Matthew 19:1-9


Matt. 19:1-9

When Jesus had finished these words, he left Galilee, and came into the districts of Judaea which are on the far side of the Jordan. Many crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

Pharisees came to him, trying to test him. “It is lawful,” they said, “for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and he said, `For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? They are therefore no longer two, but one flesh. What, then, God has joined together, let no man separate.” They said to him, “Why, then, did Moses lay it down to give her a big of divorcement, and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was to meet the hardness of your heart that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives; but in the beginning that was not the state of things which was intended. I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of fornication, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries her who has been divorced commits adultery.”

Here Jesus is dealing with what was in his day, as it is in our own, a vexed and burning question. Divorce was something about which there was no unanimity among the Jews; and the Pharisees were deliberately trying to involve Jesus in controversy.

No nation has ever had a higher view of marriage than the Jews. Marriage was a sacred duty. To remain unmarried after the age of twenty, except in order to concentrate upon the study of the Law, was to break a positive commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” He who had no children “slew his own posterity,” and “lessened the image of God upon earth.” “When husband and wife are worthy, the glory of God is with them.”

Marriage was not to be entered into carelessly or lightly. Josephus outlines the Jewish approach to marriage, based on the Mosaic teaching (Antiquities of the Jews 4. 8. 23). A man must marry a virgin of good parentage. He must never corrupt another man’s wife; and he must not marry a woman who had been a slave or a harlot. If a man accused his wife of not being a virgin when he married her, he must bring proofs of his accusation. Her father or brother must defend her. If the girl was vindicated he must take her in marriage, and could never again put her away, except for the most flagrant sin. If the accusation was proved to have been reckless and malicious, the man who made it must be beaten with forty stripes save one, and must pay fifty shekels to the girl’s father. But if the charge was proved and the girl found guilty, if she was one of the ordinary people, the law was that she must be stoned to death, and if she was the daughter of a priest, she must be burned alive.

If a man seduced a girl who was espoused to be married, and the seduction took place with her consent, both he and she must be put to death. If in a lonely place or where there was no help present, the man forced the girl into sin, the man alone was put to death. If a man seduced an unespoused girl, he must marry her, or, if her father was unwilling for him to marry her, he must pay the father fifty shekels.

The Jewish laws of marriage and of purity aimed very high. Ideally divorce was hated. God had said, “I hate divorce” (Mal.2:16). It was said that the very altar wept tears when a man divorced the wife of his youth.

But ideal and actuality did not go hand in hand. In the situation there were two dangerous and damaging elements.

First, in the eyes of Jewish law a woman was a thing. She was the possession of her father, or of her husband as the case might be; and, therefore, she had, technically, no legal rights at all. Most Jewish marriages were arranged either by the parents or by professional match-makers. A girl might be engaged to be married in childhood, and was often engaged to be married to a man whom she had never seen. There was this safeguard–when she came to the age of twelve she could repudiate her father’s choice of husband. But in matters of divorce, the general law was that the initiative must lie with the husband. The law ran: “A woman may be divorced with or without her consent, but a man can be divorced only with his consent.” The woman could never initiate the process of divorce; she could not divorce, she had to be divorced.

There were certain safeguards. If a man divorced his wife on any other grounds than those of flagrant immorality, he must return her dowry; and this must have been a barrier to irresponsible divorce. The courts might put pressure on a man to divorce his wife, in the case, for instance, of refusal to consummate the marriage, of impotence, or of proved inability to support her properly. A wife could force her husband to divorce her, if he contracted a loathsome disease, such as leprosy, or if he was a tanner, which involved the gathering of dog’s dung, or if he proposed to make her leave the Holy Land. But, by and large, the law was that the woman had no legal rights, and the right to divorce lay entirely with the husband.

Second, the process of divorce was fatally easy. That process was founded on the passage in the Mosaic Law to which Jesus’ questioners referred: “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house…” (Deut.24:1). The bill of divorcement was a simple, one-sentence statement that the husband dismissed his wife. Josephus writes, “He that desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever (and many such causes happen among men) let him, in writing, give assurance that he will never use her as his wife any more; for by this means she may be at liberty to marry another husband.” The one safeguard against the dangerous ease of the divorce process was the fact that, unless the woman was a notorious sinner, her dowry must be returned.


Matt. 19:1-9 (continued)

One of the great problems of Jewish divorce lies within the Mosaic enactment. That enactment states that a man may divorce his wife, “if she finds no favour in his eyes, because he has found some indecency in her.” The question is–how is the phrase some indecency to be interpreted?

On this point the Jewish Rabbis were violently divided, and it was here that Jesus’ questioners wished to involve him. The school of Shammai were quite clear that a matter of indecency meant fornication, and fornication alone, and that for no other cause could a wife by put away. Let a woman be as mischievous as Jezebel, so long as she did not commit adultery she could not be put away. On the other hand, the school of Hillel interpreted this matter of indecency in the widest possible way. They said that it meant that a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner, if she spun, or went with unbound hair, or spoke to men in the streets, if she spoke disrespectfully of his parents in his presence, if she was a brawling woman whose voice could be heard in the next house. Rabbi Akiba even went the length of saying that the phrase if she finds no favour in his eyes meant that a man could divorce his wife if he found a woman whom he liked better and considered more beautiful.

The tragedy was that, as was to be expected, it was the school of Hillel whose teachings prevailed; the marriage bond was often lightly held, and divorce on the most trivial ground was sadly common.

To complete the picture certain further facts must be added. It is relevant to note that under Rabbinic law divorce was compulsory for two reasons. It was compulsory for adultery. “A woman who has committed adultery must be divorced.” Second, divorce was compulsory for sterility. The object of marriage was the procreation of children; and if after ten years a couple were still childless divorce was compulsory. In this case the woman might remarry, but the same regulation governed the second marriage.

Two further interesting Jewish regulations in regard to divorce must be added. First, desertion was never a cause for divorce. If there was desertion, death must be proved. The only relaxation was that, whereas all other facts needed the corroboration of two witnesses in Jewish law, one witness was enough to prove the death of a partner in marriage who had vanished and not come back.

Secondly, strangely enough, insanity was not a ground of divorce. If the wife became insane, the husband could not divorce her, for, if she was divorced, she would have no protector in her helplessness. There is a certain poignant mercy in that regulation. If the husband became insane, divorce was impossible, for in that case he was incapable of writing a bill of divorcement, and without such a bill, initiated by him, there could be no divorce.

When Jesus was asked this question, at the back of it was a situation which was vexed and troubled. He was to answer it in a way which came as a staggering surprise to both parties in the dispute, and which suggested a radical change in the whole situation.


Matt. 19:1-9 (continued)

In effect, the Pharisees were asking Jesus whether he favoured the strict view of Shammai or the laxer view of Hillel; and thereby seeking to involve him in controversy.

Jesus’ answer was to take things back to the very beginning, back to the ideal of creation. In the beginning, he said, God created Adam and Eve, man and woman. Inevitably, in the very circumstances of the creation story, Adam and Eve were created for each other and for no one else; their union was necessarily complete and unbreakable. Now, says Jesus, these two are the pattern and the symbol of all who were to come. As A. H. McNeile puts it, “Each married couple is a reproduction of Adam and Eve, and their union is therefore no less indissoluble.”

The argument is quite clear. In the case of Adam and Eve divorce was not only inadvisable; it was not only wrong; it was completely impossible, for the very simple reason that there was no one else whom either of them could possibly marry. Therefore Jesus was laying down the principle that an divorce is wrong. Thus early we must note that it is not a law; it is a principle, which is a very different thing.

Here, at once, the Pharisees saw a point of attack. Moses (Deut.24:1) had said that, if a man wished to divorce his wife because she had found no favour in his eyes, and because of some matter of indecency in her, he could give her a bill of divorce and the marriage was dissolved. Here was the very chance the Pharisees wanted. They could now say to Jesus, “Are you saying Moses was wrong? Are you seeking to abrogate the divine law which was given to Moses? Are you setting yourself above Moses as a law-giver?”

Jesus’ answer was that what Moses said was not in fact a law, but nothing more than a concession. Moses did not command divorce; at the best he only permitted it in order to regulate a situation which would have become chaotically promiscuous. The Mosaic regulation was only a concession to fallen human nature. In Gen.2:23-24, we have the ideal which God intended, the ideal that two people who marry should become so indissolubly one that they are one flesh. Jesus’ answer was: “True, Moses permitted divorce; but that was a concession in view of a lost ideal. The ideal of marriage is to be found in the unbreakable, perfect union of Adam and Eve. That is what God meant marriage to be.”

It is now that we are face to face with one of the most real and most acute difficulties in the New Testament. What did Jesus mean? There is even a prior question–what did Jesus say? The difficulty is–and there is no escaping it–that Mark and Matthew report the words of Jesus differently.

Matthew has:

I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and
marries another commits adultery (Matt. 19:9).

Mark has:

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery
against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another,
she commits adultery (Mk.10:11-12).

Luke has still another version of this saying:

Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits
adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her
husband commits adultery. (Lk.16:18).

There is the comparatively small difficulty that Mark implies that a woman can divorce her husband, a process which, as we have seen, was not possible under Jewish law. But the explanation is that Jesus must have well known that under Gentile law a woman could divorce her husband and in that particular clause he was looking beyond the Jewish world. The great difficulty is that both Mark and Luke make the prohibition of divorce absolute; with them there are no exceptions whatsoever. But Matthew has one saving clause–divorce is permitted on the ground of adultery. In this case there is no real escape from a decision. The only possible way out would be to say that in point of fact, under Jewish law, divorce for adultery was in any event compulsory, as we have seen, and that therefore Mark and Luke did not think that they need mention it; but then so was divorce for sterility.

In the last analysis we must choose between Matthew’s version of this saying and that of Mark and Luke. We think there is little doubt that the version of Mark and Luke is right. There are two reasons. Only the absolute prohibition of separation will satisfy the ideal of the Adam and Eve symbolic complete union. And the staggered words of the disciples imply this absolute prohibition, for, in effect, they say (Matt. 19:10) that if marriage is as binding as that, it is safer not to marry at all. There is little doubt that here we have Jesus laying down the principle–mark again, not, the law–that the ideal of marriage is a union which cannot be broken. There is much more to be said–but here the ideal, as God meant it, is laid down, and Matthew’s saving clause is a later interpretation inserted in the light of the practice of the Church when he wrote.


Matt. 19:1-9 (continued)

Let us now go on to see the high ideal of the married state which Jesus sets before those who are willing to accept his commands. We will see that the Jewish ideal gives us the basis of the Christian ideal. The Jewish term for marriage was Kiddushin. Kiddushin meant sanctification or consecration. It was used to describe something which was dedicated to God as his exclusive and peculiar possession. Anything totally surrendered to God was kiddushin. This meant that in marriage the husband was consecrated to the wife, and the wife to the husband. The one became the exclusive possession of the other, as much as an offering became the exclusive possession of God. That is what Jesus meant when he said that for the sake of marriage a man would leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife; and that is what he meant when he said that man and wife became so totally one that they could be called one flesh.
That was God’s ideal of marriage as the old Genesis story saw it (Gen.2:24), and that is the ideal which Jesus restated. Clearly that idea has certain consequences.

(i) This total unity means that marriage is not given for one act in life, however important that act may be, but for all. That is to say that, while sex is a supremely important part of marriage, it is not the whole of it. Any marriage entered into simply because an imperious physical desire can be satisfied in no other way is foredoomed to failure. Marriage is given, not that two people should do one thing together, but that they should do all things together.

(ii) Another way to put this is to say that marriage is the total union of two personalities. Two people can exist together in a variety of ways. One can be the dominant partner to such an extent that nothing matters but his wishes and his convenience and his aims in life, while the other is totally subservient and exists only to serve the desires and the needs of the other. Again, two people can exist in a kind of armed neutrality, where there is continuous tension and continuous opposition, and continuous collision between their wishes. Life can be one long argument, and the relationship is based at best on an uneasy compromise. Again, two people can base their relationship on a more or less resigned acceptance of each other. To all intents and purposes, while they live together, each goes his or her own way, and each has his or her own life. They share the same house but it would be an exaggeration to say that they share the same home.

Clearly none of these relationships is the ideal. The ideal is that in the marriage state two people find the completing of their personalities. Plato had a strange idea. He has a kind of legend that originally human beings were double what they are now. Because their size and strength made them arrogant, the gods cut them in halves; and real happiness comes when the two halves find each other again, and marry, and so complete each other.

Marriage should not narrow life; it should complete it. For both partners it must bring a new fulness, a new satisfaction, a new contentment into life. It is the union of two personalities in which the two complete each other. That does not mean that adjustments, and even sacrifices, have not to be made; but it does mean that the final relationship is fuller, more joyous, more satisfying than any life in singleness could be.

(iii) We may put this even more practically–marriage must be a sharing of all the circumstances of life. There is a certain danger in the delightful time of courtship. In such days it is almost inevitable that the two people will see each other at their best. These are days of glamour. They see each other in their best clothes; usually they are bent on some pleasure together; often money has not yet become a problem. But in marriage two people must see each other when they are not at their best; when they are tired and weary; when children bring the upset to a house and home that children must bring; when money is tight, and food and clothes and bills become a problem; when moonlight and roses become the kitchen sink and walking the floor at night with a crying baby. Unless two people are prepared to face the routine of life as well as the glamour of life together, marriage must be a failure.

(iv) From that there follows one thing, which is not universally true, but which is much more likely than not to be true. Marriage is most likely to be successful after a fairly long acquaintanceship, when the two people involved really know each other’s background. Marriage means constantly living together. It is perfectly possible for ingrained habits, unconscious mannerisms, ways of upbringing to collide. The fuller the knowledge people have of each other before they decide indissolubly to link their lives together the better. This is not to deny that there can be such a thing as love at first sight, and that love can conquer all things, but the fact is that the greater mutual knowledge people have of each other the more likely they are to succeed in making their marriage what it ought to be.

(v) All this leads us to a final practical conclusion–the basis of marriage is togetherness, and the basis of togetherness is nothing other than considerateness. If marriage is to succeed, the partners must always be thinking more of each other than of themselves. Selfishness is the murderer of any personal relationship; and that is truest of all when two people are bound together in marriage.

Somerset Maughan tells of his mother. She was lovely and charming and beloved by all. His father was not by any means handsome, and had few social and surface gifts and graces. Someone once said to his mother, “When everyone is in love with you, and when you could have anyone you liked, how can you remain faithful to that ugly little man you married?” She answered simply: “He never hurts my feelings.” There could be no finer tribute.

The true basis of marriage is not complicated and recondite–it is simply the love which thinks more of the happiness of others than it thinks of its own, the love which is proud to serve, which is able to understand, and therefore always able to forgive. That is to say, it is the Christlike love, which knows that in forgetting self it will find self, and that in losing itself it will complete itself

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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