Jesus, Divorce, and the Importance of Context

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Basing itself on the words of Jesus Christ (among other things), the Catholic Church teaches that a valid sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved, but not all Christians agree. Some believe that divorce and remarriage is permissible in certain cases, and they argue that Jesus’ words in the Gospels back them up. Specifically, they point to one phrase in Jesus’ prohibitions of divorce in the Gospel of Matthew: “except on the ground of unchastity” (Matthew 5:32; an equivalent phrase is used in Matthew 19:9). This is often called the “exception clause” because it is supposed to be the one exception to Jesus’ teaching on the matter, the one instance in which it is permissible to remarry after a divorce. On this understanding, someone can validly contract a second marriage if their first spouse committed “unchastity,” which is usually understood to mean adultery.

On the flipside, Catholics argue that this isn’t what the phrase means. There is no consensus about how to correctly interpret it, so you will find different people proposing and defending different understandings of Jesus’ words. However, all of these interpretations share one thing in common: they all hold that Jesus isn’t really giving an exception to his teaching. Some Catholics claim that it refers to incestuous marriages (which aren’t valid marriages to begin with, so they don’t constitute a true exception); some say Jesus is offering legitimate grounds for divorce but not remarriage; and some think the clause actually means that whether one’s spouse has committed “unchastity” is irrelevant, so Jesus’ teaching still stands even in such cases.

In this article, I’d like to look at this crucial clause, but I want to do something different from what you normally find in these kinds of discussions. I don’t want to look at the “exception clause” directly. Instead, we are going to examine the surrounding context of Jesus’ two sayings on divorce in the Gospel of Matthew, and when we do that, we will see that whatever the “exception clause” means, it cannot constitute a genuine exception to Jesus’ teaching. The contexts simply will not allow for that understanding.

“But I say to you…”

Let’s start with the first divorce saying, which we find it in the early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel:

It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)

Jesus gives this teaching as part of his Sermon on the Mount, a collection of various teachings in chapters 5-7 of Matthew. More specifically, it forms part of what biblical scholars often call the “six antitheses,” a section of the Sermon on the Mount that runs from Matthew 5:21-48. Scholars call it that because in these verses, Jesus contrasts some of his teachings with the Law of Moses. He starts off each antithesis with some variation of the phrase “you have heard that it was said,” referring to a teaching in the Law of Moses, and then he introduces each of his own teachings with the phrase “but I say to you.”

Throughout this section, Jesus calls his followers to a greater holiness than what was required of the Jewish people before his coming, and he does this in two different ways. In some of these antitheses, he sets aside what the Law prescribed and gives a new, more radical requirement. For example, the Law says, “An eye for an eye,” but Jesus instead commands us to turn the other cheek and forego retaliation (Mathew 5:38-42). Other times, he simply adds to what the Law already requires. For instance, the Law forbids murder, but Jesus tells us that we shouldn’t even be angry with one another (Matthew 5:21-26).

Setting Aside the Law

When we turn to the antithesis regarding divorce and remarriage, we can see that Jesus is setting aside the Law’s teaching rather than simply adding a further requirement. In the first half of this antithesis, he states the part of the Law that allows men to divorce their wives, and then he prohibits the practice for his followers. Significantly, he doesn’t say anything about the grounds on which couples could get divorced under the Law, which shows that he is contrasting his teaching with the possibility of divorce and remarriage at all, not with the reasons men could invoke to divorce their wives.

As a result, Jesus’ prohibition of the practice makes sense only, if he is setting it aside entirely with no exceptions. If there are exceptions, then he would actually be in agreement with the Law, and he would simply be clarifying its teaching by explaining the legitimate grounds for divorce. However, that is clearly not what Jesus means. By using the phrases “it was also said” and “but I say to you,” Jesus is telling us that he’s contrasting his teaching with what the Law said, not simply clarifying the Law. Consequently, he has to be prohibiting divorce and remarriage entirely.

When we read the “exception clause” in this context, we can see that whatever it means, it can’t constitute a genuine exception to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and remarriage. That would contradict the whole point of the passage. Instead, one of the Catholic interpretations (or possibly another one that nobody has thought of yet) has to be correct.

“What God has joined together…”

The second saying about divorce is even shorter than the first, but its context rules out any possible exceptions even more strongly. Jesus tells us:

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)

In this passage, Jesus is responding to a question from the Pharisees. They ask him if he thinks there is any legitimate grounds for divorce (Matthew 19:3), and rather than give a simple “yes” or “no” answer, he replies in a roundabout way:

Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, 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”? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder. (Matthew 19:4-6)

Right away, it’s clear that Jesus isn’t allowing for any exceptions. If he did, he could have very easily just told the Pharisees that there is one legitimate reason for divorce (if one’s spouse commits “unchastity”) and left it at that. Instead, he points them back to the creation accounts in Genesis, and he gives a clear-cut, exceptionless answer to their question: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” That’s it. Jesus’ answer is that marriage is indissoluble. If the Pharisees had been satisfied with that, they would have walked away, and there would be no “exception clause” in this story.

Pressing On

However, rather than end the conversation here, they press Jesus further. They point out that the Law of Moses allowed men to divorce their wives (Matthew 19:7), and they think they have caught him in a trap. However, as he always does in the Gospels, Jesus stuns his opponents with a totally unexpected retort:

For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:8-9)

Like he did back in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is once again calling his followers to a righteousness greater than what the Law of Moses required. He says that the Law allowed divorce (and, by implication, remarriage) only because of the Israelites’ hardness of heart, not because God was really okay with it. In other words, before the coming of Jesus, Israel wasn’t ready for the full truth about marriage, so God accommodated them and gave them an inferior law for the time being. However, now that Jesus has come, God removes the hardness of our hearts, just like the prophets in the Old Testament said he would (Jeremiah 31:33, Ezekiel 36:26-27), so that accommodation no longer holds for Christians.

Again, we can see that any exception to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and remarriage would be totally out of place here. He’s saying that the Law of Moses allowed the practice only because the Israelites were hard-hearted, so to allow it for Christians would be tantamount to saying that we are in the same boat as ancient Israel. However, Jesus has come to remove the hardness of our hearts, so we are supposed to return to the original standard God set for marriage when he created us. Any exceptions here would defeat the purpose of Jesus’ argument; he would be backtracking and contradicting everything he said previously.

As a result, it is clear that whatever the “exception clause” in this passage means, it can’t be a real exception to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and remarriage. The context simply will not allow it. Instead, just like we saw with the saying in the Sermon on the Mount, either one of the Catholic interpretations is correct or we simply haven’t figured out the right way to understand this saying. Either way, one thing is clear: Jesus could not have allowed divorce and remarriage in any circumstances without contradicting himself.

The Final Verdict

At the end of the day, we may never definitively and incontrovertibly prove exactly what the “exception clause” in the Gospel of Matthew means (at least not this side of heaven). Nevertheless, there is one thing we can be sure of: Jesus allowed for no true exceptions in his prohibition of divorce and remarriage. As a result, the Church’s teaching on the matter is secure, based on the firm foundation of Jesus’ words as recorded in the Gospels, and the genuine meaning of the “exception clause,” whatever that meaning may be, cannot contradict that teaching.

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