I am continuing to read and ponder Dale Allison’s book, The Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Sermon on the Mount is difficult and controversial. I haven’t heard the Red Letter Christians pushing this one too much. Even Evangelicals have accommodated to the actual practice in our society of serial plural marriage, a series of no-fault divorces and non-judgmental remarriages. This actual state of marriage in the West has been called Marriage 2.0 as distinguished from traditional marriage, which I guess would have been Marriage Version 1.0.
However, this is what Matthew tells us Jesus said:
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife shall give her a writ of separation, ‘but I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except for the cause of sexual immorality, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries her when she is divorced commits adultery “ (Matthew 5:31-32).
Just as Jesus equated lust for someone else’s spouse with adultery in the previous verses, so here he equates divorce and remarriage with adultery. Dale Allison talks about how Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants have tried to interpret and apply this.
The Eastern Orthodox have seen Jesus stating not an “inviolate law” but “the human ideal, which sinful humanity often does not live up to” (p. 80). They allow divorce and remarriage, but still take Jesus literally that this is adultery. Thus they require serious repentance, and only allow a gradual return to full communion and good standing in the Church. This accords with Allison’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount as serious but meant to inspire the moral imagination more than to stand as legalistic statute.
He traces Matthew’s version of the prohibition of divorce with the historical-critical method. He sees Luke 16:18a as closest to what the historical Jesus must have said: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery.” Then, because the church spread to the Roman society where wives could divorce their husbands, the prohibition was applied to wives as well (Mark 10:11-12, and 1 Corinthians 11:10). Next, the saying was expanded to take it to the logical conclusion that by marrying a divorcee you committed adultery (Luke 16:18b). The next stage came when Paul taught that these words of Jesus did not fully apply to marriages between Christians and non-Christians (1 Corinthians 7:10-16). The last stage is the version we have in Matthew where an exception for sexual immorality gets inserted (otherwise Matthew’s earlier story about Joseph, a righteous man, intending to divorce Mary would not make sense).
Allison recognizes the pastoral problem that sexual immorality cannot be the only reason for divorce. Insisting that one remain married to someone who is mentally ill, an addict, or abusive does not work in the real world. On the other hand, the Sermon on the Mount strongly challenges the prevailing attitude toward marriage today and calls into question many of the “irreconcilable differences” that excuse divorce.
Allison does not deal with the issue that gets raised a lot these days that life-long marriage doesn’t fit the 21st century. George Friedman in his book, The Next Hundred Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, argues that in the past marriages held together for life out of economic necessity. But all that has changed:
This brings us to a place where marriages are not held together by need as much as by love. The problem with love is that it can be fickle. It comes and goes. If people stay married only for emotional reasons, there will inevitably be more divorce. The decline of economic necessity removes a powerful stabilizing force in marriage. Love may endure, and frequently does, but by itself it is less powerful than when linked to economic necessity (p. 58).
He thinks religious conservatives will wail against this trend to no avail. It is part of the price we pay for the 21st century world.
But are love (thought of as an emotion) and economics the only two factors to consider? How do we say today that falling out of love, growing apart, boredom, or trying to find yourself (as in the movie Eat, Pray, Love) do not constitute valid reasons for divorce? Do vows to God and community matter? In this century, can we find a better way than Marriage 2.0?