When we read Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:1-9 (or Mark 10:1-12), it’s easy to get bogged down in the details of who can get divorced for what reason. I did that extensively once—I wrote a position paper on divorce in seminary. But I think in the context of what Matthew (and Mark, of course) is doing in his Gospel, this passage goes beyond petty details. After all, the major Pharisaical schools of thought liked to quibble over details. That was their speciality.

But Jesus is more than a marriage ref. He is attacking the very heart of Pharisaism. That’s one of Matthew’s goals throughout the gospels. Look at what Jesus does.

After some Pharisees ask about what constitutes a legitimate divorce (v. 3), Jesus starts by saying, “Have you not read?” Jesus challenges them on the authority of the Scriptures. Haven’t you ever read what God said? Of course they’ve read it. They have it memorized. Every word. But Jesus isn’t looking for information. He knows they’ve read it. But do they obey it? Jesus’ question pierces through their me-centered approach to marriage and everything else for that matter. It’s one thing to affirm the Bible is God’s word. It’s another to obey it.

Then Jesus tells them the word they most certainly have read: “He who created them from the beginning made them male and female…” The climax of creation is God making humans “male and female.” It’s not one gender or the other.  God’s creative design was for a man and woman to be joined, not separated. “Can I divorce my wife for any cause?” (see v. 3) shows that the Pharisees get God, creation, image of God, and marriage all wrong.

Then Jesus goes for the jugular. The Pharisees appeal to Moses. Well, why did Moses command men to give divorce certificates to their wives? Jesus answers, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” At the heart of Pharisee belief was not self-sacrifice and forgiveness. It was ruthless justice and self-justification through strict adherence to the law. Moses’ law never commanded divorce, but allowed it and did so to keep vulnerable women safe in a society full of sinful Pharisee-type husbands.

This me-centered theology led to me-centered practice: what is the minimum she can do to me so that I can get out of this? That’s the crux. Jesus does say that divorce is allowable in the case of sexual immorality (v. 9), but his point is not so much to preside over divorce proceedings as it is cutting to the heart of a selfless, religious people who think they are honoring God’s law when, in fact, they are breaking his heart.

What’s going on in the bigger picture? The Pharisees are a microcosm of Israel who left their true Husband, Yahweh. And Jesus is going to show them that he is that true Husband. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, after all (16:21-28; 17:22-23; 20:17-19) to die for his Bride, forgive her (even of grievous sin!), wash her clean, and work mightily for her holiness—not kick her out in the cold. This is what Paul makes clear in Ephesians 5.

To the Pharisees, marriage was not about giving yourself up for the good of your spouse. It was about demanding and taking from your spouse so that you would be served. Jesus flips this on its head and shows that the religious elite truly have hard hearts, not obedient ones. Jesus will give himself up so that we come to see what marriage is all about—one man and one woman joined together before God in a loving, harmonious union of self-giving, forbearance, and forgiveness that points to a greater marriage: God’s with his people (cf. Hosea 1-3; Rev. 21:1-4).

Now the application for us becomes a bit more obvious—even for those of us with good marriages. I have never asked what’s the minimum Carly can do to me so I can send her away. But there’s a slice (sometimes a big one) of Pharisaism in my heart—and probably in yours. I too often make my marriage about me and what I can get out of it rather than about us and what I can give to my wife. I confess that my heart (which is Jesus’ point, after all) is all too ready to “send her away.” Not with divorce papers. But in the subtle, mini-divorces of angered silence, frustrated tones, sarcastic comments, and blame shifting.

If you think Jesus’ teaching about divorce is only for those with a marriage on the rocks you are fooling yourself. While we are asking what’s the minimum our spouse can do so we are justified in our literal divorces or metaphorical mini-ones, Jesus goes the distance to love his Bride by giving himself up for her. He’s saying, “It’s your hard heart that moves you send your spouse away when they wrong you. But I’m moved to run toward you and lay down my life for you, though you have wronged me.”

From the beginning, marriage was meant to be a living drama of God’s love for his people. His “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always, and forever love,” as someone once wrote. That’s the kind of love he has for us. That’s the kind of love he wants in our marriages.

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