The Pharisees wanted divorce to be justifiable—the right thing to do because you were not satisfied. Jesus says that divorce is a concession, allowed because it validates the reality of a hardened heart.
If you are divorced and successfully remarried, you know that you had to deal with forgiveness before you could move on.
You cannot understand divorce without seeing that one heart or the other had grown hard. Tenderheartedness may exist in one of the partners, but not both. This is not just about having one bad relationship that you need to terminate. The context of Matthew 19 covers a broader circle of relationships and outcomes.
As the disciples listen to Jesus teach about marriage and divorce, they weigh his words in their cultural context. Marriage was to be arranged by parents, and Jesus was getting rid of their escape plan. If she does not satisfy, perhaps the Law will allow them to divorce. Jesus is not making it that easy.
To marry without the possibility of divorce in a painful marriage seemed worse than not marrying at all! Responding to this objection, Jesus replied that some would indeed be better off not marrying; perhaps because of the intensity of their calling, it would be difficult for them to find a compatible spouse who would share their commitment (this is not only an ancient situation).[ii]
Jesus acknowledges that not everyone can accept this idea of being celibate as a gift from God. That raises the question to a personal level. If you are not married, can you accept celibacy as a gift from God? If you cannot, Jesus knows. I wonder how many are willing to even entertain the idea of being celibate?
Many would say that sexual drives are so strong that it is unrealistic to expect anyone to do that. It is largely unacceptable and a standard that is hard to impose and enforce.
Eunuchs were males who were castrated before puberty with resulting hormonal consequences. They were not sexual. This abuse was performed to create servants that could be trusted to not get in trouble sexually with the master’s household. Less commonly, a eunuch could be a man who was impotent or not at all interested in marriage and sexual intercourse.
Jewish practice was to discriminate against eunuchs who were not manning up to their responsibility to marry and have children. There are Old Testament passages that speak of God giving special honour in His house to eunuchs who will follow his ways.
The eunuch gives us a model to consider in modern times. While deliberate castration is rare, who is discriminated against on the basis of not being sexually legitimate in the culture of faith? Could it be that God has a special honour in his house still for sexual castaways who are willing to receive the gift of celibacy? In what way might you feel sexually inadequate and ashamed of disclosure in the house of faith? Jesus offers the odd one out a way to turn their distinction into a chosen living for God’s Kingdom.
Jesus said many could not accept this. But, the one can accept it should.
A metaphor of such shame and sacrifice testifies to the value of the kingdom of God for which anyone would pay such a price.[iii]
As we deal with sexual brokenness in people, we would do well to err on the side of grace. Jesus demonstrated mercy to the sexual castaways of his day—the Samaritan woman will multiple failed marriages, the woman caught in adultery, the eunuchs, his own unmarried status… always merciful… Not condemning… redemptive.
Is that our story and is that our message? The New Testament church was filled with people with messy, sexual histories. Our church is filled with the same kind of histories. But, the gospel speaks deeply to the broken soul.