An advent reflection: divorce, first-century politics, and the kingdom of God

David Miller | Jan 11, 2011


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." (Matt 19:3-9 NRSV; cf. 5:31-32)

When Jesus' prohibition of divorce comes up in my first year Gospels course, we normally look at the relevant NT passages and discuss contemporary implications. Never, as far as I recall, have we turned to Matthew's account of the birth of Jesus and the slaughter of the innocents. Perhaps this is because the Pharisees' question about divorce "for any cause" is typically interpreted in the context of a well-known legal debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai about proper grounds for divorce. On this reading, Jesus the teacher is faced with the sort of practical legal questions that any religious teacher would encounter; the story functions to emphasize Jesus' wisdom and, perhaps, to inform Matthew's Christian audience.

A few weeks ago, however, as I listened to our pastor's advent sermon about John the Baptist, it occurred to me that the Pharisees' "test" resembles their later question--which Matthew calls a "trap"--about paying taxes to Caesar (Matt 22:15-22). By prohibiting divorce Jesus was aligning himself with John the Baptist who had been imprisoned for telling Herod Antipas that it was wrong for him to marry his brother's wife (Matt 14:3-4). Jesus and Matthew's audience knew well enough that John lost his head over the question (Matt 14:1-11). Divorce, no less than taxes, was a political hot potato in first-century Palestine.

Reading Jesus' teaching about divorce in this political context fits into a larger pattern within Matthew's Gospel that raises other implications in addition to the problem of divorce in contemporary society: The kingdom Jesus announces and embodies regularly threatens the political status quo. It is an upside down kingdom where the great among you must be your servant, where "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (20:26-28). It is a kingdom of peace rather than the sword, but it is not merely a "spiritual" kingdom--the king has at his disposal "more than twelve legions of angels" (26:53). No wonder Herod the Great was frightened at the announcement of one born King of the Jews (2:2)! No wonder Herod's son, Antipas, wanted to put him to death (14:5).