Jesus, marriage and divorce, part 3 — Matthew 19:10–12

The Kings Instructions

Advent 2021

When it comes to working out what someone means the first thing to look at the meaning of the words. but logic is not the only concern. Context is everything, words change meaning over time and the context of who is speaking and being spoken to can change the meaning of what is being said. This is true today as it was in the encounters Jesus had with people.

A cartoon showing different family units.
Non-traditional family units,
From the University of Brighton blog.

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Matthew 19:9-12

The disciples were astounded. This harsh teaching was not like the Jesus they had been following for the last few years, Jesus always had compassion, even for those who were clearly in the wrong, even for those who had committed sexual sins. A Samaritan woman at a well who had had five husbands and was living with a man that was not her husband, was shown compassion by Jesus. A woman who had been caught in the act of adultery was shown compassion. Jesus always shows compassion for the vulnerable and needy.

But where are the vulnerable people in this passage from the Bible? The question is about a man wanting to divorce his wife, but it is a hypothetical question, there are no vulnerable people struggling with their relationships here, just some pompous religious leaders who were trying to trap Jesus. Who is this teaching for? Pharisees, pompous religious leaders. Jesus never hit down on the vulnerable making their situation worse, but he did hit up at the religious and political leaders because these were the people who made and enforced rules that keep poor people poor, that put stress on the weary and that put even heavier loads on the already vulnerable. Jesus was not going to play their game of taking sides. He was not going to side with Rabbi Hillel who said that the husband could divorce his wife for almost any reason, this treats a wife as a commodity, someone that can be exchanged when you are tired of her. Neither is Jesus going to side with Rabbi Shammai who said Moses was speaking only about sexual sin. How bad is it to be trapped in a mentally or physically abusive relationship, if only the sexual sins count? No wonder Jesus accused these Pharisees of being hard-hearted.

It is a mistake when reading the Bible to read the teaching about sex as if it relates to the nuclear family. I am not saying that it cannot apply, but at the time of Jesus people would generally have lived in extended family, you could bring your children up in the house of your parents, where it was possible your grandmother also lived. Jesus talked to his disciples about eunuchs, a non-standard sexuality. There is room in the teaching of Jesus for non-standard sexuality. It is not an extended or nuclear family he is talking about. In the twenty-first century the practice is moving away from the nuclear family, the number of single-parent households are increasing, so is the number of couples rearing children outside marriage. That is the world where God has placed us in, this is the world that the Church of God has to minister to. May we be empathetic to all those we come across with different types of family to us or with different sexuality. May we hit upwards at those who would prevent the vulnerable having the same rights that they have.

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