Matthew 19: 1-12 Relationships and the Kingdom Revisited

James Tissot, Sermon on the Beatitudes (1886-96)

Matthew 19: 1-12

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he cured them there.

3 Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8 He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

10 His 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 accept this teaching, 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 others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”

Even though chapter nineteen begins with the notation that ‘Jesus had completed these words’ which normally signals the end of a block of teaching and the movement into narrative, there is are several strong links in chapters nineteen and twenty to the teaching in chapter eighteen. These next two chapters continue to have Jesus help the community to discern the values they are to embody in the world while narratively moving Jesus into position for the final week in Jerusalem. While chapter eighteen is directed to the disciples, even though the crowds are not far away as evidenced by the presence of a child who can be pulled into their midst, but now the focus expands to the large crowds which are back and with them comes the Pharisees. Jesus continues to heal and teach and embody the kingdom of heaven as he moves through this region of Judea beyond the Jordan. Jesus’ ministry continues to be to the lost sheep of the house  of Israel as he bypasses Samaria on his journey south. Jesus only mention of Samaria and the Samaritans in Matthew is his command for the disciples not to go to them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10: 5-6)

The test of the Pharisees provides an opportunity for Jesus to teach the crowds, the Pharisees and his disciples how to read scripture and to interpret the law. This is not an idle question, but as Warren Carter can identify, “Questions of marriage, divorce, and remarriage are life-and-death matters, as John the Baptist found out (14: 1-12)” (Carter 2005, 378) In Matthew’s gospel we will later see the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians to attempt to entrap Jesus (22: 15-22) and as I’ve alluded one of the reasons both John and Jesus probably find themselves in conflict with the Pharisees (and Sadducees) is the way they have accommodated themselves to the political powers represented by the Herods and Rome. The placement of the Pharisees now asking a question to entrap Jesus about divorce opens the possibility that they also informed Herod Antipas of John’s condemnation of Herod’s relationship with Herodias.

Matthew’s gospel has already stated Jesus’ beliefs on divorce, which are rearticulated here, in the Sermon on the Mount (5: 31-32) and it is probable that the Pharisees are aware of this position, and select this question of whether it is ‘lawful’ for a man to divorce his wife for any reason expecting him to restate this position and perhaps alienate many men who are following him. Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 is the one place in the law where divorce is discussed for the general population of the people of Israel:

Suppose a man enters into a marriage with a women, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; Deuteronomy 24:1

Divorce is, in Deuteronomy 24 and in the position of the Pharisees in this narrative, an assumed option of any man who has a wife who does not ‘please him.’ We know that there are various perspectives within Judaism about what would provide justification for a man to divorce his wife, but in the question the Pharisees are testing Jesus with a question where there assumption is that it is ‘lawful.’ Jesus previously has quoted Deuteronomy 24 but then goes on to say to those listening:

But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (5: 32)

Here Jesus goes back to the creation narrative for his answer referencing both Genesis 1:27 where God made them male and female and Genesis 2:24 where a man leaves father and mother and is joined to his wife and they become one flesh. These Pharisees interpret the law differently and point back to the commandment of Moses which they believe gives them permission to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce their spouse for any cause. Jesus’ attributes this to Moses’ accommodation to the ‘hard-heartedness’ of the people and continues to point to a community where divorce is only an option for men in rare circumstances.

As in 5: 31-32, The Greek term porneia which is translated unchastity by the NRSV is open to debate about its exact meaning: illicit sexual relations with a person other than the spouse, premarital unchastity (this is the assumption behind Joseph’s initial decision to quietly divorce Mary prior to the angel of the Lord, and Joseph is considered a righteous man (1:18-21)) or even (in relation to Leviticus 18) being married too closely in family relations (an incestuous marriage in the eyes of the law). In Greek this term is a general term relating to sexual misconduct, but it is a different term than moicheoo which is translated adultery in this passage. I’ve assumed throughout these reflections that Mark’s gospel is older than Matthew’s and the addition of the “except for unchastity” between the two gospels demonstrates (along with Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians about Christians married to non-Christian spouses whose spouses choose to divorce) demonstrates that even within the formation of the Christian cannon there is already a deliberation and adaptation about the prohibition against divorce.

What the disciples’ reaction highlights is the manner in which Jesus’ reframing of marriage alters the renunciation of rights for the male involved in the marriage. Marriages in the ancient world were primarily economic relationships where women were dependent upon men for their status, their linkage to the land and their property, and when men dissolve this relationship it places women in a challenging position of being isolated from their status, land and home. There is a costliness for husbands in committing their life and resources without reservation to one individual. I don’t say this to ignore the sacrifices that women make in relation to marriage, but instead I want to highlight the leveling of the relationship by Jesus and others who argued for a restrictive view of divorce in the ancient world. This renunciation of a man’s right to request a divorce on their terms is enough for his disciples to contemplate celibacy as a better economic option. We know that at least Peter is married (Jesus healed his mother-in-law in 8:15) and presumably other disciples were as well. Jesus’ appeal to eunuchs is also another place where Jesus challenges this perception of masculinity. Eunuchs are viewed as emasculated men, people who have lost a fundamental part of their identity and do not fit neatly into the category of male or female. Eunuchs, in Deuteronomy 23:1, are prevented from being a part of the assembly of the Lord and from the priesthood (Leviticus 21:20). Yet Isaiah 56:4-5 includes the promise for eunuchs who hold fast to the LORD’s name a place within God’s house. Jesus, siding with Isaiah, announces that there is a place within God’s household for those who by birth, by being made a eunuch by others, or who renounce marriage (and procreation) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, but that is not the path for everyone. For those who choose the path of marriage and procreation there is a renunciation of the privilege of maleness to terminate that relationship, except in extreme cases, because one’s partner does not ‘please them.’ Jesus’ reinterpretation of the commandment goes to the heart of God’s intent in creation where the creation of male and female are both the image of God and their joining together in marriage is a joining of their identities in the eyes of God. Yet, for the man there is the choice to renounce their maleness, through celibacy, as another option in pursuing the kingdom of heaven.

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1 Response to Matthew 19: 1-12 Relationships and the Kingdom Revisited

  1. Pingback: Matthew 19: 13-15 Infants of the Kingdom of Heaven | Sign of the Rose

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