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Fayette County


Divorce, according to Jesus

James Studdard is an attorney during the week, except on Thursdays when he is a Gnostic. He may be reached, if absolutely necessary, at studlaw2000@yahoo.com

During my day job practicing law, a gentleman came in to inquire about a divorce. As I I began to complete the client questionnaire, the man became hesitant with his answers. This quite often happens when doubt re-visits the client’s decision to end the marriage. However, doubt or second thoughts were not the reasons for his abrupt silence. He explained that while he was poorly educated, he was devoutly religious, a scriptural literalist, and did not want to violate any of the Bible’s proscriptions against divorce. He wanted to know what Jesus said about the subject. Feeling some compassion for his dilemma, I volunteered to help him with the answers from Jesus’ perspective and offered to research the issue for him. He thanked me and made an appointment for another day.
My research led me first to Matthew 5:32, wherein Matthew has Jesus say (Matthew was not an eye witness to this. The book of Matthew was written some 45 to 60 years after the death of Jesus) “If a man divorces his wife except on the grounds of sexual immorality (presumably on her part), he makes her commit adultery.” It is not readily obvious why a man would make his wife commit adultery by divorcing her. I suppose Matthew’s logic in writing thusly is to assume that Jesus considered marriage as a “uniting” as “one” and if she remarries she commits adultery. Odd, when you consider that possibly it was the man who pushed for the divorce.
That verse is hard to understand, but it gets harder. Later in Matthew, according to Mattew, Jesus indicates that if a man divorces his wife for any reason other than sexual impropriety, then [he] marries someone else, he commits adultery, ostensibly for the same reasons posited in Matthew 5: 32, above. Moving on to the book of Mark, 10:11-12, Mark has Jesus say that if a man divorces his wife and remarries another, he commits adultery. The distinction in Mark from Matthew is that there is no “exception” clause:  adultery committed if the divorce happens for any reason, including sexual goings on. Mark differs greatly from Matthew on the issue.
Luke chimes in. Luke’s version, 19:18, is that the man who divorces, again apparently for any reason, and remarries, commits adultery, and he also commits adultery if he marries a divorced woman, whether or not she was divorced because of sexual impropriety. Of course that begs the question: Why has he rather than his new wife, committed adultery? The divorce issue becomes more and more a quandary as St. Paul puts in his two cents worth.  St. Paul, who never met Jesus, boldly exclaims that Jesus said a woman should not divorce her husband, but it she does, she should either remain single or be reconciled with her husband (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). But, says Paul, a husband should not divorce his wife. So now what? Paul appears to be saying that divorce should be grudgingly allowed, but only if the woman remains single. Is she still guilty of adultery? Paul gets more and more obtuse. He says that a believer can grant a divorce to a non-believing spouse, if the spouse wants it, but Paul say nothing about whether adultery is then committed if a person is remarried.
Wow, what a Biblical kerfuffle! Did Jesus think divorce was ever allowed? For Mark, the answer is no. But for Matthew there is an exception, i.e, in cases of sexual impropriety. Paul’s understanding is that divorce is allowed with a non-believer. Is marriage allowed in the case of divorce for sexual impropriety? Or not? For marriage to a non-believer? Or never?
One thing I am relatively sure of is that Jesus was remembered as teaching differently on issues, sometimes slightly, sometimes significantly. Also, it is not difficult to imagine that the story tellers, e.g. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who were remembering and memorializing their views, would have been influenced by the views of divorce in their respective communities, or by the views they wanted to have their communities to adopt. Whatever the case, it is patently obvious that the recollections of Jesus’ teachings on the matter of divorce, the “present” of the community has appeared to influence the memory of the “past” sayings of Jesus.
My client did not come back for his appointment. And I am rather glad he didn’t as I would have been extremely reluctant to suggest to him that since no holy man (including Jesus) could agree on the issue of divorce, he should do what he thinks is right.