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What Did Jesus Really Say About Marriage and Divorce?
By Mary Loftus | Emory Law | Feb 29, 2012 12:02:00 AM

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While many look to the Bible for guidance on matters of morality, including marriage and divorce, Professor Luke Timothy Johnson says mining the good book for what is “permissible” may be shortsighted.

“Don’t read the text to support present proclivities,” says Johnson, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins in the Candler School of Theology and a Senior Fellow of Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR). “The question ought not to be ‘What is allowed,’ but rather, and always, ‘What is asked of us?’ ”

Johnson recently delivered the Alonzo L. McDonald Lecture in Christianity and Law at Emory Law as part of CSLR’s “When Law and Religion Meet” lecture series. Johnson, a world-renowned scholar on Christianity and its origins, spent a decade as a Benedictine monk before marrying; he now has thirteen grandchildren.

Just “what is asked of us” can be found in two passages of Matthew’s gospel pertaining to Jesus’s dictates on marriage and divorce – passages that have received “obsessive attention,” says Johnson.

In the first, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, except on the grounds of porneia (sexual immorality), makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32).

In the second, the Pharisees question Jesus, saying: “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for any cause?” And Jesus answers by attributing that command to their “hardness of heart” (Mark 10:5) and appealing to the order of creation found in Genesis, concluding that man and woman are not two but one (10:8), and that what God has joined humans should not separate (10:9).

While statements in the Bible concerning divorce do not entirely agree in every detail, it is “plain enough that Jesus does not approve of divorce,” Johnson adds.

Matthew's Explanation

In a world where men were allowed to divorce wives for causes as “trivial as burning dinner,” (House of Hillel, first century BCE), says Johnson, these comments condemning divorce might, in fact, be viewed as unexpected.

The disciples go on in Matthew to say to Jesus, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” And Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Johnson argues that Matthew's characterization of Jesus must be understood within the symbols associated with Torah in the formative Judaism contemporaneous with the Gospel.  Matthew's literary style tells the reader why events happened, point by point, from the virgin birth to Jesus’ betrayal by Judas.

This interpretation places Jesus as the messianic interpreter, even a living embodiment, of the Torah.

“If in [the gospel of] John, Jesus is the word made flesh, it is safe to say that in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is the Torah made human,” Johnson says.

Giving Up Self and Family

Thus Jesus says—to a wealthy young man seeking his advice on gaining eternal life—to keep six commandments: do not kill, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness; honor one’s father and mother; love your neighbor as yourself. The man replies that he has, indeed, lived in this way, and asks again, what does he still lack?

“He turns away sadly when Jesus responds, ‘If you would be perfect, go sell what you possess and give it to the poor, you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me,’ ” Johnson says. “The kingdom demands more than a good and decent life, [it demands] a following so absolute it may require leaving all that one has and all that one thinks one is.”

Including one’s house, possessions, and family.

So how does this intention support marriage, loyalty, and spousal responsibility?

Johnson suggests revisiting Matthew’s depiction of divorce, adultery, and “hardness of heart” that keeps man and woman from becoming one flesh, as God intended. “The partner who is sexually immoral has already broken bonds of one flesh, by being with someone else.”  

But, he says, “it is not only lust that destabilizes the household. [Jesus says] he who loves mother, father, son, daughter more than me, is not worthy of me.”

Is this complete sacrifice and obedience to Jesus meant for everyone? Indeed not, says Johnson. “Many are called, few are chosen. The kingdom of heaven is not come as you are—the demands are severe, there are perils.”

Marriage, in this scenario, is quotidian, a distraction.

Life with God

Perhaps, Johnson says, the problem lies in taking marriage too seriously, in a way that is “absolute rather than relative.”

“There is a qualitative distance between human social arrangements and the kingdom of heaven; the kingdom has to do with living God,” Johnson says. “The bonds of marriage no longer apply. In life before God, [we are] like the angels, without sexual activity, occupied with the worship of a living God, becoming a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven, like children, leaving one’s possessions, abandoning home, celibate.”

The effect of this message, says Johnson, heightens Jesus’s singular authority: “It makes Jesus, for all his gentleness and compassion, a rigorous and demanding presence, past legal and domestic tranquility, into the dangerous territory of a life utterly committed to God.”  

And we humans are left to do the best we can to “muddle through,” Johnson says.

“We have become very diminished in our sense of what life with God can be. “Following the messiah, seeking God -- it’s difficult. We get to the stars through the mud. . . . A great deal of our life, alone and together, is spent avoiding being in the right place, finding a way station, being in an idolatrous place. Back then, eternal life meant something. For us, those terms don’t mean much. There’s the pity.”

Up next: Michael J. Perry discusses "Religious Freedom, Same-Sex Marriage and the Catholic Church" March 21, 12:30 at Emory Law.

Watch video

While many look to the Bible for guidance on matters of morality, including marriage and divorce, Professor Luke Timothy Johnson says mining the good book for what is “permissible” may be shortsighted.

“Don’t read the text to support present proclivities,” says Johnson, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins in the Candler School of Theology and a Senior Fellow of Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR). “The question ought not to be ‘What is allowed,’ but rather, and always, ‘What is asked of us?’ ”

Johnson recently delivered the Alonzo L. McDonald Lecture in Christianity and Law at Emory Law as part of CSLR’s “When Law and Religion Meet” lecture series. Johnson, a world-renowned scholar on Christianity and its origins, spent a decade as a Benedictine monk before marrying; he now has thirteen grandchildren.

Just “what is asked of us” can be found in two passages of Matthew’s gospel pertaining to Jesus’s dictates on marriage and divorce – passages that have received “obsessive attention,” says Johnson.

In the first, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, except on the grounds of porneia (sexual immorality), makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32).

In the second, the Pharisees question Jesus, saying: “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for any cause?” And Jesus answers by attributing that command to their “hardness of heart” (Mark 10:5) and appealing to the order of creation found in Genesis, concluding that man and woman are not two but one (10:8), and that what God has joined humans should not separate (10:9).

While statements in the Bible concerning divorce do not entirely agree in every detail, it is “plain enough that Jesus does not approve of divorce,” Johnson adds.

Matthew's Explanation

In a world where men were allowed to divorce wives for causes as “trivial as burning dinner,” (House of Hillel, first century BCE), says Johnson, these comments condemning divorce might, in fact, be viewed as unexpected.

The disciples go on in Matthew to say to Jesus, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” And Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Johnson argues that Matthew's characterization of Jesus must be understood within the symbols associated with Torah in the formative Judaism contemporaneous with the Gospel.  Matthew's literary style tells the reader why events happened, point by point, from the virgin birth to Jesus’ betrayal by Judas.

This interpretation places Jesus as the messianic interpreter, even a living embodiment, of the Torah.

“If in [the gospel of] John, Jesus is the word made flesh, it is safe to say that in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is the Torah made human,” Johnson says.

Giving Up Self and Family

Thus Jesus says—to a wealthy young man seeking his advice on gaining eternal life—to keep six commandments: do not kill, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness; honor one’s father and mother; love your neighbor as yourself. The man replies that he has, indeed, lived in this way, and asks again, what does he still lack?

“He turns away sadly when Jesus responds, ‘If you would be perfect, go sell what you possess and give it to the poor, you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me,’ ” Johnson says. “The kingdom demands more than a good and decent life, [it demands] a following so absolute it may require leaving all that one has and all that one thinks one is.”

Including one’s house, possessions, and family.

So how does this intention support marriage, loyalty, and spousal responsibility?

Johnson suggests revisiting Matthew’s depiction of divorce, adultery, and “hardness of heart” that keeps man and woman from becoming one flesh, as God intended. “The partner who is sexually immoral has already broken bonds of one flesh, by being with someone else.”  

But, he says, “it is not only lust that destabilizes the household. [Jesus says] he who loves mother, father, son, daughter more than me, is not worthy of me.”

Is this complete sacrifice and obedience to Jesus meant for everyone? Indeed not, says Johnson. “Many are called, few are chosen. The kingdom of heaven is not come as you are—the demands are severe, there are perils.”

Marriage, in this scenario, is quotidian, a distraction.

Life with God

Perhaps, Johnson says, the problem lies in taking marriage too seriously, in a way that is “absolute rather than relative.”

“There is a qualitative distance between human social arrangements and the kingdom of heaven; the kingdom has to do with living God,” Johnson says. “The bonds of marriage no longer apply. In life before God, [we are] like the angels, without sexual activity, occupied with the worship of a living God, becoming a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven, like children, leaving one’s possessions, abandoning home, celibate.”

The effect of this message, says Johnson, heightens Jesus’s singular authority: “It makes Jesus, for all his gentleness and compassion, a rigorous and demanding presence, past legal and domestic tranquility, into the dangerous territory of a life utterly committed to God.”  

And we humans are left to do the best we can to “muddle through,” Johnson says.

“We have become very diminished in our sense of what life with God can be. “Following the messiah, seeking God -- it’s difficult. We get to the stars through the mud. . . . A great deal of our life, alone and together, is spent avoiding being in the right place, finding a way station, being in an idolatrous place. Back then, eternal life meant something. For us, those terms don’t mean much. There’s the pity.”

Up next: Michael J. Perry discusses "Religious Freedom, Same-Sex Marriage and the Catholic Church" March 21, 12:30 at Emory Law.

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