divorce.

    Not everyone can get along when living under the same roof–no matter how well intentioned.

    Was Jesus speaking in contrast to the Pharisees’s (and Greek culture’s) practice of easy divorce, or was He establishing a standard for the Kingdom of God–or was He saying that except in extreme cases, stay married.

  4. #4 by Christian Beyer on July 19, 2009 - 9:35 pm

    Ah, my point was that it was none of those things.

  5. #5 by logiopath on July 20, 2009 - 1:35 am

    Of course.

    The next time your boss tells you something, try and read a double meaning into the words.

    In other words, if the Gospel texts have any reflection of Jesus’s words, then what is said is probably what is meant (regardless of the accuracy of the statement).

  6. #6 by logiopath on July 20, 2009 - 1:35 am

    So what did Jesus mean by His words about divorce?

    • #7 by Christian Beyer on July 20, 2009 - 6:23 am

      That’s actually not bad advice. Never having managed people in a business setting you probably have never encountered the overly literal employee who ONLY does precisely as he is told or perhaps follows the instructions so ‘religiously’ that he botches things up….”But that’s what you TOLD me to do!” It helps to understand your bosses general intent (bad bosses kept this secret – Jesus did not).

      Anyway re-read what I wrote,(no matter how painful you may find this) and follow the link to Herod’s story. It’s not entirely about what Jesus says but why certain things that he says and does are reported and the context with in which they are placed. (A good employee might use the same tactic, unless he wants to remain an entry level drone.)

      Why was this a trick question posed by the Pharisees? Why would his answer be considered seditious (or why would it not if John’s similar answer was?)

  7. #8 by logiopath on July 20, 2009 - 2:32 pm


    Maybe His teachings are more practical than theological?

    You’re right, I’ve never been in management, and I understand giving instructions to students who are literal in their interpretation.

  8. #9 by Christian Beyer on July 20, 2009 - 6:23 pm

    Or both. I don’t think Jesus would have made a distinction between the practical or ‘real’ world and the theological or spiritual one. And I don’t think he wanted us to this either. Our theology really does drive everything we do.

  9. #10 by 4854derrida on February 9, 2010 - 10:12 pm


    I’ve recently uploaded two rare interviews with the Wobblie, anarchist, and activist Dorothy Day.

    Day had begun her service to the poor in New York City during the Depression with Peter Maurin, and it continued until her death in 1980. Their dedication to administering to the homeless, elderly, and disenfranchised continues in many parts of the world.

    Please post or announce the availability of these videos for those who may be interested in hearing this remarkable humanist.

    They may be located here:

    Thank you

    Dean Taylor

  1. God’s “Exact Words”: Bothering by the Good Book « SHARP IRON

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