[April 20, 2008] It is appropriate to approach this passage (Matthew 19:1-15) with humility, since culturally our experience of marriage and family has been extremely difficult. Jesus seems to forbid divorce and remarriage after divorce. To us, that is intolerable, and we are tempted to either hunt for loop-holes or ignore what He says. Along this line, too much attention has been paid to sex. Exclusive sex is what unites a couple. If—and only if—sex is shared with anyone else is the marriage over, in which case only the partner who did not cross the sexual boundaries is free to remarry. This works from a legal point of view, but it is hardly in the biblical spirit.
With more justice, we can look at the cultural circumstances and try to get at the social issue being addressed. For example, in Jewish society women did not have the right to divorce, only men, and if divorced by her husband, a woman was forced for financial reasons to remarry or move back with her parents or other members of her family. Jesus cites Genesis 2:24 where it says the man who has to leave his parents’ house, the wife does not, while in Jewish society it was the other way around. Nowadays we like to focus on gender issues and to look for the liberation of the female from male dominance. While that is a sure result of the Gospel, we do not want to read into the text our own concerns. Jesus was not focusing on gender issues.
The tendency of Bible commentaries and theologians is to treat the passages in Matthew 19-20 in isolation from their context. As a result, there is a tendency to read these passages with a “Pharisaic” mentality, searching for the rules that we are supposed to follow. In this case, we become worse than the Pharisees making rules far stricter than the Pharisees did. Jesus said of them, that “they bind burdens, heavy and hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their fingers” (Matthew 23:4). There is also a tendency to isolate marriage, parenthood and property (the issues dealt with in chapter 19) as belonging to the “order of creation,” and thus deal with them separately from “the order of salvation.” If we read the gospels with an open mind, it ought to be clear that this is precisely what Jesus refuses to do. Nothing escapes the claims of His lordship.
It is God’s purpose “to head up ALL things in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10).
Contextualizing the Passage
By the way I teach the Bible, you should see by now that context is everything. Jesus revealed the church to His disciples at the foot of the Hermon mountain range, and then He took some of them up on the mountain and they were given a vision of the kingdom. Since then Jesus and His disciples began their final journey to Jerusalem, to the cross. Along the way He taught them about living the life of the church in the light of the kingdom.
In chapter 18, while still in Galilee, He took His disciples aside and taught them about their relationships to one another in the church. We need to keep this in mind when we move into chapter 19. For here, they encounter the crowds again and the Pharisees begin to question them. So we move from the relationships inside of the community of the church, the members with one another, to how the community of the church looks on the outside. The Pharisees are the voice of the outside world, and their question has to do with marriage. It shows where the society looks. The place where the society sees the church is in the home. The home is the window, as it were, through which the society views the church. Biblically speaking, the home is not only a window but it is also the door to the church. We are speaking of the practice within the New Testament, not of our abnormal modern practices.
We saw this in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel. When the apostles were sent out, they invited themselves to dinner and did everything from people’s homes. Their evangelism and their subsequent teaching and discipling took place in people’s homes. They did not rent out separate buildings for the purpose nor did they usually preach out in the open, though they did speak to people where they shopped and conducted their business. Mostly though it was in their homes. In the Gospel according to Luke it is pervasive. Jesus moves from house to house, from one meal to another, all the way to the cross, and this way of His continues into the Acts of the Apostles. What we see from this is that the primary location of the church and its ministry is in the home.
In other words, the New Testament does not treat the home as the private domain of the individual or the nuclear or patriarchal family. It is the place of hospitality. It exists for the sake of the church. On the one hand, it is the place of hospitality for the community of the church itself—where the brothers and sisters can gather with each other. On the other hand, it is the place of the church’s hospitality to the neighborhood, to the unbelieving community within which the church lives. The home, in other words, is subordinate to Christ. He claims it as His own and for His own purpose. In view of what that purpose is, we can say—not in an authoritative or legalistic sense, but spiritually—that the home belongs to the church for the sake of the kingdom. To put it more succinctly, the family is for the church.
The Pharisees’ questions assume that marriage is a private matter. A man can do what he wants. God just sets up the boundaries. Likewise for them, children belong only to the family, and to the parents in particular. They are like a private possession. Unfortunately, Christians adopt the same attitude. We put home and family before church, and “church” is something the family does. It is one of its activities. That is simply how we configure it. We completely take this mentality for granted.
For Jesus and the apostles it is completely the other way around. He starts with the call to discipleship and then everything is subordinated to that. We belong to Him, we are members of one another within His community—what chapter 18 is about—and then, as a function of the church, we have homes in which to exercise hospitality for the sake of Jesus and the church. The church is in the center of the circle, the home is the next ring out, and then our neighbors.
The Relativizing of Relationships
In today’s passage three relationships are examined: marriage, singleness and our relationship to children. Jesus takes marriage out of the context of the man’s prerogative and subordinates it to God’s purpose—that is the real point, which we will come back to. There is an assumption that a man (in our case, the woman as well) can divorce and remarry at their own discretion. The question has to do with boundaries and limitations, which the questioners—from the school of Hillel—leave pretty open. Jesus does not accept this assumption but refers them back to God’s purpose—”Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning …” and “from the beginning it has not been so.” As always with Jesus, it is God’s purpose that matters, not our own plans, agendas and desires.
The subject changes to celibacy—making yourself a eunuch (figuratively speaking!). Jewish culture expected everyone to marry. To be fruitful and multiply is the first commandment in the Bible. But Jesus says you may be better off not marrying and remaining single. Jesus, however, does not leave this alone either. In our society, people often choose to remain single in order to have more freedom—financially, for privacy and mobility, or for sexual relationships with others. Jesus does not count any of these as a reason to leave the norm of marriage. He gives only one reason—“because of the kingdom of the heavens.” In other words, if a person chooses the single state it has to be for the greater opportunity it gives to serve the kingdom. The single option is only so we can serve God better, not ourselves. Marriage is not a good in itself, and neither is celibacy. Everything is subordinated to the kingdom.
The subject changes to children but the same theme is going on. Jesus was laying His hands on other people’s children and praying for them. “Allow the little children and do not prevent them from coming to Me, for of such is the kingdom of the heavens.” On the one hand, the attitude is that other people’s children are a nuisance for adults. On the other hand, the attitude is that children belong only to their parents and siblings, and that is their proper place. Jesus takes over here too. Not only does He claim adults for Himself, He claims the children. If this story has a lesson for the church, which it obviously is meant to or it would not be here, it is that the children belong not only to their parents but to Christ, and therefore to the church. The children of believers belong to all the believers, and the believers are responsible for them all. They are wards of the church (spiritually, not legally). Everything that Jesus said in chapter 18 about the believers as “little ones” applies to the actual little ones. (This does not mean that either parents or the church can compromise their safety with regard to potential predators. Common sense and wise precautions still apply.)
The Relationship of Spouses (Matthew 19:3-12)
We have established the context a little. Even though the Pharisees prompted the question, we are talking about relationships in the church and not trying to establish rules that the world can follow. These are the demands of discipleship. One needs to be a follower of Jesus and to have the Holy Spirit for any of this to apply. An unbeliever does not have the social or the inner resources to make it work. Thus Jesus speaks of “your hardness of heart.” But in order to understand what Jesus says about divorce, let us connect it better to what preceded it in chapter 18.
In chapter 18 Jesus said that in the church we need to humble ourselves like a little child in the midst of adults. We must under no circumstances cause another to stumble, that is, we must not cause harm to another’s relationship to Christ. We must not despise even the least among us but we must go out of our way to care even for those who go astray and get lost. If another sins against us, we cannot allow anything to stand between us but must reconcile with them. And we must never hold a grudge but must completely forgive each other. In other words, we must love one another with devotion and fidelity. Now, Jesus says, we need to do this in our homes as well. The home is where the world sees the church in action because the home is the foyer to the church. It is the normal place where people hear the Gospel and enter the life of the church. So the life of the church must be on display in the home.
The easiest people to love are on the other side of the world. It is much harder to get along with people with whom you rub shoulders. Chapter 18 is about the local church. That is where these relationships are real. It is with people to whom you are close that you learn how to deny yourself for the sake of Christ. The hardest people to love and to get along with are those in your own house. Blessed are you if this is not the case.
Marriage is not only for the couple, nor is it all about them. As we said, marriage is for the church. By practicing fidelity within marriage—the fidelity of love—marriage becomes a model of God’s fidelity to us, of Christ’s fidelity to the church, and of believers’ faithfulness to one another. In the Old Testament, marriage exists as a reflection of God’s relationship to His people. This divine fidelity is what is behind the fidelity of spouses. Behind the fidelity of spouses is the fidelity of believers to each other.
We may still divorce because there is too much harm if we remain together, though—putting aside who is to blame—it is still because of the hardness of our hearts when it comes to that. We cannot divorce and be self-righteous about it. It is not an entitlement. Divorce involves sin. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that because of where we are at, divorce is sometimes less harmful to the parties involved than if they remain together.
Let us not be judgmental of one another. Textually, Jesus had just finished telling the parable about the man who was forgiven an enormous debt by the king but could not forgive his fellow servant a mere pittance. Let no one judge another’s broken marriage by their happy one. But “let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). “For in many things we all stumble” (James 3:2). Instead, let us build up one another in the church.