The Pharisees confronted Jesus over divorce in Matthew 19 asking if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause. Jesus answered in part with a line that would become part of many marriage ceremonies, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:6) The Pharisees raised a reasonable legal point and asked, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”
Jesus responded, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:8) The certificate of divorce was a protection for the woman. American history shows how this “hardness of heart” could play out many centuries later in the life of President Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel. She received a notice of divorce from her first husband and thought she was free to marry Jackson. Only later did she discover the divorce wasn’t final and her first husband used this to attack her as a bigamist. Jackson’s political opponents used the same attacks during the 1828 campaign, and she was driven to her death by them. A simple certificate of divorce protected the divorced wife.
Yet many had interpreted the ability to write the certificate of divorce as God’s blessing of the practice. If the Pharisees had paid attention to the prophets, they would have seen this was clearly not the case.
In Malachi 2, God announces that he’s not honoring people’s offerings because they’ve covered in his altars in tears and he explains how they did this:
…Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth.
“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless. (Malachi 2:14-16)
The Old Testament law contained no specific prohibition against divorce. It contained a mechanism by which divorce could lawfully be obtained. Yet the men of Judah’s treatment of their wives had invited the ire of God.
Ultimately, they made the same mistake we’ve all made. They assumed God was primarily concerned about our ability to follow all the technicalities of the rules. We can look at the commandments of the living God as if we were a corporate lawyer combing the latest pages of regulations from the Federal Register, seeking a loophole to keep our clients in good standing.
Yet God is concerned about our hearts. We often approach situations with impure motives. (ex: Is it technically adultery? Would God really punish me for this? Can I still do this and go to Heaven?) As long as our heart is focused on, ‘What can I get away with?’ we’ll be far from God.
God wants us to be faithful, loving, and kind. Jesus gave us the Great Commandments to Love God and love our neighbor. The goal of the Christian life and the cry of our heart should be for our hearts to be faithful, kind, and loving so that we would fulfill these commandments rather than hoping to find a loophole to get away with it.