When the Pharisees came to test Jesus with their question on divorce: "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" they were trying to drag him into the on-going Hillel-Shammai controversy on divorce and re-marriage. Followers of Hillel taught that a husband could divorce his wife for any and every reason by simply writing her a certificate of divorce. On the other hand, followers of Shammai believed that divorce was permitted only if she was guilty of sexual immorality. The Hillel school was the "liberal" wing of Judaism while the Shammai school was the "conservative" wing of Judaism.
Jesus refused to be dragged into the legal debate but went straight into God's original design and intention for marriage: "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (vv.4-6). Divorce was never part of God's design for marriage. Permanence is God's intention; divorce is man's idea.
The Pharisees were not to be side-tracked: they wanted Jesus to explain why Moses allowed divorce if it is not in God's original plan? Jesus' answer gives us insight into the true motivation of divorce: "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (v.8). Because man's heart is hard, divorce became a lesser of two evils--abusive relationship or separation. Divorce was a device to protect women from abusive men. [Some men may argue in today's world, they need equal protection from abusive wives!]
if Jesus' initial reply made the Pharisees uncomfortable, Jesus' conclusion must have made everyone's jaw dropped: "And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery" (v. 9). Putting aside the "exception" clause for the moment (which is present only in Matthew's Gospel), Jesus' straightforward answer to the issue of divorce and remarriage is this: "whoever divorces his wife...and marries another, commits adultery." This statement reflects Jesus (God's) attitude towards divorce: "'I hate divorce,' says the Lord God of Israel" (Malachi 2:16). Even the disciples were shocked by Jesus' uncompromising standard on divorce and re-marriage: "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry" (v.10).
The disciples (like many husbands in our time) still think of divorce as an escape rather than an exception. They saw Jesus' exception clause ("except for sexual immorality") as an escape clause.
I once did a post-Alpha follow-up study with an Alpha guest after he completed his course with us. After a few sessions, I discovered that though married, he had been sleeping around with different women (some picked up from the church where he served!) I told him what he was doing was a violation of his own marriage. He told me he planned to divorce his wife. So I asked him on what basis was he doing it? He said he read somewhere in Matthew 19 (this chapter) that he was free to do so because he met the condition for the escape clause: "sexual immorality". He reasoned that since he had committed sexual immorality ("sowing wild oats" as he put it), he could apply this escape clause to himself! I told him then and there that if he did not repent from his self-serving conduct, our bible study would have to end there. He never came back after that.
If we ever think of divorce as an escape clause, my advice is that we should not think of getting married--we'll save ourselves much money, heartaches and troubles later in life. Marriage is for life--there is to be no divorce. That is God's design. The exception clause is for people whose hearts are hardened by unforgiveness.
Father, help us learn the meaning of faithfulness and commitment in our marriage. Amen.