Proper 22(B): Blessed are the Divorced
By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div.
It seems fitting that only two months after my own wedding I should be assigned to write about divorce. Let it never be said that God does not have a sense of humor.
My husband and I both believe in marriage as a sacrament—that is to say, we believe that when pursued as a committed relationship of unity, equality, fidelity, vulnerability, and mutual surrender, marriage can be a symbol and a sign of God’s grace in the world. But, there’s no getting around the fact that sometimes this kind of relationship is not possible between two people, because either one or both partners refuse to participate in this kind of mutually supportive exchange. In such cases, separation and divorce is the only way to move in a direction of healing, as Jesus himself instructs in Matthew 18. When faced with someone who sins against you and refuses to listen or repent even after multiple confrontations, “let such one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Sometimes, you have to wipe the dust from your feet.
But this week’s passage has been a sticking point that has prevented many people from doing just that. For that reason, it is quite possibly one of the most dangerous and damaging texts in all of Scripture. It has been used to justify all manner of evils, from pressuring people (especially women) to stay in abusive relationships, to socially isolating or excommunicating people (especially women) who have been divorced, to rejecting the validity of same-sex marriage as fundamentally unbiblical and unchristian. There is so much to unpack in this passage that many preachers may find it tempting to just focus on that nice little bit at the end with the children. But given its vast social and relational implications, we cannot responsibly leave folks to just take this text at face value.
One common approach to interpreting the text in a redemptive light is to argue that it offered protection to women in the context of first century Palestine. Since only men were allowed to initiate divorce, and women had few options for livelihood outside of marriage, Jesus’ strict position seems, at least indirectly, to support the needs and interests of women.
But aside from totally ignoring the needs and interests of women who find themselves in abusive relationships, this interpretation is problematic on at least two grounds. First, it demonstrates the anti-Semitic tendency to create a “straw man” out of the Pharisees, offering an unfair depiction of the forefathers of Rabbinic Judaism. It is true that there was debate among the rabbis at the time of Jesus regarding the circumstances under which a man could divorce his wife. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that there was an actual increase in the divorce rate during this time. It is not as if Jewish men were divorcing their wives left and right, leaving them on the side of the road to fend for themselves as prostitutes over one burnt dinner, as is sometimes suggested.
In fact, the debate was likely sparked by the Israelites’ encounter with Roman culture, in which divorce and remarriage was far more common, and was often pursued for economic and political gain (more marriages meant more dowries and family alliances). This was particularly common among elites. Some Israelites under Roman occupation may have been seeking loopholes in the Hebrew law in order to afford themselves the same economic and political privileges as the Romans. Tellingly, Jesus’ statement on divorce in Luke 16:18 is sandwiched between the parable of the dishonest manager and the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In other words, Jesus does not bring up divorce in the context of a conversation about marriage, but in the midst of a conversation about greed.
The Hebrew law under dispute was Deuteronomy 24:1, which states that a man can divorce his wife if “he finds something indecent about her.” The Shammai strictly interpreted this as referring to instances of unchastity or adultery, but the Hillel sought to interpret it more loosely, as inclusive of anything from her appearance to her attitude to her parenting skills to her ability to bear children… and of course, infamously, her cooking. Additionally, there were two circumstances in which men could never divorce. The first was if he falsely accused his wife of infidelity and her parents could prove her innocence. The second was if he raped an unmarried woman, in which case he was required to marry her and was never allowed to divorce her.
This brings us to the second problem with framing Jesus’ “teaching on divorce” as “protective” of women. By the same logic, we could interpret Moses’ laws as protective, since a woman who was raped had been stripped of her virginity and was no longer considered fit for marriage. The law ensured a husband and an economically secure position for the raped woman.
But in what sense can we really say that women who are forced to marry their rapist with no possibility of divorce are “protected?” Only in the economic sense. Laws against rape did not apply to female slaves, prostitutes, or women from other nations who had been conquered in battle. Women were not being protected as women—that is to say, as people. They were only protected as the childbearing property of family units. Like cattle.
It is important for us to realize that the conversation about divorce and remarriage in the Bible—inclusive of the conversation in Mark between Jesus and the Pharisees—is fundamentally androcentric. In truth, it does not really consider the needs or interests of women at all. It is a conversation between men, about men, that focuses on the choices of men and the consequences of men’s actions. As Jane Schaberg writes, “women have had to read [the Bible] as though they were men in order to hear themselves fully addressed and challenged. Many of women’s deepest concerns, fears, weaknesses, and needs are not addressed.”
Mark’s passage is especially confusing in this regard, because of the way it is worded: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery… and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” It sounds as though the woman has culpability here, doesn’t it? But we know this is not the case, since neither Hebrew nor Roman women could legally initiate divorce. A better way of reading it would be “…if she is divorced by her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Now, this understanding of the text may seem unfair to us (as indeed it should). Why are women held responsible for something over which they have no control? But it is confirmed in both Luke and in Matthew. Matthew 5:32 makes it explicit: “Anyone who divorces his wife… causes her to commit adultery.” In other words, women have to bear the consequences of what happens to them, even when they are not in a position to do anything about it. Sound familiar?
This is a situation that many women still find themselves in today. While we may be disappointed that Jesus’ words do not liberate women from this unjust double bind, we should not pretend like they do. Jesus is naming a reality in this passage, not trying to correct it. His words do not seek to dismantle the patriarchy or empower women. Rather, he focuses on confronting the men with the hypocrisy of their underlying motivations. He calls them out of a mindset in which women have become bartering chips, and back to God’s original dream for the relationship between men and women, symbolized by the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis—a relationship of unity, equality, fidelity, vulnerability, and freedom in mutual surrender.
It has to be said here that this passage has nothing to do with the question of same-sex marriage or same-gender love, a phenomenon that was never addressed by Jesus or discussed by the Pharisees. Nor can we assume that Jesus’ intent is to “lay down the law” on divorce or marriage at all, since Jesus was not really in the business of updating or establishing new laws. Christians throughout history have gone to the Bible with a legalistic lens, looking for laws (and misinterpreting passages in order to find them). But Jesus’ entire approach—not just in this passage but throughout his entire ministry—is to highlight the limitations of precisely this kind of thinking. If anything, Jesus demonstrates that he is more interested in looking at the deeper nature of relationships than in establishing or arguing about marriage and family laws.
No, Jesus did not invoke revolutionary strategies to protect women, or to transfer power from the mighty to the weak. But he does find ways to undercut the privileged perspectives of those in power, while claiming that the Kingdom of God belongs to the oppressed. From that perspective, even the women who have been made into “adulterers” through divorce become the inheritors of the Kingdom. Just look at how Jesus treats the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Some scholars suggest that this is the meaning behind Jesus’ embrace of the children: they are recipients of the Kingdom not because they are “innocent” or “naive,” but because they are without power, status, or privilege.
Blessed are those whose lives have been broken because of divorce. Blessed are those who have suffered and escaped from marital abuse, for righteousness sake. Blessed are those who have been shunned by Baptists and excommunicated by Catholics. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.
Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div. is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie-folk singer-songwriter based in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she lives with her new husband and their dog Casey. She graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2014, where she focused on the theology of music and culture. Kristen leads classes, retreats, and workshops, and regularly performs music at venues across central North Carolina.
 Jane Schaberg, “Luke,” Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition, ed. Carol A. Newsom & Sharon H. Ringe, page 369.