What Jesus Said About Divorce

by Daniel Thimons

WASHINGTON, DC, June 11, 2014 (Crisis Magazine) -- Pope Francis concluded his homily during the Canonization Mass of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II by invoking the intercession of the two new saints as the Church journeys towards the upcoming Synod on the Family. He finished his homily with the beautiful words, “May both of them teach us not to be scandalized by the wounds of Christ and to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of divine mercy, which always hopes and always forgives, because it always loves.”

Pope Francis concluded his homily during the Canonization Mass of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II by invoking the intercession of the two new saints as the Church journeys towards the upcoming Synod on the Family. He finished his homily with the beautiful words, “May both of them teach us not to be scandalized by the wounds of Christ and to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of divine mercy, which always hopes and always forgives, because it always loves.”

The Church is called during this time in preparation for the Synod, to reflect ever more deeply on the teaching of Jesus Christ with regard to marriage, a teaching that is full of mercy: hoping, forgiving, and loving to the end. We see Christ exercise his pastoral teaching on marriage in various places throughout the Gospels: during the wedding at Cana, in conversation with the woman at the well, and in his response to the woman caught in adultery. In this article, I wish to focus primarily on Christ’s teaching on marriage in Matthew Chapter 19:3-11, a teaching that is echoed in each of the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus’ teaching, though sometimes difficult for us to accept, is always full of love, mercy, and compassion.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 19, we read the account where the Pharisees approached Jesus to test him, and offered him a challenge.

“Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” (Mt 19:3)

Notice, the Pharisees were not asking whether or not divorce is lawful, but rather they were asking Jesus about the appropriate grounds for divorce of which he considers to be lawful. This question was proposed to Christ by two different schools of the Pharisees. On one hand was the Hillel School which claimed that any number of reasons could be grounds for divorce as long as the man gave the woman a bill of divorce. On the other hand, the Shammai School claimed that a man could divorce his wife only for very serious reasons, such as infidelity. So, this question was proposed to Jesus to test him on his interpretation of the Mosaic Law found in the Book of Deuteronomy, “When a man, after marrying a woman and having relations with her, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, and therefore he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house” (Deuteronomy 24:1).

The Pharisees question is one of a subjective vs. objective interpretation of this passage from Deuteronomy. The Hillel School took a more subjective approach to its interpretation, emphasizing that it is the man who “finds in her” something indecent. While the Shammai School took a more objective approach, claiming that there are certain definitive criteria to determine what is “indecent.” The Pharisees question is also this: Should the Mosaic Law with regard to divorce be interpreted in the man’s favor (Hillel) or in the woman’s favor (Shammai)? It is a question which places a specific interpretation of the man’s rights under Mosaic Law against the compassion and fidelity that is owed to a faithful wife.

If Jesus answered that divorce was only lawful for serious reasons such as infidelity, those in the Hillel School would claim that he was not honoring a man’s rights in the law handed down from Moses. On the other hand, if Jesus answered that a man could divorce his wife for any number of reasons; those in the Shammai School would claim that Jesus has little or no compassion for women. This question of the Pharisees is one that continues to resound to this day. It could be summed up as a question of the law vs. love, doctrine vs. compassion, theology vs. pastoral charity.

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