Sunday, November 14, 2004

On Divorce, Part III

Why did Jesus teach what he did about divorce and how does it fit into the context of his larger message? I believe that it is impossible to gain a complete understanding of Jesus' teachings on divorce without considering them in context. I believe that context will show us that Jesus' teachings on divorce were much less about sex than many Christians suppose them to be.

As we have discussed many times before, a critical part of Jesus' message was his call for us to serve the vulnerable and less fortunate. We see this clearly in the parable in which Jesus equates serving the Lord with serving "the least of these." We see it in Jesus' healing of the sick. We see it in Jesus' emphasis on giving to the poor. We see it in his rejection of the religious and racial subordination of his day in his parable of the Good Samaritan. And in his concern for children and assertion that "the Kingdom of Heaven" belongs to them.

Now consider these teachings in light of women's position in Jesus' society. According to an article published by "Call to Action," a group of progressive Catholics, the status of Palestinian women was among "the poorest in the world in Jesus' day." Although men had the right to divorce their wives, women could not divorce their husbands. Perhaps more importantly, Palestinian women had virtually no property rights or inheritance rights. To be divorced -- to be removed from the household on which their livelihood depended -- was disastrous.

When Jesus' teachings against divorce are seen against these two backdrops -- his own emphasis on helping the vulnerable and the status of women in Jesus' day -- they take on an entirely different light. We should Jesus' injunctions against divorce more as protections for women and children -- for the vulnerable -- than as teachings about sexual morality (at least as that phrase is used today). The rejection of divorce was a rejection of a devastating, unilateral power that powerful men had over vulnerable women and children. It was a rejection of gender inequality.

Even more fundamentally, since divorce dealt a ruinous blow to a woman, a man's divorcing his wife was deeply irreconcilable with Jesus' overarching command that we love our neighbor. (Note: if you hear an interpretation of Jesus' teachings that cannot be traced back to this fundamental, be suspicious!)

So, if we understand Jesus' teachings on divorce in this way, how do we go about applying them in our own, very different society?


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