In the shadow of the feast of Christ the King and awaiting the new beginning of Advent, this passage could sound a little pedestrian. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is so frequently focused on fulfillment, especially fulfillment of the law, this passage might sound oddly legalistic. In the same setting immediately following two of Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness, this passage may sound unyielding. We might decide to be satisfied taking this as a simple statement about the entanglements surrounding divorce. But something more life-giving blossoms with a little careful exploration.
Remember the beginning of the reading: Jesus is being challenged by group of Pharisees, who are asking if they can get divorced “for any reason.” This story shows up in both the other Synoptic Gospels, but only in Matthew does that phrase—“for any reason”—show up and it’s a useful point to begin cracking open the passage. There is a related phrase that shows up only in Matthew, which our translation renders “except when the other partner has committed adultery,” though the Greek word we translate as “adultery” actually means something closer to “harlotry,” “prostitution” or at least something like “un-chastity.” Other Hebrew writings on similar topics give us something like “for matters of indecency.” These two unique phrases—“for any reason” and “except for adultery”—are very important.
Here’s why: First, in first-century Mediterranean Jewish culture, marriage was not between two individuals like it most frequently is in 21st c. North America, but was a fusion of the honors of two extended families—a bond that divorce would dissolve, which could lead to feuding. Secondly, there were communities of Jews and Greco-Romans interested in an innovation in the laws regarding divorce. According to this new translation of the law, a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever, including, say, if she happened to ruin his dinner. Divorce “for any reason” was forbidden in Matthew’s community, along with any divorce undertaken for the specific purpose of remarrying, because both destroy the honor of the woman’s family. Divorce was allowed in most Jewish communities if either spouse abused or neglected the other, including but not exclusively acts of sexual infidelity. This was not simply Moses’ allowance, but was based in part on YHWH’s divorce from Israel and Judah in the prophets, particularly in Jeremiah 3:8, when the people chose other gods or idols or withheld their love from YHWH.
And that is the relationship—this joining together of God with God’s people; this marriage of the Trinity to the family of humanity—that Jesus is drawing the Pharisees, the disciples and our attention to, reminding us all that this relationship with YHWH must never suffer separation. When Jesus evokes the Genesis principle of unity “from the beginning,” he sweeps man-made legal distinctions and interpretations into the shadow of the grace-filled unity that God offers in the very act of creation. When the disciples declare that it is better not to marry at all, Jesus sweeps that fear of failure or lack of insight or whatever inspired the comment into the shadow of the same grace.
The Pharisees claim scriptural authority in challenging Jesus, and he responds by showing that they—and perhaps we—are proof-texting rather than reading scripture in light of God’s whole plan. In fact, in the effort to encompass a wider and modern human experience, our Inclusive Bible translation makes a change that I find misleading. The ancient Greek text refers not to sexual acts, but specifically to physical eunuchs; males born without testicles or male slaves who have had them crushed or removed. To be a eunuch in the first-century Mediterranean society is to be a person incapable of carrying a family’s honor—people, in other words, who would be excluded from the covenant with YHWH’s in most Jewish communities. So why is Jesus answering a question about divorce with a reference to eunuchs? Perhaps is it because God—like the third type of eunuch that Jesus mentions—God chooses reconciliation in spite of our breaking our bond with God whenever we choose other people or things over God. Perhaps it is because God, like the third type of eunuch, yields concern for honor by choosing not to divorce us, and instead forgives our infidelities. And perhaps because of God’s choosing us, the kingdom of heaven has places for all those who, like the other two types of eunuchs, have little or no honor—all those, that is, who are marginalized in this realm. Last Sunday, we celebrated Christ the King having come through the cross into his sovereignty over that kingdom. Next Sunday, we begin the anticipation of that same Christ breaking into this realm, manifesting as a helpless and marginalized child. “Let anyone who can accept this teaching do so.”
~ John Forman